Tag: steampunk (page 1 of 3)

Game Review: High Command

I’m a big fan of the Iron Kingdoms universe. This steampunk fantasy setting has an interesting marriage of magic to technology, several unique-feeling yet familiar nation-states, and semi-sentient steam-powered robot warriors acting as battlefield avatars for wizards who know how to handle themselves in melee combat. Until recently, the two roads into the setting were the two miniature wargames (Warmachine and Hordes) which featured finely detailed minis sure to drain your bank account faster than you can say “I need another warcaster to round out my army”, and the surprisingly difficult to find role-playing game. Privateer Press is opening more doors into their world, however, with the stand-alone deck-building game High Command, which I was fortunate enough to play at PAX.

Courtesy Privateer Press

In High Command, up to four players assume command of one of the factions within the Iron Kingdoms. The game does come in Warmachine and Horde flavors, giving players plenty of choices. The goal of the game is to acquire the most victory points by occupying territories and commanding the most powerful weapons available. Acquiring troops and getting them into the field is accomplished via drawing cards from the player’s individual army deck and spending them to acquire one of the resources available to that player. These resources then become part of the deck to be drawn later. Once in the field, troops, warmachines, warbeasts and spell-casters fight over the territories available in the center of the table. There are events that happen every turn that can tip the balance of the game one way or another, and one of those events ends the game. Whoever has the most points when that event occurs wins.

Each player begins the game with two decks of their own: a Resource Deck containing cards to acquire, and an Army Deck containing some basic means to acquire said Resources. The system feels a lot like Ascension but on an individual level. Instead of vying with the other players for unique heroes or weaponry from a common pool, a player’s turn consists of deciding how best to spend the cards drawn from the Army Deck to prepare for future engagements. There’s an element of random chance in both drawing from the Army Deck and setting up the Resources to be chosen from, which is mitigated by the ability to bank unused Army cards between turns and the removal of cards from the Army Deck each time it’s shuffled. The system is easy to understand for new players and seems flexible enough to provide interesting strategic permutations.

Courtesy Privateer Press
It’s nice to have big guns that are always available.

While Dominion only allows player interaction with certain cards available to all, and Ascension eschews direct player confrontation altogether, High Command is all about player-versus-player contention. Army cards deployed or rushed into the center of the table are bound to be opposed by Army cards employed by the other players. Each Army card has a strength rating and a health rating. Combat is a somewhat watered down version of Magic: the Gathering in that strength is directly compared to health to determine victory. Event cards and resources used from a player’s hand can tip the scales, a Warcaster or Warlock can appear in the field to give a one-time bonus to the encounter, and multiple troops can pool their strength to overcome larger foes. Much like the system of the two player decks, the combat system is streamlined and simplistic enough to appeal to new players.

My qualms about High Command are similar to the ones I have about Lords of Waterdeep, the Forgotten Realms worker-placement game. Veterans of deck-building games with more complexity and options may be turned off by the simplicity of the gameplay, and while the game can be good for getting an Iron Kingdoms fix, those with a keen interest in the universe may be more interested in either the pen-and-paper game or the wargames. My big bone of contention with the game is that it’s one of those experiences that can lead to a player focusing almost entirely on their own engine, rather than directly interacting. The pace of the game, especially in the first couple turns, feels somewhat sluggish. Players are dealing with their decks and resources and units, and it can be easy to focus on that rather than pay attention to what an opponent is doing, since your opponents are, in essence, doing the exact same thing you are. While I don’t think this is a huge problem for the game, it does bear mentioning especially if you’re introducing new players to deck-building in general or the Iron Kingdoms as a setting.

Courtesy Privateer Press
The art is high quality and the cards are easy to read.

In the end, I would lean more towards recommending High Command than not. I do feel that the direct confrontation and combat in the game make it fun and involving, and crafting your deck to execute your master plan can be intriguing. It definitely has appeal for fans of the Iron Kingdoms who are unwilling to make the monetary investment in miniatures. Everything you need for up to four players is right there in the starting box. Hardcore deck-building fans may be content with their Dominion set, but if you’re looking to check out the genre and like a bit of face-smashing to go with the card dealing and shuffling, I’d check out High Command.

Flash Fiction: One Dart

Steampunk Airship, by zombie2012
Art courtesy zombie2012

For the Flash Fiction challenge Smashing Sub-Genres, the die of destiny chose Post-Apocalyptic and Steampunk.


Gideon’s stomach was telling him it was time to eat. The heat on his skin indicated it was late afternoon. The watch on his wrist had stopped ticking years before.

He wiped his hands on his trousers as he had a hundred times before that day, picked the axe back up and took a few more swings at the tree’s robust trunk. He rubbed his brow on the handkerchief wrapped around his left wrist, noting that past his sweat, it still smelled like her prefume. Scents like that were becoming more and more rare, and he cherished the fact she’d given this gift to him. He didn’t want to linger, however; the idea was to do what he needed to do and get out as quickly and quietly as possible.

Gideon slammed the axe into the tree once more and heard the trunk finally succumb. He hefted his weapon and stepped to one side, watching the tree come down. Past the falling branches, he could see what was left of the steel and concrete towers, vines and foliage of all kinds creeping up their sides, blocking windows, cracking brickwork, obscuring the achievements of man. As soon as the tree was down, he put his philosophical thoughts aside and set about breaking the tree up into logs, kindling from branches, and what seeds and flowers he could gather.

He already had a few piles around him, and he consolidated as expediently as he could. Once he felt everything was in order, he went to his pack and pulled out the flare gun. He loaded one of the blue shells, pointed it towards the sky, and pulled the trigger. The flare soared up above the tops of the abandoned buildings before it detonated, simultaneously releasing a bright burst of light and a distinctive, hypersonic sound. It would be picked up by the Elpis, but it also had a chance to attract the wildlife.

Sure enough, a growl emerged from the bushes nearby. Gideon slipped the cover over the head of his axe, slid it through the loops of his pack, and drew the tranquilizer gun from his hip. He only carried half a dozen darts, and as he loaded one and primed the mechanism to launch it, his eyes scanned the bushes. The source of the growl slowly emerged: a large dog, perhaps two feet at the shoulder, with a broad body and a stout build. In years gone by, it might have seen Gideon as a potential owner, or a playmate.

In this world crafted by the folly of old dead leaders, the dog only saw him as a meal.

Gideon did not make any sudden moves. The dog’s teeth were bared, bits of froth at the sides of its mouth. Gideon had been around long enough and met a few dogs to know that such behavior wasn’t indicative of a rabid dog, just a hungry one. He wasn’t sure if the dog was alone, or part of a pack or family, and didn’t want to put it out prematurely. The Elpis was supposedly on-station ten minutes away, on top of one of the buildings.

“West, you better have been at your post, or I swear…”

At the sound of Gideon’s voice, the dog lowered its posture and growled again. Gideon silently cursed himself for letting the tension get to him. With so many predators growing and thriving in the decades since The Last War, any places outside of Avalon held the potential for death if one so much as breathed too heavily or disturbed the wrong bush. This was no longer a world for humans, and it was only through wits and devices like the tranquilizer gun in Gideon’s hands that men and women survived.

The hound and the man stood staring at one another for a long moment. The rest of the overgrowth and the buildings beyond had fallen completely silent. Even the wind was still. Gideon thought, for a moment, that the dog might back off. Without warning, it left the ground, leaping towards him, jaws opening as it aimed for his throat. Gideon’s arms came up on instinct, pulling the trigger on the tranquilizer gun. The dart struck the dog at the base of its neck, the pneumatic force from the releasing tension of its gears knocking it off course and the anesthetic quickly taking hold. Gideon exhaled and reloaded, feeling sweat beading on his brow.

The dog tried to get to its feet, still glaring at Gideon even as its paws kept slipping out from under it. As it began to pass out, more dogs emerged from the bushes, all growling at Gideon. He primed the tranquilizer again, but knew he wouldn’t have enough time to take down more than one. His gun only held one dart at a time.

A great wind and loud noise slammed down on the clearing, scattering the dogs. Gideon looked up to see the Elpis descending towards him. The airship’s cargo bay doors swung open, and West, lanky and waving, lowered the first of the cables down. Gideon quickly bound up his gains and began tying them to the cables that came to him, riding the last back up into the ship.

“Run into some trouble?” West’s grin was all teeth.

“A couple dogs. Nothing major.”

West began taking a tally, tapping a pencil against his chin. “Not bad, not bad at all. A few furnaces will be very happy with these, and Avalon could use the new trees. Captain Olsen’s going to love this.”

“She could use the break. She had to fight hard to get us out this far.”

“At least you can relax, my friend! Your part in this is over.”

Gideon nodded, but as he walked up from the cargo bay to the gunnery deck, he saw men and women checking and re-checking the machine guns and the main howitzer of the airship, whispers of pirates and scavengers abounding.

He sighed. His hunger would have to wait.

Game Review: BioShock Infinite

It’s worth noting that BioShock was one of the very first video games I reviewed. It’s clear that in those days I was still learning the ropes and refining opinions, however, as my review of BioShock 2 ended up being overly generous. If I had the inclination, I would go back to the entry and edit in a couple more things that I’ve realized I didn’t like, but that’s old ground that’s been tread several times. Let’s just leave it at this: until now, BioShock did not have a worthy sequel. It had a map pack and some skins and a multiplayer mode, bundled and sold as a game. BioShock Infinite is the actual sequel to the first BioShock game, and it has a lot to live up to. It’s not every day that a gaming franchise gets a saving throw.

Courtesy Irrational Games

The year is 1912, and we find ourselves portraying hard-bitten private detective Booker DeWitt. A veteran of the infamous 7th cavalry and a former Pinkerton agent, Booker’s a little down on his luck, having racked up some debts from gambling. He is given a mysterious offer: “Bring us the girl, and wipe away the debt.” The girl, according to the box on his lap as he is taken to the lighthouse, is Elizabeth, a tower-bound prisoner in the airborne city-state of Columbia. At first, the city seems peaceful and prosperous, even if the citizens worshiping the founding fathers of the United States is a bit off-putting. Soon, however, DeWitt is on the run from the constabulary, who are admonished by their leader and patron saint, Z.H. Comstock or “the Prophet”, to destroy the “False Shepherd” DeWitt before he can lead “the Lamb,” Elizabeth, astray.

The games of Ken Levine have always had evocative environments, and BioShock Infinite is no exception. Columbia joins the underwater metropolis of Rapture and the corridors of the Von Braun in creating a living, breathing place with its own unique atmosphere. However, instead of the harrowing sci-fi horror of the first game or the objectivist utopia gone wrong of the second, BioShock Infinite turns a glass on history rather than literature or a genre. Specifically, Columbia invokes the so-called American exceptionalism of the turn of the 20th century. Much like the pundits of FOX News and other conservatives, the people of this time believed that they were the rightful heirs of a nation of immigrants and disparate peoples, which of course meant it was unfit for immigrants and disparate peoples. To the game’s credit, things like jingoism, racism, and sexism are handled in a largely subtle fashion, simply presented as they were or would have been in 1912 rather than dwelling on our modern views on the matter, and does not allow any pontification get in the way of the story of Booker and Elizabeth.

Courtesy Irrational Games
“Um… Miss? I really hope that book isn’t loaded…”

Perhaps the strongest part of the game is that story, which I will not spoil here. There was some controversy before the game’s release concerning the decision to put Booker front and center instead of Elizabeth, and now that I’ve played it, I can say that I agree with those who think Elizabeth deserves her place on the front cover. She’s a well-rounded, interesting, strong, and engaging character. It was conjectured by some that the bulk of the game consisting of a glorified escort quest would make the game dull or uninteresting. As much as there are some flaws in the gameplay, Elizabeth’s role is not one of them. Not only is her ability to open rifts between parallel universes crucial to the plot, she can assist in combat by pulling in cover, turrets, and items when you find the right rift. In addition, she will occasionally find money, health, ammunition, or Salt (which powers your Plasmids Vigors) in the middle of a firefight. Finally, she will point out if some enemies have specific weapons so you can prioritize. Outside of combat, as you explore Columbia, Elizabeth and Booker will converse, banter, and even argue. Their conversations feel natural and spontaneous for the most part, which is a credit to the writers and voice actors. I often found myself frustrated with a shooting section because I wanted to spend more time with these two rather than shooting at dudes.

BioShock Infinite is not perfect, and its biggest flaw may be the shooting at the core of the game. While the guns function well, there’s very little skill involved in it. Much like its previous games, this BioShock focuses less on the building of your character’s abilities and more on what the character does between combat sequences. One of the things that really bothered me is that Booker is limited to two guns, while all eight Vigors are always available once discovered. There aren’t that many tactical decisions to make, and between the pushover human enemies to the Handyman encounters that make the Big Daddies look like rather friendly folks, not a great deal of variety. It doesn’t completely derail things, and the Skyhook’s ability to zip you around the gallery rather than confining you to cover helps quite a bit, but it does keep BioShock Infinite from reaching its full potential as a gaming experience. As good as the story is, the player’s interaction with it is somewhat minimal. No significant decisions are made, and the outcome of the game cannot be changed. As worthy as the destination is of the journey, I feel like an opportunity was missed in favor of rendering the Automated Patriots, which are probably the most fun enemies to fight. But I digress.

Courtesy Irrational Games
Gives new meaning to the term “rail shooter”.

Stuff I Liked: The weapons had a good, turn-of-the-century look and feel about them. I like that audio logs, environmental messages on the walls, and open non-linear level design remain a part of this gaming series. The presentation of the Vigors is very good. The combat can be satisfying at times, especially when the Skyhook gets involved, but…
Stuff I Didn’t Like: I felt hamstrung because I was limited to two weapons. There are portions later in the game where it felt like an incredible liability. As good as the story was, more could have been done to make the player feel included in the experience, rather than simply being an observer. That said…
Stuff I Loved: The story IS well-presented, paced decently, and ends in a very satisfactory manner. The character of Elizabeth is fantastic. Booker adds a great deal of personality by not being a silent protagonist. I adore the British twins. The music is great, the graphics are beautiful, and the city of Columbia invokes curiosity and fascination as you explore.

Bottom Line: Despite its flaws, BioShock Infinite is an extremely good game. Few games present their stories with this much humanity, pathos, and personality. The world is very well-realized and encourages you to spend time there. While the combat isn’t great, it does have some interesting bits to offer, and it provides the promise of a universe where BioShock 2 never existed.

Flash Fiction: Last Flight of the Wayward Albatross

Steampunk Airship, by zombie2012
Art courtesy zombie2012

For The Wheel, Part Two, the die selected Steampunk, Someone’s Been Poisoned!, and A Secret Message.


The skyline of Paramount City was normally a welcome sight. It meant coming home. Today, as Captain Taggert held the wheel of his beloved airship, he saw the skyline in a very different way. The airfighters weren’t up yet, but they would be soon enough.

“How are we doing up here, Cap’n?”

He didn’t turn to look. He knew the voice of his mate, Ashley Sanders, almost as well as his own. Five years now they’d plied the skies together, and he trusted her almost more than he trusted himself.

“We’re making good time. Tavis hasn’t called up; how much is he really complaining about the boilers?”

“‘Bout as much as you’d expect. Not used to runnin’ her this hot just to get home.”

Taggert didn’t take his eyes from that skyline. “Does he know?”

Sanders walked up next to him. “No. Only ones who know what’s really going on are you, me, Doc, and poor Mike Palmer.”

“How is he?” Taggert reflected, as he asked, that he was standing in Mike’s spot, at the wheel of the ship. It felt a bit like walking on the man’s grave.

“Doc says he’s stable. Won’t be dancin’ a jig any time soon, but provided Doc stays with him and makes sure he’s takin’ on fluids proper-like, he’ll pull through.”

Taggert nodded, glancing to the scroll case sitting on the radar console to his left. The man who’d been carrying it, a passenger they took on from the border with the untamed jungles to the south, had been nervous from the start. Next thing anybody knew, he was on the radio, calling in the Wayward Albatross as a pirate ship and a danger to the Empire, and when Palmer had confronted him, the pilot got a poison shiv for his trouble. Taggert dealt with the passenger in what he felt was a fair and equitable manner: he escorted the man off of his airship, without the benefit of a parachute.

The message, though, worried him. It bore the Imperial seal, and was obviously meant for someone important. He wasn’t sure who the intended recipient was, nor for whom the man had been working, but the Empire took all reports of air piracy very seriously. Taggert kept his eyes peeled for airfighters even as the radio crackled to life.

“Airship Wayward Albatross, this is Imperial Control. Come in, Wayward Albatross.”

Sanders picked up the microphone, clearing her throat. “This is the Albatross, Control, what can we do for ya?”

“You will heave-to and tie up at the Imperial port spire in the south-eastern docks. Your ship will be inspected and your crew questioned.”

Sanders exchanged a look with Taggert. “We have a sick man on board, Control. He needs medical attention.”

“Negative. Heave-to immediately.”

Sanders released the mike’s switch. “We can’t let them split Mike from Doc, Cap’n. He might not make it in that case.”

“And if we hand over this message it might just disappear, along with us.” Taggert frowned. “Call down to Tavis. Get her as stoked as possible. Then sound evacuation and get to the rescue planes.”

“Sir?”

“I’m taking her in, Sanders, and the fewer folks at risk, the better things will be.”

Sanders, for her part, didn’t argue. She just looked at Taggert for a very long moment before leaving. Moments later, he felt the Albatross surge forward, steam billowing from her vents. The airship could move quick when she needed to, and Taggert needed every iota of speed he could muster. An inner voice told him this was foolhardy, maybe even suicidal, but he hushed it. He had other things to worry about.

Airfighters were now appearing from the military spires that marked the inner quarter of the city, where the aristocrats and non-landed well-to-do lived and worked. Sanders re-entered the pilot house as Taggert adjusted course towards the Imperial Palace.

“Crew’s started to evac, Cap’n. Time to tie her off an’ go.”

“I’m staying. I’ll get clear, don’t you worry, but I have a job to do.”

Sanders frowned. “Cap’n, I’m more than willin’ t’ give ya a crack on the skull an’ drag your heavy carcass to a plane.”

“You will do no such thing.” He turned to look at her. She did, indeed, have a large wrench in her hand, her face was half-covered in soot, and her blue eyes burned with intensity and worry. “You’re the best mate a broke-down Captain like me could ask for, Ashley, but right now I need you to see to the rest of the crew and get yourself clear. When all is said and done, I’ll find you again. I promise.”

She nodded, but didn’t leave the pilot house until the Albatross rattled. Due to steam or getting buzzed by airfighters, Taggert wasn’t sure. Approaching the Palace like she was, they’d open fire any second.

When he heard the first staccato noises of autogun fire, he tied off the wheel and grabbed a parachute. He felt the deck shake beneath him as he strapped himself in. Taking up the message, he ran aft through the empty airship to find a lock. He threw open the inner door, than the outer, looking down at the greenery of the palace gardens.

The Albatross shook again. Taking a deep breath, Taggert stepped out into the air. He didn’t dare look back; he knew his ship was on fire, and didn’t want the image seared into his mind. Instead, he focused on his ‘chute, pulling it open at the right moment, and guided himself to landing not ten feet from where the Empress herself was enjoying breakfast. Her guards aimed their rifles, and she held up her hand.

“I trust you are bringing us something of profound importance, Captain.”

“Yes, Your Majesty.” Taggert handed her the message. “This was in the hands of an enemy of the Empire.”

She took the scroll and broke the seal. Reading it, she looked up at Taggert. After a moment, she gestured to her guards.

Where’s Captain Pendragon?

Gears

Remember Captain Pendragon? I’ve been making an effort to keep in touch with Polymancer Studios on the work but so far the efforts have been fruitless. I still think the work is viable and, looking back on it now, could use some tweaking or perhaps even expansion and clarifying.

Since I will unfortunately be missing out on VACATION HELL due to saving the work-in-progress to the wrong place yesterday (I blame the old cheese, long story) my mind has turned to other projects. The pitch is still in need of polish before shooting off to Query Shark, I have a D&D campaign to plan, Alchemist At Sea is kicking around in my head especially now that I’m reading more George RR Martin, and I have until the 29th to figure out if I really have the time, material and gumption to give IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! the video treatment for the Escapist’s competition this year.

But what of Captain Pendragon? It’s a fun little escapist romp (bit of a segue, see what I did there?) that isn’t difficult to write and should have a broad audience appeal – steampunk, adventure, post-apocalyptic, characterization, etc – yet I hesitate to move forward with anything related to it given it’s current limbo status. I’ve sent a final missive to Polymancer pursuant to publishing the first little bit of it, but since I haven’t seen anything with their signature on it, the rights are still technically mine.

So do I wait to hear from them? Or do I move forward?

Do I take it as-is to Duotrope? Find time to edit & expand it to make it better? Perhaps even lengthen it to novella-size and toss it up on PubIt?

Give me your thoughts, Internets. I’m feeling a little lost here.

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