Pictured: The Admiral (top), General (center left), Agent (center right), Scientist (bottom left), and Diplomat (bottom right).
You may think, Your Excellency, that taking control of the galaxy is a lonely prospect. Looking at your home system and the expanse of space spreading out towards the throne world, huge fleets floating silently in the void, environmental hazards callously standing between you and your goals – it can be rather daunting. Thankfully, you aren’t as alone as you seem. You can and will have assistance, even if you have to pay for it.
Twilight Imperium provides options for several ‘minions’, as I like to call them. Not military units per se, they are supplemental facets of your bid for dominance. The systems they add to the game are rather straightforward, but can take a bit of explaining, so let’s begin.
Each race can include three ‘Leaders’, luminaries of your people that help you in various ways. Like your Ground Forces and PDS units, Leaders are always considered either on a planet or being carried by a ship. However, a Leader can be transported by any kind of ship, and never counts towards the ship’s capacity. Leaders are powerful, but fragile: they can be captured or killed if their transporting ship is destroyed in a Space Battle, or if an Invasion Combat in which they’re involved fails. Captured leaders can be ransomed and sometimes executed, provided you are unable to rescue them. Let’s leave out the particulars of such operations for now, and learn about the five different types.
Scientists increase technology discounts provided by planets, add to the build capacity of nearby Space Docks, and add to the defenses of a planet their own, preventing bombardment from War Suns.
Diplomats delay incoming invasions and allow fleets (with permission) to pass through enemy space.
Generals allow re-rolls during Invasion Combat, make bombardment much more difficult, and give a bonus to defending Ground Forces.
Admirals give the ship they’re on one extra die, increase the movement of a Dreadnaught they occupy, and prevents defenders from retreating (unless they also have an Admiral).
Agents help invading Ground Forces avoid enemy PDS fire, allow you to take over enemy Space Docks and PDS units, and can be sacrificed to take the role of a ‘Sabotage’ Action Card, preventing an opponent’s Action Card from happening.
When the Assembly is called, instead of voting on referendums yourself, you can send a Representative. You are, after all, a very busy potential potentate. At the start of the game, you will get three Representative cards. Each one adds a number of votes and sometimes have special abilities, like gaining you extra Trade Goods or forcing someone to vote a certain way. Most of them are Counselors, but some are either Spies or Bodyguards.
At the Assembly, each player chooses one Representative and sends them in face-down. Starting with the Speaker and going around clockwise, any Spies that were sent are revealed and their abilities resolved first. If the target of a Spy is a Bodyguard, it may also resolve an ability as a result of being targeted. After all Spies are resolved, non-Spies are revealed in the same way. Players can then offer one another Promissary Notes before voting occurs. These are special, binding agreements that may help a player get what they want out of the Assembly. Either way, if a Representative is assassinated or otherwise killed (by a suicide bomber, for example), he or she is removed from the game entirely. Bodyguards cannot be assassinated, but can die by other means.
Attracted to money and opportunity, Mercenaries are available for hire to anyone activating the Trade III Strategy card. When executing the primary ability of Trade, the active player looks at the top two cards of the deck of available Mercenaries, chooses one, and returns the other to the bottom of the deck. Each Mercenary card has a corresponding token, with one side for Space and the other for Ground. The active player places his new hire Ground-side up on any friendly planet. Mercenaries can switch between Ground and Space during a Tactical or Transfer actions, as well as specifically from Space to Ground during Invasion Combat.
While they can add to your forces and abilities, Mercenaries cannot hold planets on their own. Any planet robbed of its Ground Forces reverts to neutral even if the Mercenary survives. Some Mercenaries have Evasion, allowing them to live longer in combat. However, if your Mercenary is killed, both the card and the token are removed from the game.
We’ve looked at the core concepts of Twlight Imperium‘s Tactical Actions, the different Strategic options, and now we’ve covered Leaders, Representatives, and Mercenaries. The biggest outstanding question remains:
How do you win the game?
Art by Alexandra Douglass
I find myself wondering: is this going to be a thing? I don’t mean Netrunner, that is most definitely a thing. It’s a thing I’ve fallen in love with all over again. I can’t remember why I stopped playing the new iteration of Richard Garfield’s cyberpunk asymmetrical card game of bluffs and gambles and deception and tactical thinking. I think it was due to a lack of local players. I don’t know.
I’m actually wondering if this 500-words-on-a-Friday thing I’ve done twice in a row now is going to be a thing. “Friday 500″? In lieu of full-length reviews? Time seems to be at a premium these days. I have things I’m planning for, work schedules to plow through, and other projects I’m trying to line up to get knocked down, but time always seems to slip through my fingers. I’m going to try and get back on track in a few ways in the next couple weeks so I’m not completely out of sorts when big changes start happening.
Anyway, back to Netrunner. What’s changed since the last time I rambled about it? Quite a bit. I mean, not mechanically – it’s the same game of one player establishing large monolithic constructs full of juicy information (or deadly traps) while the other player pokes said constructs to extract the information and generally undermine all of those carefully laid plans. And it’s still pretty damn fantastic. But now I’ve started going down the rabbit hole of Data Packs.
Let me explain. Instead of randomized booster packs, Fantasy Flight releases 60-card ‘Data Packs’ on a regular schedule. There are ‘cycles’ of packs, all related thematically, with six packs per cycle that release each month for six months. Between cycles are larger expansions that focus on two identities – one Corp, one Runner. The interesting thing about these expansions is that each of them contains 3 copies of every card. You normally only have to buy one Data Pack to get the card you want, and you’re certain to have enough to put into your next deck. It saves money in the long run and keeps the playing field nice and level. It also appeals to the part of my brain that loves putting decks together. The Core Set does not have the same distribution of cards, which is unfortunate, but I think another $30 for a second Core Set is a better investment than spending that much on a single card in Magic: the Gathering’s somewhat cutthroat second-hand market.
This game is so good that my long-suffering wife, with a rather well-documented history of disliking games like Magic, plays it, and doesn’t hate it.
She’s even gone so far as to buy me a copy of Neuromancer to help maintain my dystopian cyberpunk-y mood.
It’s a good game, and you should definitely play it.
The galaxy is a dangerous place, Your Excellency, and it is always changing. With the Lazax Empire gone and so many leaders vying for power, the situation is as mutable as the stars themselves as they wheel in their courses. If you mean to prevail, you need to draw back from the tactical view and see the galaxy as a whole. You need to plan around and ahead of your opponents. You need the right strategy.
Last week, we discussed the very basics of Twilight Imperium, in the form of Tactical and Transfer actions. But I also mentioned these large, trapezoidal cards that determine the order of play in a given round. These are Strategy cards, and they have a pretty large part to play as the game progresses. As previously discussed, you can activate your Strategy card when it’s your turn instead of taking a Tactical action or using an appropriate Action Card. It does not have to be the first thing you do in the round. It is also worth noting that you cannot pass your turn until after you’ve activated your Strategy for the round.
I’m going to go over the broad categories of each Strategy, and then highlight some specifics from the expansions. Note that most of these cards have primary and secondary abilities. While the primary ability usually applies entirely to the player using the Strategy, other players can use the Secondary ability, in clockwise order from the active player, usually by spending a Command Counter from their Strategy Allocation area.
What follows is a breakdown of all 8 Strategies, what they do, and how you can benefit from taking the card in question.
1 – Initiative/Leadership
In most circumstances, the biggest benefit to taking this Strategy card is that it allows you to go first in the round. In the base game, Initiative lets you claim the Speaker token, which means you also go first when choosing the Strategy next round. It also saves you Command Counters when executing secondary abilities on other player’s Strategy cards.
Leadership, on the other hand, grants its user new Command Counters. The secondary ability lets all players spend Influence to pick up more, including the active player.
2 – Diplomacy
There are times when words are more powerful than weapons. Diplomacy allows the player to ease some of the pressure they may be feeling from their opponents in a direct fashion that does not involve combat. The basic game lets the player force a peace between themselves an opponent for a round, and allows the other players to refresh previously exhausted systems. The expansion’s Diplomacy II instead allows the active player to establish a Demilitarized Zone for a round, marking a system so that NONE of their opponents can activate it. The card also allows for the peaceful annexation of an unoccupied system.
3 – Political/Assembly
Ah, politics. A process simultaneously more civilized and more vicious than warfare itself. In Twilight Imperium, there is a deck of Political Cards filled with agendas from bans on weapons research to dispensation of resources to another player. The basic Political Strategy lets the primary player manipulate the deck after they resolve the top card, as well as providing Action Cards and Command Counters. Assembly, on the other hand, offers the active player the choice of taking the Speaker token for themselves while naming another player to resolve an agenda, or resolving one of their own agendas while naming someone else as Speaker. This is also where players can refresh planets when using Assembly.
And then, there’s the option for Political Intrigue, which I will go into next week.
4 – Logistics/Production
Since the role of the Logistics card (providing Command Counters) is taken by the Leadership card in the expansion, we have Production instead. The active player gets to produce units at one of their space docks without activating the system. The secondary ability is similar, but limits production capacity. It’s a very straightforward Strategy.
5 – Trade
The base game of Twilight Imperium and each of its expansions all have different versions of this Strategy. In all three of them, players negotiate to exchange Trade Agreements, and collect Trade Goods from those agreements to supplement their resources. The base game is a bit harsh in that players using that card’s secondary ability must spend one of their precious Command Counters to get the goods. Shattered Empire does way with that portion of the card, and seems rather friendlier. Shards of the Throne includes Mercenaries in its Trade Strategy, and I’ll give a primer on who they are and how they work next week.
6 – Warfare
War in Twilight Imperium is all about Tactical Actions, moving your fleets and armies into position for the perfect strike. The basic Strategy card lets you take back one of your Command Counters used for a Tactical Action, allowing you to use it again elsewhere, while secondary players can move some of their smaller ships. Shattered Empire instead introduces us to the High Alert token, a far more visible way to get your point across. Placing a system on High Alert means all ships in that system get bonuses to movement and space combat. The token can move with the fleet at the player’s option, or it can remain there as a deterrent for any potential invaders. Secondarily, the improved Warfare Strategy lets players move ships, regardless of class but limited in number, without activating their destinations.
7 – Technology
This Strategy Card is how players expand the technological repertoire of their burgeoning empire. The card in Shattered Empire lets the primary player do so more quickly, while the secondary ability is cheaper for the other players. There is a simplified tech tree I’ll make available to you, courtesy of someone over at Board Game Geek. You may find it useful for planning purposes.
8 – Imperial/Bureaucracy
Twilight Imperium is won by its Objective Cards. Some of them are Public Objectives anyone can claim if they meet the requirements, while others are Preliminary or Secret Objectives specific to the individual player. The Imperial strategy lets the active player reveal one of the Public Objectives, then grants them free Victory Points, while the secondary abilities allow for the production of units. Bureaucracy, on the other hand, grants no free Victory Points but instead lets the active player manipulate the Public Objectives, and lets them score one if they can, something not normally possible before the end of the round. This allows for more flexible and, arguably, more fair play, while keeping up the pace of the game. Which is important when the game takes up your entire day.
With this knowledge, you are now prepared to play most of the game! All that remains is to break down some more specifics.
Next Week: Getting The Most Out Of Your Minions – Leaders, Representatives, and Mercenaries
Greetings, Your Excellency! You have been chosen to lead your people towards victory on the galactic stage. The Lazax Empire has been overthrown, and Mecatol Rex is yours for the taking. Perhaps. You must command vast armies, immense spacecraft, ambassadors, trade envoys, and the very industries of the planets of the former empire to defeat your noble rivals or, at the very least, beat them to the punch. Fortunately for you, I am here to help you. I am your humble tutor, and this is Twilight Imperium.
Twilight Imperium is an expansive board game, for between 3 and 8 players, that is best described as a space opera in a box. Each player assumes control of one of the races who were formerly a part of, or interested in usurping, the Lazax Empire. From your home system, in one of the galaxy’s corners, you will head out to achieve objectives, gather resources, build your forces, and defeat the other players. The first player to a designated amount of victory points is the winner! If you want to sit down with your friends and create your own science-fiction epic, vying for power and making backdoor deals to achieve your aims, this is the game for you. Just… put aside a day for it. Yes, an entire day. Maybe more than one if you have 8 players. But we’ll get back to the timeline later; let’s talk about how you play.
For this tutorial, we will use the Federation of Sol.
Each player, including you, will get one of these command cards. It’s a reference sheet, a repository for the various counters you’ll need, and a description of your race, its background, and its mentality. When the galaxy is mapped out, which is a mini-game in and of itself, one player will start the game with this, the Speaker token, indicating that they kick off the start of a round of Twilight Imperium: the Strategy Phase. Starting with the Speaker, each player chooses one of these eight overarching Strategies. I’ll go over them in detail in a future session, but all you need to know for now, is that the Strategy cards determine the order of play for the round. So, if you choose Initiative (or Leadership, if you’re playing with the expansions, which you should), you will go first in the round, even if you are not the Speaker. But regardless of where you are in the turn order… what do you do when it’s your turn?
The answer is simple: one of four things. You can execute a Tactical action, Transfer forces between friendly systems, pull the trigger on your Strategy, play an Action card that designates you can play it ‘As an Action’, or you can pass. The round is over when all players have passed, and a new one begins. But let’s go back to that Tactical action, which is the beating heart of Twilight Imperium, the thing that keeps the game moving and slowly paints the galactic canvas, one brush-stroke of starlight at a time.
These are a few systems that could appear in your galaxy. Let’s say you have forces at Jord, your home system, and you want to move them to the Tiamat/Hercalore system. That takes a Tactical action. Take one of your Command tokens from the Command Pool area on your command card, and place it on your target system.
This is called ‘activating’ the system. You move your space forces first, possibly into a hail of defensive fire from Planetary Defense installations, and dealing with any combat in space. Then, you may move your forces from your fleet onto the planet, possibly with bombardment, and even more defensive fire, and engage in invasion combat. Once that’s done, you get any new planet cards you’ve acquired (face-down, so you can’t use them this round), your turn is over, and play proceeds. That’s a hostile system movement; how about if you have a friendly system to move to? Or build from?
It’s similar to hostile movement. You activate the system, move in your fleet and forces, and then, if you’ve controlled the system since last round, you can build a space dock there. If you already have a space dock, you can build other units here, up to a limit imposed by the industrial capacity of the planet the dock orbits.
To build, you have to exhaust (turn face down) systems with resources equal to the cost of whatever you’re building. In this example, we’re going to build two Cruisers at Jord. To pay for these Cruisers, each costing 2 resources, we first activate the system our Space Dock is in, and then exhaust Jord by turning it face-down. If Tiamat or Hercalor were ready, we could use them to build more ships or forces, but since we just got them this round, we can only exhaust Jord.
You can also do this as part of a Transfer action. Transfer actions are almost identical, but allow you to rearrange forces between two friendly systems, and build in one of them, but it consumes two of your command counters. And you need to keep that in mind, because you do not get these counters back. Not directly, anyway.
This implementation of tactical actions is part of what makes Twilight Imperium so brilliant. Downtime for the individual player is minimized. And even when it isn’t your turn, you’re going to want to see what your opponents are doing. Even if they’re light-years away from you, they might be building a fleet you’ll want to try and dilute, or guide your allies… if you have any… into attacking. You’re going to want to think two to three actions ahead, and time your movements as best you can, to obfuscate your true intent for as long as possible. For Twilight Imperium is much more than a game of moving plastic pieces and rolling dice.
Next Week: Strategies and You – What’s With The Trapezoids?
This past weekend I got to play Ultimate Werewolf with a large group. It was incredibly fun, and a thought occurred. Why does the fun have to stop because the event did?
This is a game of hidden roles. Most players are Villagers, but some of them are Werewolves, prowling by night to feed. Every day, the Villagers awaken to find another of their number brutally murdered, and pick one from among them to hang for the heinous crimes. The Villagers win if they kill all the Werewolves, but all the Werewolves have to do is survive until there aren’t enough Villagers to kill them off…
If this sounds interesting to you, take a look at this primer on all of the roles, and join this Google group. We’ll put games together from those who join, and conduct all of the game’s business via email. Be prepared for some harrowing nights and hectic, fear-fueled days…
Welcome to Ultimate Werewolf by email.
A surprisingly provincial addition to a world full of dragons and wizards.
When I’ve played MMOs previously, especially World of Warcraft, the prevailing sentiment has been that ‘the real game begins’ at the maximum level a character can achieve. For the most part, this has applied to large-group raid or player-versus-player content. Not everybody is interested in such things, though. The question becomes, then, what does one do once their main character hits the ceiling of the maximum level?
There’s always the option of rolling another character, for certain, but I would argue that a good MMO provides a plethora of content for a player who’s struggled through the slow grind upwards. There was a part of me that was concerned when I approached the top level available as I worked my way through World of Warcraft’s new continent of Pandaria. However, when that bright light and familiar sound met me, I was in for a surprise.
Like many previous expansions, World of Warcraft’s newest areas feature multiple factions towards whom a player can endear themselves. They’re all over Pandaria, but unlike the forces featured in Cataclysm or Wrath of the Lich King, they’re not necessarily worried with getting your help to save the world. The Anglers are fascinated by the various kinds of fish you can find around Pandaria, the Order of the Cloud Serpent raises the continent’s unique breeds of dragons (and you can, too!), and the Tillers are farmers, plain & simple. I’ll get back to them in a moment.
Top level players have been queueing up to enter dungeons for a long time, but Pandaria also gives us scenarios to experience. These instances are smaller and more scripted, geared for 3 players instead of 5 and not necessarily requiring a specific team makeup (a tank will certainly help you, though). With many of the factions I mentioned, you can participate in daily quests ranging from slaying nasty critters to corralling lost yaks. These quests and instances yield plenty of gold to finance other endeavors, gear either through direct drops or special currency, and even reputation with the factions above. But not everything that you can do with your max-level character is so confrontational.
The Tillers allow you to start a farm of your very own. I’ve been told this portion of the game is lifted almost directly from the Harvest Moon games, based on the different crop conditions and finding gifts for fellow farmers. Either way, it feels to me like a lovely change from the usual grind of post top level gear gathering. It’s still a bit of a grind to get your farm to a point where you can grow materials you need for your professions, but considering the things you can do with the other crops in the meantime, it feels like less of a grind, and a player getting a positive feeling from an in-game experience is evidence of good mechanical design.
If you skipped a profession on your way up, or want to change from one to another, max level is great time to retread those steps a bit. Archaeology, in particular, is a neat secondary profession to explore at top levels. Few of the areas you’ll be digging in are actually dangerous to you, you pick up unique items, and it’s a skill that can be used for dailies in Pandaria. In fact, the Order of the Cloud Serpent has dailies that call upon your skills as a cook, medic, angler, and archaeologist. It pays to diversify your skills, after all!
And then there’s the Brawler’s Guild, which I haven’t even touched yet…
Of course, this could just be my feeling about reaching the current top level in World of Warcraft. I’m sure others are more interested in the raiding scene or jumping into the Arena to take on other players. While there will always be alts to level, the game clearly does not end when the levels do. A MMO worth its asking price should keep providing fresh, new content, and for my money, Mists of Pandaria is doing that pretty well for World of Warcraft.
Art by Michael Komarck
The new year has brought some new products with it, of course, and Wizards of the Coast has presented five new pre-constructed decks for the Commander imprint within Magic: the Gathering. These decks make bringing new people into the format long-called EDH (Elder Dragon Highlander) a lot easier. Each deck provides reprints of old favorite cards as well as new and exciting selections that work just fine outside of the format, while others feel exclusive to the unique situations presented by a singleton deck of 100 cards with one set aside.
Case in point: Derevi, Empyrial Tactician. Her ability is tied directly to the ‘command zone’, an area of play within the game that is neither the graveyard nor ‘exile’. Your Commander, or general or whatever you call them, begins play in this zone rather than your hand or deck, and is cast from this zone. Each time you cast the card, you must pay 2 extra mana for every circumstance that’s returned it to the zone. So, if an opponent kills it, or you sacrifice it, or if an ability would exile it, you send it to the command zone, and can bring it back, albeit needing to pay more for it. It creates a very real drawback to bringing your Commander into play every turn.
Derevi has a way around that drawback.
Printed on her card is an ability that allows you to bring her directly from the command zone into play. Her base mana cost is cheaper than this ability, but I don’t think most players will be casting her as they normally would. Not only does the cost of her ability not increase every time she is killed or exiled, the ability can be used on an opponent’s turn. And, whenever she enters the battlefield, or one of your creatures does combat damage to a player, she taps or untaps another permanent card. This could be a land or artifact you need to produce mana, or a pesky thing on your opponent’s battlefield you need out of the way.
I really, really enjoy playing with enter the battlefield effects. There’s a very nasty trick you can play with Fiend Hunter that allows you to exile opposing creatures permanently. The synergy between Sun Titan and Eternal Witness is incredibly impressive. The deck comes off the shelf with a few cards to enable these things, such as Conjurer’s Closet and Mistmeadow Witch, but being a pre-constructed “jack of all trades” deck, needed some tweaking to really make the most of the mechanic.
For example, the deck did not have Sun Titan or Eternal Witness. When it come to ‘bouncing’ or ‘flickering’ cards to make the most of them, my old friend Venser, the Sojourner comes immediately to mind. Deadeye Navigator felt like a must-include, as its ability is cheaper than that of the Mistmeadow Witch and can be used to either trigger its partner or flicker itself to bond with something new. Acidic Slime and Fiend Hunter not quite enough recurring removal for the deck, so Terastodon and Sunblast Angel needed to go in. So it went until I had a deck I was comfortable with. You can see the complete deck list here.
It’s a blast to play. With no counterspells and little direct damage, the deck is not overtly aggressive and thus can play it quiet for a few turns, avoiding confrontation as much as possible. There are a few political cards that can incentive your opponents to fight one another more, or lead to negotiations (“Is that creature giving you trouble? How about I take control of it with Rubinia Soulsinger and you smash that guy’s face in?”). I think there are a couple cards I could cut but I’m not sure what it might be missing – perhaps a few more board clears like Terminus or Day of Judgment.
How does the deck look to you? Would you be willing to play it?
Back in the day, graphical fidelity on PCs was not really up to rendering 3D environments within simulations. The best they could do back in the mid-90s was some polygons stacked together to make landscapes to fly over in jet simulators. However, clever folks at studios like Apogee and id Software could fool the eye with what was called “2-and-a-half D” to make corridors and courtyards seem like 3D environments. They then filled those corridors and courtyards with squishy Nazis and demons for us to shoot at in games like Wolfenstein 3D and Doom respectively. The popularity of first-person shooters exploded, with follow-ups including the medieval-themed Heretic and Hexen and Duke Nukem 3D, back when Duke was still actually kind of funny.
This was long before concepts like “modern military” and “cover-based” would come to dominate the shooter scene. This was before shooters slowed down, when frenetic energy and sudden, panicked 180 swings with a rocket launcher was rewarded with gibbets of enemies and a slew of points instead of some distant would-be teammate calling you something offensive. Some shooters have tried to recapture this feeling – Painkiller springs to mind immediately – but to really come to grips with this difference in gaming, you have to go back to the classics, and that’s exactly what some studios have done.
I’m going to do full reviews of both Rise of the Triad and Shadow Warrior‘s remakes. I know they came out last year, and I know others have covered them. But I want more people to check them out. I want folks to realize that this sort of shooter can be a ton of fun, and you don’t need remote-control drone strikes, glitzy latest-console-generation graphics, or half-baked invasion-of-America-because-they’re-jealous-of-our-freedoms conspiracy theories to justify that fun. And I want to convey more fully the impression I get from playing these games.
And that impression is, Holy shit this is fun as hell!
Games are about having fun. They’re about distracting us from chores and deadlines and every other actual stressor in life. I may enjoy a relaxing round of daily quests or dungeon-delving in World of Warcraft, or a thought-provoking intense game of Hearthstone, but sometimes I just want to blow something the fuck up. I want the thrill of fully automatic weapons, the visceral appeal of a well-timed sword strike, the inherent cool factor of heat-seeking missiles fired from the hip, and a commanding officer I want to pound into oblivion for being a bit of a twat. These games fulfill those urges, and in ways that won’t get me arrested. You should check them out.
I’ll go into more detail in the weeks ahead. I do need to talk about boring stuff like premises, plots, characters, all of that stuff. It’s what I do, after all. But for now: Holy shit they remade Shadow Warrior and Rise of the goddamn Triad and they look great and I’m laughing and it’s fast and fun and OH CRAP NOT-NAZIS ARE SHOOTING AT ME AAAAAAAAAAH
After nearly three years, I’ve returned to Azeroth. I’m playing World of Warcraft again. And, to be honest, I think I’ve come back at a good time.
It can be difficult to convey story through the medium of video games in the best of circumstances. What I mean is, video games have the potential to tell a more involved, more personal story, since the player becomes a part of the story through their interactions. In an online multiplayer game, the challenges increase exponentially, as you don’t necessarily want players to change everything about your world. It’s probably for the best that some major characters never stay dead; you don’t want to leave yourself open to the possibility of town guards suddenly saying “All hail Emperor XXXYoloSwag”.
However, Mists of Pandaria has surprised me. I was fully prepared to be keenly aware of the contrivances inherent in a new landmass appearing out of nowhere and its people blithely becoming part of the world. However, from the start of its quest chains, I was shocked. The themes of the factional violence occurring in this new land have echoes of a cautionary tale on colonialism and its impact on a native population. The indigenous people of the continent are cautious yet curious about the newcomers, and the quests you undertake with the character Lorewalker Cho demonstrate that beautifully. You feel a creeping sense of dread as your faction militarizes some of the natives, and… well, I’ve probably already spoiled enough. Suffice it to say, this is the most involved I’ve felt with a story in an MMO in a long time.
I’m sure there are plenty of neckbeards shaking their fists at the rearrangement of talents and whatnot, but for my part, I don’t mind some systems getting streamlined and simplified. I used to be concerned that I’m “just another DPS” and get very frustrated at the prospect of dying in dungeons or raids. But it’s all part of learning and improving, and contributing damage is contributing, regardless of class or other utility. So I’m feeling better about that part of the game, too.
I have character and story ideas aplenty, but I have other responsibilities, and I want to get at least one character to max level before I do anything else. Somebody’s gold has got to pay for everything, after all.
I had a feeling I’d get pulled back when the Battle.net client started downloading updates for World of Warcraft after it installed Hearthstone. I’m glad that, so far, the game feels worth my time and my money. I’m cautiously optimistic about Warlords of Draenor, and I’m holding out hope that the dungeons and raids I have yet to see in Pandaria have enough challenge to keep me involved.
A few years ago, Blizzard Entertainment tried their hands a trading card game version of World of Warcraft. I was into it, for a while, as were quite a few other fans. It coupled the familiar themes and powers of the MMO with excellent art and an interesting mechanic for getting cards into play that sought to reduce some of the problems inherent with a TCG’s necessary randomization. While I no longer play it, it seems to still be going, if the shelves at Target are to be believed. And now, Blizzard seems to be working on bringing that sort of turn-based strategic and collectible experience to their PC fanbase with Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, currently in closed beta.
The game behaves like most TCGs: you acquire a starter set of cards, assemble a deck, and do battle with other players. Every turn within a game session, you receive a mana crystal with which to cast spells or summon minions from your hand, ensuring you never get shorted on the resources necessary to play. The goal is to reduce your enemy’s hero to 0 health while keeping yours alive. There’s a hero for each of the nine basic character classes in World of Warcraft, from ancient legends like Malfurion and Gul’dan to relative newcomers like Valeera and Anduin. Each hero has some class-specific cards, and a general pool from which they can gather other minions. The game is certainly not rocking the boat when it comes to traditional aspects of TCGs, and as with most things, the devil is in the details.
There’s an astounding amount of detail in Hearthstone‘s art and sound design. The play areas themselves are interactive, every minion has a unique voice, opponents slam into one another with resounding cracks to the cheers of the onlooking crowd – it all leads to a greater sense of immersion. The minions’ abilities are varied quite nicely, opening up multiple avenues and playstyles as they are added to decks. Each hero has a power to which they always have access, meaning that a player is only rarely entirely out of options. There are two play modes: regular or Constructed, in which players assemble their decks from their personal collections before doing battle, and The Arena, where a brand new deck is constructed from a pool of random cards and runs are more limited. Both modes offer up rewards, as do Quests which are distributed once a day, most commonly in the form of gold which can be used to enter The Arena or buy ‘Expert’ packs of cards. And if you don’t need some of the cards you get, you can ‘Disenchant’ some, breaking them down into Dust which is then used to assemble different cards, from Common cards all the way up to Legendaries.
As much as I like Hearthstone, I recognize it has some flaws. There’s very little to do on an opponent’s turn. There are ‘secrets’ which are cards that activate on certain triggers from an opponent, but only a few classes have them and they’re not that difficult to deal with. A couple classes feel a little unbalanced (looking at you, Priests) and it can be difficult to assemble an effective ‘theme’ deck. There are some glitches here and there, but the game is still in beta and that’s par for the course. Finally, the game can be a bit stingy with its in-game currency and rewards, and while the nature of its systems keep it from being a ‘pay-to-win’ style game outwardly, I feel like higher quest rewards or more Dust from the Arena would be better incentives to keep playing.
That said, Hearthstone is a rock-solid implementation of a good premise for an extension of one of Blizzard’s longest-running franchises. I am enjoying the beta, and continue to sneak matches in around writing sessions and bouts with longer games like Skyrim and World of Warcraft. It scratches the Magic: the Gathering itch quite well and, flawed as it is in places, I’m curious and eager to see how it behaves in its final form.
I’m finding more and more that the games that I truly enjoy playing with other people aren’t necessarily straight-up competitions. Oh, I still enjoy a good game of Magic, don’t get me wrong. And Blizzard’s collectible game Hearthstone scratches that particular itch while having a purchase system that makes you want to buy packs to both explore and collect, not just to “buy power” as you can in other free-to-play games. But with JayCon approaching, I figured I’d gather up the games I plan on taking which might get played, and I noticed that all of them have at least some level of cooperation.
Both Escape: The Curse of the Temple and Elder Sign are fully cooperative, with players rolling dice together to overcome the obstacles presented by the game. Elder Sign is perhaps best described (if somewhat derogatorily) as “Arkham-themed Yahtzee”. Players are investigators in an old museum whose exhibits are making it easier for some sort of horrific elder god to awaken. The investigators must gather the mystical signs and defeat monsters to prevent the end of the world. There is a ticking clock, and investigators have limited amounts of stamina and sanity. Escape, on the other hand, is a game played in real time. Instead of taking it in turns to explore the temple, battle its curses, and unearth its treasures while looking for the exit, players move and act as fast as they can roll their dice. The game comes with a soundtrack, which both provides atmosphere and audio cues as to when players must race for the safe room before losing one of their dice permanently. It’s a great, intense little burst of fun and adventure that only takes ten minutes to play, and it’s even fun to take on solo.
I’m sure some people are tired of me going on about The Resistance: Avalon and Battlestar Galactica, cooperative games with hidden threats. Player cooperation is not so much encouraged as demanded, and the fact that one or more players are intentionally deceiving the others adds an entirely new wrinkle to the gameplay. It’s entirely possible that two completely different levels of cooperation are going on simultaneously, all without direct communication, and that makes for a great time with friends who you may end up resenting because they were so good at fooling you. But perhaps the game I’m most eager to play (or play more of, I tried it out Tuesday night) is Archipelago.
I don’t have enough experience with the game to write up a full review, but the game is fantastic. It takes a series of various game mechanics – player bidding, worker placement, card drafting, and so on – and chains them together into a rotating arrangement of ever-evolving depth and complexity. From a relatively simple starting point, just a couple of turns in, the game explodes with choices and challenges. Each turn sees a problem on the islands that must be overcome through a combined effort of everyone involved… but not everyone has to participate. In addition to all of its other systems, Archipelago gives each player a personal, private objective. This could be as simple as having the most money or building the most churches, but it could also be supporting the natives in a war for independence. The fact that the players do not know what each other’s objectives are, and can interpret the actions of an obstinate player in multiple ways, lends even more depth and nuance to a game that is already keeping several plates spinning at once. I’m very curious to see how the game players with more than two players, especially if one is aggressive and ambitious, or if one is manipulative and keen to whatever fears may be sweeping the islands at any given moment.
Needless to say, I’m very much looking forward to this weekend. Be it rolling dice, dealing cards, or buying local beef to export pineapples to Europe, it’s going to be a great time at the tables.
Telltale Games has a lot going for them. Their Poker Night games demonstrate some pretty solid design choices, while The Walking Dead is one of the best storytelling experiences I’ve had gaming in recent memory. Adventure games, to me, remain a charming and underrated way of combining gameplay with story, ensuring our actions and choices define the outcome of what’s happening in front of us. I was looking forward to trying out The Wolf Among Us, and recently finished its first episode, “Faith”.
The Wolf Among Us introduces us to the world of Fables. A series of graphic novels from DC’s always-interesting Vertigo studios, Fables are literally fairy tale characters who live in our world. Having emigrated from their original settings, these legendary characters do their best to live among normal humans, with the less than human-appearing ones needing magical spells to pass as everyday people. They live in their own little corner of New York City, dubbed ‘Fabletown’, and order is kept thanks to an unlikely sheriff in the form of Bigby Wolf. He’s our protagonist, but he’s not much of a hero.
In fact, in the past, he’s played the villain most often. As the Big Bad Wolf, he’s gone after and devoured pigs and little girls alike. However, that was the past. The character we see in The Wolf Among Us is much more reserved and far less malevolent, though he still has a surly attitude and is more than capable of beating down someone trying to put a hurt on him. He’s trying to make things better, for himself and for Fabletown, so he tries not to ‘wolf out’ or abuse people. He’s complex and magnetic, a great lens for us to experience Fabletown through, and like all Fables, he’s very hard to kill – this is, after all, a character that once has his stomach filled with rocks before he was thrown into a river. And yet, The Wolf Among Us is something of a murder mystery, meaning Bigby must use skills other than his ability to punch people really hard.
The combat in The Wolf Among Us is an improvement over that in The Walking Dead. Movement keys prompt dodging, the mouse helps Bigby use the environment or strike key portions of an opponent, so on and so forth. Prompts from the environment are also improved. If I had a complaint about the game, it’d be that the on-screen prompts from the environment make puzzles a bit too easy to solve. I’m not sure if you can turn this feature off or not – I’ll just have to play again to find out!
‘Faith’ is a great start to this new series of Telltale episodes. Fabletown is full of great characters, who both maintain the aspects that made them timeless and present them in a new, modern way that smacks of a noir classic. I’m a sucker for the blending of genres in general, and this particular mix is right up my alley. I’m very much looking forward to coming episodes. The Wolf Among Us offers a ‘season pass’ on Steam for all five of its episodes, and you can get individual ones on the console of your choice. It’s definitely worth your time to check out.
Slasher movies and torture porn will always have their place at Halloween and in the hearts and minds of horror fans. For me, effective and lasting horror does not necessarily have anything to do with buckets of blood or how stomach-turning the visuals are. Sometimes, the most penetrating stories of terror have less to do with what we see, and more to do with what we don’t; less about the delivery of lines, more about what’s left unsaid.
In terms of visuals, one of the most effective and haunting horror games I’ve ever played is Amnesia: The Dark Descent. A little indie gem from a few years back, Amnesia remains a game I have yet to finish. Some horror games like to throw their monsters directly at you in as loud and visceral a way possible, but Amnesia plays things with more subtlety. With no means to defend yourself, a limited amount of lighting in a game defined by darkness and shadows, and the addition of a sanity meter that makes things even more difficult if we’re alone in the dark for too long, when monsters appear (or don’t, but you know they’re there) it’s best to just run and hide. It’s frighteningly easy to lose track of where you’re going and what your goal for the moment is when you hear a moan or a scraping sound and you pretty much crap yourself in terror. The sensations created just through sound design and good use of the environment are, in a word, creepy.
Endermen in MineCraft also qualify. Dark-skinned creatures that appear in dark areas, Endermen are unique in that they won’t attack you right away. They’ll blink around with their teleportation powers, move blocks here and there, and stare at you. If you stare back, though… that’s when they become hostile. They scream. And they teleport directly behind you to attack you. Quite creepy.
Sometimes, though, the visuals and triggering mechanisms aren’t what stick in our minds as something that creeps us out. Sometimes, a person or object can appear completely normal, yet project that aura of vague discomfort that’s impossible to shake. This happens a lot when a character appears normal, but talks and acts in a way that hints that they’re not quite human, and perhaps only learned about humanity from reading a pamphlet or taking a correspondence course. The Observers in Fringe apply, especially September in the first season. The G-Man from Half-Life also springs to mind – courteous, polite, well-articulated, but… there’s definitely something wrong with him.
Stanley Kubrick is one of the best film directors to convey this sense of unease. Many of his shots in The Shining and A Clockwork Orange are off-putting in their framing, length, and presentation, even if the conversations within could be considered entirely mundane. But for me, one of the creepiest things he’s ever brought to life is the HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Faceless antagonists range from Doctor Who’s Daleks with their stilted, loud voices and monstrous appearances concealed by armored throwbacks to low-budget sci-fi, to Michael Meyers and his silent, towering, knife-wielding menace. But HAL is unique. He’s not overtly malevolent, nor is he outwardly psychopathic. He is a computer. He is a construct of logic and reason. His actions, given his programming, make sense, when you think about it. And he never raises his voice, never swears, never even speaks ill of those he wrongs. This calm, even manner of speaking coupled with the unblinking gaze of his multiple cameras and the amount of control he exerts over the crew of the spacecraft Discovery make him one of the creepiest characters ever created.
What’s creepy for you? Who’s your favorite creepy antagonist?
Dayjob demands have put me way behind in several ways. As I struggle to recover & catch up, here’s an entry from last year that I feel is still relevant.
One of these soldiers is likely to die.
There’s just something about a game, or story, that doesn’t pull its punches.
I get a feeling for that something when I play FTL or the new XCOM. A ship exploding under my intrepid crew or a favorite soldier getting their face melted off by plasma fire carries a bit of an emotional wallop. I’m tempted to keep the autosave feature of XCOM turned off to heighten that feeling and maintain the game’s edge. And that edge comes from choices having consequences, and those consequences sticking.
When games present their players with choice, the experience is improved when those choices mean something later on. One of the strengths of the Mass Effect series was that who you spared and who you left to rot does come back in one way or another, even if it doesn’t play too much into the overall story. While the consequences of those choices only really mattered in a minor sense, it felt like they mattered, at least to me.
In the aforementioned games, the choices really do matter, and a wrong choice means death. It’s not telegraphed or presented in story terms, either; they’re the little incidental gaming choices we make, like having a soldier cover a civilian’s retreat, or picking one class of weapon over another, or choosing the destination for your vessel. It is nearly impossible to predict which choices will lead to total victory and which will lead to bloody doom. That is what makes these games challenging and fun to play.
Similarly, some of the best stories out there have characters who make choices that lead to either their deaths or the deaths of others. It happens to men and women in command all the time, sure, but others are simply doing what they feel is right or trying to protect someone or something they love. George RR Martin, Jim Butcher, and Chuck Wendig have all done this – a character we like makes a decision, does all they can to back that decision up, and it explodes in their face. Someone close to them gets hurt or killed, and their own life may come close to ending before the story’s done. It’s tragic, it’s harrowing, and it’s great storytelling.
Make your character’s choices matter. Make those deaths mean something.
Probes aren’t just adorable – they’re essential.
There are really only two games I’d consider playing competitively on a regular basis. I don’t think I have the skills to play a first-person shooter anything but casually in multiplayer, and while I used to play CounterStrike in university, I can’t see myself devoting the time necessary to the game now, let alone coughing up money every year for the latest iteration of the best “spunk-gargle-weewee” game around. I’m also not one for fighting games like Street Fighter; again, I’m much more casual with that sort of game, and Divekick is more my speed with that sort of thing. The two games I look towards as a true test of my skills and that engage me enough to drive me to improve constantly are Magic and Starcraft. While I still want to return to Legacy in Magic, Standard will be more economical, but that’s a post for another time. Even more economical is StarCraft 2 - unlike Warhammer or Warmachine, there’s no miniatures to buy or paint, and no need to find a table big enough to play on. The only investment required is time. And lean tissue in the brain.
Getting back into StarCraft 2 after a long break isn’t easy for anybody. Heart of the Swarm has hit since I last played on the ladder, and that may have changed things up drastically. My only recourse is to change with them, and that means starting over again, from scratch, to build myself back up into a better gamer. What I like about StarCraft as opposed to say, Magic, is that the random element is minimized and, on higher levels of play, non-existent. It’s entirely skill and strategy. But before I can get anywhere near that level, I have to get my bare bones basics nailed down. And that means mechanics. That means making workers.
Building workers is pretty much the foundation of any future play. It’s the fuel that runs a player’s engine in StarCraft. It’s the mana of Magic, the production certs of Axis & Allies, the planetary resources of Twilight Imperium. I can’t spend any time worrying about build orders or army composition counters or even the meta-game at large. Not yet, at least. As much as I love to tie my strategic and tactical gameplay into a greater philosophy or Sun-Tzu or something, there’s a reason soldiers start at boot camp and aren’t just shipped into combat. Eren in Attack on Titan doesn’t strap on the Three-Dimensional Maneuver Gear and get right to titan-slaying without some serious training. That’s the way it has to be for me, as well.
So I’ve looked up some notes on the changes to the game, watched some videos by Filter, and started drilling against the AI. Not to practice tactics, not to ensure wins, not to nail down build orders. I’m just making workers and basic units, focusing on the workers. So far, Terran and Protoss are going fine. Zerg, I’m struggling with. But I’ll get there. And when I do, at that point I’ll jump on the ladder and start fighting live opponents. Though ‘fighting’ may be a bit of a stretch, as all I’m likely to do is bunch up all of my basic dudes and lob them at the enemy with no real tactics involved.
Then again, I don’t think many people at Bronze level will know what to do when 50 Marines or 30 Zealots or 40 Roaches come knocking at their door en masse 10 minutes into a game. I guess we’ll see once I have my benchmarks nailed down.
Subtlety can be underrated in video games. A great deal of them rely on glitzy graphics or bombastic action to carry their experiences. Rock-solid gameplay that relies on things other than frenetic twitchy skills, a unique world with a lived-in feeling, and an interesting story with characters that have depth and complexity all contribute to a game rising above the average. In the case of Dishonored, two out of three ain’t bad.
Corvo Attano had it all. From his birthplace on Serkonos in the Empire of the Isles, he rose from obscurity and a mysterious past to become Lord Protector of the Empress and her daughter. Unfortunately, he did not foresee assassins bestowed with a dark power storming Dunwall Tower and assassinating the Empress. Framed for the murder and on the run, Corvo is on the run with few options – until the same power approaches him with an offer to help him get his revenge. Even as a plague ravages the streets of Dunwall, Corvo finds his way to a Loyalist group willing to back him up, directing him where to point his deadly dagger.
As I mentioned in the intro, world-building goes a long way in making a game both worth your time to play and memorable after. Dishonored‘s Dunwall is one of its main draws. The city seems to have a very unique mix of Victorian-style architecture and dress while things like the Tallboys and Walls of Light have a somewhat dystopian electropunk feel to them. Graffiti, conversations, artwork, and the variety of items to pick up all work together to provide a sense of immersion in the world through which Corvo will be sneaking from target to target.
From its canals to its adverts to its balustrades, Dunwall looks amazing.
Much like Deus Ex and Thief, the sneaking and the possibility of bypassing combat entirely instead of being shoved into it the way you are with other first-person games is what sets Dishonored apart. No enemy, from the standard street-walking mook to what would qualify as boss fights, needs to be confronted directly. You always get a clear indication of how aware guards are to your presence, you’re agile enough that running on rooftops is always an option, and you don’t dissolve in water so swimming can work, too – provided the vicious barracuda-like fish don’t have you for lunch. Your gadgets and powers are a big help, as well. Even the lowest level of the Dark Vision power lets you see guards through walls so you can better plan your routes, and Blink, a short-range teleport, lets you cross open areas and even lines of sight without raising the alarm. Couple these powers with the option to choke folks out and a sleep-dart crossbow, and you have the opportunity to prove that assassins don’t have to kill to be effective and feared.
This leads me into talking about some of the drawbacks to Dishonored. The number of dead bodies you create and the degree to which you use certain powers contribute to what’s called Chaos, a mechanic that functions a lot like morality systems in other games. A high Chaos rating alters the last mission of the game, and the game has multiple endings based on it, meaning that if you want the best ending, you need to be as non-lethal as possible, even if it’s more organic to silence a guard with a quick stab or you’re just fed up with a section and want to blast your way through. On top of that, the characters you encounter, especially your erstwhile Loyalist allies, are very flat and not terribly emotive, many of them having the creepy unblinking constant-eye-contact problem NPCs have had since Oblivion. I almost would have preferred text screens between missions or, even better, a voice-over from Corvo so our protagonist could have a little more personality of his own. Deus Ex (especially Human Revolution) and Thief games benefit greatly from their heroes not being silent.
“Fly, my pretty ones! FLY!!”
Still, none of these problems can prevent me from recommending Dishonored. For all of its faults, the game plays extremely well and feels rewarding when you pull off the right combination of teleporting, sneaking, distracting guards, and finding your unique route to your target. The world is rich and well-realized even if it is populated with stiff characters lacking true depth, and the visual and sound design pull you into Dunwall every time it loads up. A little characterization here, a touch of personality for our hero there, and removing the Chaos issue would make the game damn near perfect. As it is, it’s simply a very good game that fans of stealth, assassination, and games with a stand-out look and feel are bound to enjoy.
It’s been a few months since I’ve even considered looking for more than a few minutes at truly competitive gameplay. There’s been a lot going on, and I haven’t really taken the time to consider how that could be helpful to me. Things like constructing a deck in Magic and building efficiently in a RTS game are good structural exercises for my mind. Taking those skills into a competitive environment keep my attention sharp and teach me how to be a more gracious loser. Because I know I won’t always win. But that doesn’t mean I won’t try, dammit.
For the better part of a year, I haven’t seriously tackled the Magic: The Gathering format of Legacy. I was considering a few potential decks a while ago, but most of those plans fell by the wayside. After the release of the Modern Masters set, and some prompting from a friend, I’ve come back to the notion of putting a deck together to take with me to official events and the occasional Saturday night at my friendly local gaming store.
Legacy isn’t the only format out there, though. Between it and the ever-changing Standard is a format known as Modern. There are a few decks out there that have cards that span both formats. The one that appeals to me the most is called ‘Affinity’. I’ve liked artifacts for a long time, because they’re not dependant on colors and can get around a lot of obstacles if played correctly.
I tried putting together a list that didn’t subscribe to most common color combinations for the deck. However, a few suggestions and lists introduced me to Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas. An ambitious and cunning artificer, Tezzeret has always been friendly to metal decks. As an agent of resident big bad dragon daddy Nicol Bolas, he’s slightly more insidious. The deck takes some of the basics of other Affinity decks in terms of creatures and mana sources, which gives me a few options.
|// Creatures (22)|
4 Arcbound Ravager
4 Vault Skirge
3 Etched Champion
3 Steel Overseer
// Spells (4)
// Planeswalkers (4)
4 Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas
// Artifacts (15)
4 Chalice of the Void
4 Mox Opal
4 Cranial Plating
3 Springleaf Drum
// Lands (15)
4 Vault of Whispers
4 Seat of the Synod
4 Ancient Tomb
|// Sideboard (15)|
3 Oblivion Ring
3 Ethersworn Canonist
3 Tormod’s Crypt
The deck can push damage past defenders with the Etched Champion or fly over them with Ornithopter or Vault Skirge, any one of them benefiting from carrying Cranial Plating. However, the deck also has a win condition that has nothing to do with creatures. Tezzeret can drop very early in the game, and his ultimate ability syncs well with artifact lands, 0-cost cards, and other low-cost options. Remember, X is twice the number of artifacts. So, if I have 5 artifacts in play, I gain 10 life and my opponent loses 10 life. That’s a 20-point swing, which can be difficult to overcome.
The deck is, of course, not invulnerable. It has no counter means save for Chalice of the Void, creatures can trample over the Champion no matter how much protection he has, and faster decks like burn can probably beat me to the punch or take wind out of my sails. Still, I think it has a lot of potential, and that potential doesn’t stop with Legacy. In Modern, the Chalice goes to the sideboard and illegal cards like Perish and Tormod’s Crypt have to go. Still, the play of the deck will be largely unchanged. I’m looking forward to putting it together and seeing how it plays.
Games are meant to be fun. In general, they are distractions from the tumult and tedium of our daily lives, and interesting exercises in thought and interaction. You play them with your friends, to share an experience and grow closer. For the most part, at least. Some games, though, pit you mercilessly against your friends. Some games make you suspect your friends, your trusted companions, are capable and even willing and eager to stab you in the back. Some games make you feel like Caesar on the Senate floor as Brutus and Cassius approach with long knives unsheathed. The Resistance is one of those games.
In the original version of The Resistance, between 5 and 10 friends gather around a table as members of a covert cell of freedom fighters, dedicated to toppling the oppressive near-future government that has clamped down on individual liberty and thought. The members take it in turns to lead missions against the government or its lackeys, choosing team members from those gathered. The missions themselves are formless and ultimately irrelevant. What matters is that some of those around the table are actually government spies, traitors who will stop at nothing to sabotage the efforts of the Resistance. The game, then, is figuring out who the spies are, and succeeding in enough missions to win the day despite their dastardly efforts.
This game is relatively light on rules, but deep in its nuances. At the beginning of the game, the spies reveal themselves to one another in secret. Each knows who the other spies are, but the other members of the Resistance have no idea who could be a spy and who is loyal. When the leader for the turn chooses her team, the rest of the Resistance votes on if the team should proceed or not. If you’re loyal to the Resistance, and you suspect one of the members of the team is a spy, you can vote against the mission, but be careful: if too many votes fail, the spies win. If too many missions fail, the spies win. The loyal members have to rely on deductive reasoning and clear heads to prevail, while the spies must use deception and undermining of the truth to win.
After you get the feel for The Resistance and how it plays, you can throw more variables into the mix. These take the form of Plot Cards, two of which are drawn by the leader for the turn and given away to other team members. These cards allow players to see the allegiance of others, take control of the team, or voice their opinions before anybody else does. These are powerful tools for both sides, and more often than not reveal information regarding loyalty and motivation. As such, they tend to give the Resistance an advantage over the spies. This isn’t always the case but it happens more often than not.
Recently, Indie Boards & Cards have started changing things up. A variant has been released simply called The Resistance: Avalon. Instead of the near-future and Plot Cards, the game takes on an Arthurian theme and features particular roles. Loyal servants of Arthur are assisted by Merlin, who knows the identities of the traitors, here called Minions of Mordred. However, one of those Minions is the Assassin. If the Assassin can name Merlin after the loyal knights and ladies complete three quests, the bad guys still win. This means that the loyal servants must conceal information almost as much as the Minions do. Other roles include Percival (who knows who Merlin is), Morgana (who appears as Merlin to Percival), and Mordred himself (who is unknown to Merlin). These roles add more mystery and intrigue to the game than the Plot Cards of the vanilla game do, and I’d have to say it causes me to lean more towards the Avalon variant than the base game. Not that I’d turn down a game of either…
If The Resistance has a flaw, it’s that playing it multiple times with the same group of people leads to deductions based on previous patterns rather than in-game behavior. I’ve discussed this previously, and while it’s certainly not a deal-breaker for the game, it does point to an advantage players might have if they can pick up on the behaviors of others in a short amount of time. In other words, if you’re good at poker, you’re probably going to be pretty damn good at The Resistance. And if this is the only flaw the game has, the only thing I can say I really don’t like, it’s clear that the game is a winner.
Indie is not quite done with this game, as they recently held a successful Kickstarter for a variant based on the deception & bluffing game Coup. I’m curious about it, but I guess I’ll have to wait for them to do another run of it before I can pick up a copy. In the meantime, I’ll definitely be playing more of The Resistance during lunch breaks and gaming get-togethers, and if you have a group of friends interested in a game that requires no dice, no grand strategy, no big time commitment, and a willingness to stab your friend in the back, I can’t recommend it highly enough.
One of the reasons I thoroughly enjoyed games like Deus Ex and its sequel Human Revolution is due to the stealth elements. I’ve dipped my toe into Thief, and I also got a charge out of both of Rocksteady’s Batman games (Arkham Asylum and Arkham City). Stealth-based games need a few things to work well: clear indicators of how easily the enemy can detect you, multiple routes to your objective, and an atmosphere of tension generated by foes and situations that present you with puzzle-like ways to overcome their deadly obstacles. Klei Entertainment’s Mark of the Ninja has all of these things, with the added bonus of appealing to aficionados of the legendary spies and assassins of feudal Japan.
For centuries, the Hisomu clan has defended its secrets and maintained its traditions. Without warning, the diabolical company Hessian Services storms their dojo and makes off with those secrets. Our hero is awakened from his recovery from an extensive tattoo (the titular ‘Mark’) to rescue his master, and embarks on a path of revenge and assassination. However, the Mark that allows him to move undetected and leap superhuman distances comes with a price: before it drives him mad with power, he is expected to take his own life.
Klei Entertainment previously made the Shank games, somewhat over-the-top side-scrolling action games in the vein of Mad Max or some of the nastier, in-your-face encounters of Borderlands. The designers have traded frenetic, button-mashy action for a more quiet, measured approach. Like the good stealth games mentioned above, Mark of the Ninja is built around smooth motion and wide-open level design. Moving around the maps feels natural and intuitive, and you think less about button-presses and combos than you do about guard search patterns and the locations of fuse boxes and lights that ache to have darts thrown at them.
The cutscenes are like something out of Gargoyles.
Adding to the atmosphere is the art style, steeped in darkness and flowing like ink from a brush. While the faces of the characters may be a little cartoonish for the game’s occasionally violent content, it definitely works within the context of this game’s world. When the game plunges into darkness, be it due to the environment itself or your darts shattering lights above the heads of hapless mercenaries, it becomes clear the art style was more than just an aesthetic choice. Your character becomes a shadow of his former self, literally, with only the ink of his mark visible to us as we sneak from one hiding place to another. It lends the game incredible atmosphere and tension all on its own.
Sooner or later, though, you will encounter your enemy. The decision must be made if you will dispatch them or try to sneak past. Killing guards does make it easier to make it across the room, but at the end of each level, if you manage to avoid killing anyone you get a substantial bonus to your score. The game also rewards you with Honor, which can be used for upgrades. Paradoxically, your upgrades make it easier for you to kill people. It’s hard to say if the trade-off is substantial enough to prevent you from doing fun things like hanging bodies for other guards to find, or picking off a room full of enemies one by one just to see how scared the last one gets.
“Hmm. Where does one stab a laser?”
Let me draw your attention to the screenshot used above. Pretty dark, isn’t it? As much as I’m uncertain as to how well-balanced the game is in terms of sneaking versus killing, I want to reiterate how lovely the game is and how well its art style informs its gameplay. Being reduced to a dark silhouette against a dark background, especially when it happens just as a guard turns to face your direction, never stops producing a sadistic little grin and the desire to jump on the big dumbass to give him a wedgie. Unfortunately there is no “wedgie” option, and we’re back to deciding if we want to try and move on in spite of the challenge or if we take the quick and easy path of murder.
As much as I like Mark of the Ninja, I haven’t gotten too terribly far with it, which may make this more of a “First Impressions” write-up than an actual review, but the flow of gameplay is so smooth and the storytelling so organic I can’t help but recommend it. Scaling a tower to close in on an enemy feels like an achievement in and of itself, the challenges the game presents provide incentive to be even more inventive and careful, and there’s something inherently badass about a game featuring a ninja behaving in this way. When was the last time Ryu Hayabusa actually snuck up on someone? I think it’s been a while. Mark of the Ninja is available on Steam and XBLA, and it’s definitely worth checking out.
I have a lot of fun with Commander (EDH if you’ve been around a while). It seems to be my father’s preferred format for Magic, and my siblings always have decks with them. It’s been made clear to me that some of my decks have significant chinks in their armor. Both my Zedruu deck and my Jaya deck are very feast-or-famine, it seems, relying on combos that may or may not appear fast enough to respond to threats adequately in some situations. I’ve started to think more tactically about these decks. I want to build decks to have fun, but I also would like to not get completely blown out as often as I have been lately.
Enter Sun-Tzu. The philosophy in The Art of War emphasizes the flexibility, strength, and speed of a successful fighting force. I’ve looked at my current roster of Commander decks, and how their colors and theme and signature creature provide those three points. Sharuum (One mark of a great soldier is that he fight on his own terms or fights not at all.), Karthus (Move swift as the Wind and closely-formed as the Wood. Attack like the Fire and be still as the Mountain.), and Ghave (Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.) all seem to be winners so far. As much as I like Zedruu and Jaya, their decks often have me quickly devolving into “top-deck” mode, just hoping they yield the exact card I need to get myself out of whatever terrible situation I’ve found myself in. They are also comparatively slow (a shock considering Jaya is mono-red) and Jaya has little synergy with the rest of her deck. So where do we go from here?
I’ve been looking towards the recently completed Return to Ravnica block for ideas, and I have at least a couple potential decks I’ll be assembling and testing in the coming weeks.
Speed is the essence of war.
While Zedruu can facilitate a great deal of card draw, making it more likely to pull an answer to a problem I’m facing, it can be difficult to get a donation to an opponent that lasts long enough for Zedruu to bring in the rewards. I have many methods of drawing cards and benefitting from those draws, and a general who gives me a direct, relevant, and reliable benefits from drawing is my old friend, Niv-Mizzet, the Firemind. I’ll have to dismantle both of the above decks to give Niv-Mizzet the tools he needs to blast my opponents, and there’s plenty of room for a variety of planeswalkers, time shenanigans, and even the synergy of Niv-Mizzet working with… um… Niv-Mizzet. Niv-Mizzet, Dracogenius, to be exact. I’ll probably be assembling this exciting and somewhat frightening lightning-powered engine of destruction this weekend.
Supreme excellence consists of breaking the enemy’s resistance without having to fight.
I’ve wanted to put together a vampire EDH deck for some time, now. The good thing about pairing the fiends with Orzhov’s Extort mechanic is that I do not need to engage in direct confrontations to get an edge over my opponents. I was initially torn as to who should take control of the alliance, as I have a soft spot for Teysa, Envoy of Ghosts. However, after some consideration, it seems that Obzedat, Ghost Council is slightly faster and has more synergy with the Extort within the deck and lifelink-equipped vampires. I’m looking forward to putting this deck together, as it’s been an idea I’ve had for quite some time.
This leaves me with another slot in a fat pack box for an EDH deck. Perhaps another mono-color deck? I’ll have to contemplate that.
There are many board games where all of your information is public. Monopoly players can see just how badly they’re boned with a glance around the table. Many other games prefer to keep a player’s information hidden. In any classic card game, from poker to rummy, it can be difficult to determine how good or bad the hand of an opponent is at any given time. Some games mix an element of the unknown into their gameplay. Lords of Waterdeep keeps the true identity of its players hidden until the very end, as does Archipelago from what I understand. And then there are the games where hidden information and deception are a focal point of gameplay, a system without which the game could not operate at all.
I’ve recently been playing Mascarade at lunch with the dayjob crew. Technically a party game, Mascarade distributes a number of role cards to its players, each with an ability to earn gold coins from the stockpile in the middle. Some, like the King and Queen, generate wealth on their own, while others, such as the Bishop and the Thief, take that wealth from other players. Not only are these roles hidden from all players, but the main action of the game is in swapping roles. The swaps happen out of sight of all players, as the swapping player must execute the swap under the table. A player may not know what role they have until they either spend their turn looking at their card, or get challenged by another player when they try to use their assumed role’s ability. In addition to requiring deductive reasoning and a decent poker face, it’s a good test of memory skills as well: did you actually swap your Witch card for that guy’s King card, or did you lose track of which card was which while they were under the table?
I’ve mentioned The Resistance: Avalon here before, and it’s still a favorite of mine. Another game of hidden roles and deductive reasoning, Avalon‘s sole focus is on making the most of scraps of information gathered through observation. You have to pay attention, actively, to what other players are saying and doing, to either determine who among you are the traitors, or shift and deflect blame like some form of deceptive judo. Avalon adds the roles that The Resistance lacks to give the game an additional layer of deception and deduction: if the traitors can determine who Merlin is, they will win even if the loyal players succeed in their missions. It requires a great deal of concentration.
I think the pinnacle of this use of hidden threats may lie with Battlestar Galactica‘s board game adaptation. The game is, essentially, cooperative: players take on roles of the Galactica’s crew and characters, from hothead Viper pilots like Apollo and Starbuck to well-reasoned leaders like Adama and Roslin. Every turn, players will face a crisis that either requires them to work together, presents the active player with a choice that could sap the group of precious resources, or places Cylon forces on the board that must be fended off while the Galactica prepares to jump to the next system. The game could function well enough with just this system, but on top of this is the fact that one or more players around the table could be Cylons themselves. At the start of the game and at about the halfway point, Loyalty cards are dealt to each player to tell them what side they’re on. A player can reveal themselves as a Cylon at any time, activating a special power that can cripple Galactica or cause other kinds of trouble. However, an effective Cylon will remain hidden for several turns, perhaps working to sabotage a crisis here and there to make victory all more the difficult to attain for the humans. Savvy players must then try to discern who at the table might be a Cylon at the same time they’re trying to keep the civilian population safe and the Galactica’s supply of Vipers repaired, all while searching for the route to Earth. I’ve only played the game once as of this writing, but given how much fun I had in spite of the rules confusion and other factors, it’s safe to say I will definitely be playing it again.
More than a few video games that provide a multiplayer experience also have single player campaigns. In fighting games and others, this is referred to as ‘story mode’. The quality of these stories can vary wildly, but the pitfalls and perils of storytelling in video games is much better covered by other sources, and it’s not why I’m writing this. I’m writing this because relegating “story mode” to single player play feels like a misnomer, even in something as simple as a fighting game or a first-person shooter. Whenever more than one person is involved in play, I feel there’s massive potential for storytelling.
Some systems better facilitate this than others, of course. Eventually, in a fighting game, you’ll stop contriving reasons your character gets up after having his or her spine ripped out or all of his or her ribs broken. Games set up for multiple players that lean towards story construction, from MMOs to your typical Dungeons & Dragons campaign, have plenty of tools to keep things moving. But those games tend to come with a lot of systems and rules that can interrupt the flow of the story. I enjoy them thoroughly, don’t get me wrong, but some games have a fantastic way of keeping the game aspects simple and letting the story aspects shine.
Consider Fiasco, by Jason Morningstar. Much like a role-playing game with the tables and systems stripped down to the bare minimum, Fiasco is “a game of high ambition and low impulse control.” Inspired by caper films like Burn After Reading, Snatch, Fargo, and A Simple Plan, the game puts players in relationships with one another and gives them each goals to try and achieve. The systems are there simply to set up the tapestry of the situation, from who knows whom to what’s desired and why, and to let you know when things are about to go horribly, horribly wrong. In the end, the dice are an impetus for the tension, drama, fun, and laughs, rather than encapsulating those things themselves. It’s a brilliant game and a great way to tell stories with friends, especially if one hews to Rogers’ Rules:
1. Who Wants What?
2. Why Can’t They Have It?
3. Why Should I Give A Shit?
Shock: is a similar game by Joshua A.C. Newman, where players work together to create a sci-fi world in the vein of Ursula K. LeGuin or Philip K. Dick, populate that world with their ideas and characters, and go nuts from there. Everybody around the table contributes to the aspects of the universe created, from the nature of the planets to the motivations of both protagonists and antagonists, and the ruleset, like Fiasco‘s, keeps the story central while offering support to keep things moving and keep players interested. It’s a fascinating approach to both gaming and storytelling.
As impressive and fun it can be to see what enjoyment can be wrought from a big box full of wooden components, cards, boards, and tokens, there’s something to be said for the sheer power of a story well-told with friends. Collaboration gives rise to ideas that could never have taken flight on their own, and when everybody’s helping tell the story, everybody has a stake in seeing it through to the end. That’s what makes games like Fiasco and Shock: so brilliant. It’s not about the components or the systems or anything the game actually provides; it’s all about the people around the table.
Courtesy Theology of Games
For those of you who don’t know, Shut Up & Sit Down is an excellent show about board games. Most of them are reviews, but there are a few Let’s Plays and specials sprinkled in. Paul and Quinns are great hosts, breaking down game mechanics and thematic elements in concise and entertaining matters, and games feel truly reviewed, not just discussed. They are also, however, horrible bastards. There are a few games out there I simply have to acquire in the future, and I blame them entirely for making me aware of said games.
I unfortunately have not played NetRunner in some time. As it is a two-player game, it can be difficult in my situation to nail down a convenient time for myself and another person inclined towards asymmetrical living card game play with a dystopian cyberpunk theme to throw down. However, it still very much appeals to me, and more expansions have been added since I last played. I want to experiment with these new cards and find both the most fun and subversive Runner deck and the most obstinate and dastardly Corporate deck I can build. I like deckbuilding, I like Blade Runner and Snow Crash and Deus Ex, so NetRunner remains a winner.
One of SU&SD’s most recent reviews was Tales of Arabian Knights. I’m a great fan of storytelling, especially in a collaborative setting, and Tales seems particularly inclined towards creating new tales with fun and interesting twists. The fact that the game is pure cooperation like Arkham Horror but with more chances for your friends to be directly involved in your actions is also an idea I like. I like games where players are encouraged to work together, even if there can only be one ultimate winner. It seems to me that, in Tales, everybody wins if the stories told make everybody laugh or keep everybody interested.
So that’s a co-op game. But what is this “semi co-op” distinction I’ve heard? Archipelago is such a game, according to the boys, and it centers around representing colonialism in a very thematic way without referencing direct historical events. The game begins with exploration on the open sea, and players travel to new undiscovered islands to expand their holdings. The land must be exploited to get ahead, and while there is no true extermination to make Archipelago a true 4X game on a board, it feels so close to the likes of Civilization and Master of Orion that I’ve nearly bought it a couple times already. You and the other players do need to prevent disaster and uprisings to keep the game going, but in the end, only one of you will acquire enough victory points to be the winner.
Terra Mystica has no co-operative elements whatsoever, but the elements it does have really appeal to me. In the review, it’s clear that progression is a balancing act, weighing the potential to win points over the speed of future expansions. In Terra Mystica, your fantasy race must transform the very land itself in order to expand its holdings, sort of like if the races of SmallWorld took up agriculture (…and sorcery and elemental worship and aggressive territorial expansion through real estate). I can see chess-like move-countermove action happening in this game, as well as unexpected twists like casting the right spell at the right time or the sudden rise of a cult. It’s one of those games where it seems no two games would be alike, and that is right up my alley.
Last but certainly not least is just about any game designed by Vlaada Chvátil. I’ve played Galaxy Trucker once, and I’d love to do it again, this time focusing more on my opponents’ misfortune than my own. It’s that kind of game; there’s just as much fun in a little schadenfreude as there is in building spaceships. Mage Knight has strong appeal due to its theme of powerful wizards striding across the world doing battle to win glory and power, and as intimidating as the rules might be, wrapping my mind around them seems like a worthy challenge. Then there’s Space Alert. I’ve heard it is an intense, challenging and ultimately hilarious game, much like Artemis for computers or Spaceteam for mobile devices. We shall have to see!
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I like board games. I like them a lot. I want to play more of them, and in fact, I’ve been contemplating some ideas of my own that may or may not get developed in the near future. My challenge is finding people to play with. I appreciate a solitaire experience as much as the next gamer, but sometimes, you want to share the game with at least one other person, and let strategy, interaction, laughter and the occasional verbal deluge of caustic profanity fill your evening.
At least, that’s what I want.