Well, this should be fun.

I really like that my address falls earlier in the day in the UPS delivery schedule.

 

Prusa delivery

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Some Thoughts on Castle Panic

The guys and I got in a game of Lords of Waterdeep using both modules (aka, expansions) last night. Long story short, despite getting to play as my favorite lord, the Xanathar, I came in next to last.

Before playing LoW, we got in our first play of another game, Castle Panic, a semi-cooperative tower defense simulator with a generic fantasy theme. “Tower defense” is a genre of video games in which you use static defenses to repel wave after wave of enemies as they encroach upon your territory. There’s a bit more to it than this, and different games naturally put their own wrinkles and twists on the mechanics, but that’s the general idea.

 

Behold the, uh… I was going to say “marauding horde,” but “manageable crowd” is probably more accurate.

 

In Castle Panic, your static defenses consist of three concentric rings surrounding your castle at the center of the board. A horde of monsters assembled from conventional fantasy tropes (goblins, orcs, and trolls) advances through ring with the goal of tearing down your castle one wall at a time. Within a given ring, the invaders are vulnerable to attacks by only type of unit (archer, knight, or swordsman). On their turn, players draw cards which determine which types of units they can use to attack, or which grant a variety of other special abilities.

The game is mechanically sound, which I think sums it up pretty well. It works, and it’s playable, but there’s not really much more to it. The theme is not only generic, but pretty much pasted on. You could easily switch it to any other genre; it would feel exactly the same if instead of a horde of green-skinned humanoids, it was a mob of space aliens, zombies, or rampaging kittens rushing towards you. There are a few boss monsters with unique abilities, but there’s really nothing else that differentiates goblins, orcs, and trolls from one another besides the number of hit points they have.

Along the same lines, there’s no thematic rationale as to why units of a given type can only attack monsters within a specific ring. During the game, I quipped that the knights are unable to turn their horses around to attack enemies that make it past them and that the  archers couldn’t wrap their heads around the concept of firing their bows at point-black range. There are also boulders that randomly appear when their card is drawn which come careening down from the forest, crushing any greenskins in their path before crashing into your castle and wrecking one of your precious walls. It’s a fun little mechanical twist, but I think a rampaging dragon that comes screaming from the sky raining indiscriminate death and destruction would have been more fun thematically than a boulder.

More importantly, while it replicates some of the core mechanics of digital tower defense games, Castle Panic misses the mark in some crucial ways. There’s normally an ebb and flow with tower defense, a tension that intensifies as time goes on and which builds to a panic as you wonder whether the defenses you’ve placed will manage to hold the line. One way that tower defense games create this experience is by starting players off with basic defenses, allowing them to unlock more powerful ones as time goes on. Likewise, the difficulty of the monsters scales at more or less the same rate.

Castle Panic is a cooperative game, so the players all win or lose together (although at the end, the player who scores the most points based on number and type of kills is awarded the title of “Master Slayer”). Once you draw your cards, combat is deterministic and players can trade freely during their turns. The upshot of this is that rather than being a frenetic scramble to make good decisions while under time constraints, turns instead morph into a puzzle to be solved as players figure out the optimal way to use the cards that are currently available to them. And rather than tension that steadily ramps up, the game goes through fits and starts, as the types and number of monsters that appear is randomly determined, and it’s possible that you can either clear out swathes of enemies during your turn or remain completely idle depending on what cards you draw and what your allies have to trade.

The pressure to act quickly could easily be created by using a timer. The lack of flow could have been avoided if, rather than all of the monsters and cards being mixed together, they were divided into several groups which are introduced over the course of the game, with each subsequent group being more powerful.

Probably the most powerful combo in the game. Play the Barbarian and then use “Scavenge” to play him again immediately? Yes, please!

 

I’m normally reticent about reviewing a game after having played it only once, but I feel that Castle Panic is simple enough for me to have gotten a good grasp of what it offers after a single play. Additionally, I don’t foresee this one hitting the table again so that I can gather more data anytime in the near future.

All this being said, does this mean that I think Castle Panic is a bad game? No. Everything works and it plays well; it just doesn’t have a lot of depth. Furthermore, a lot depends on how you approach it. For most gamers who would even be interested in reading a review like this, there isn’t really enough here to hold their attention for very long or to create a compelling gameplay experience — but this does not make it a bad game. Also, to be fair, despite the fact that we won, victory was uncertain until nearly the end of the game, and there were a few genuinely tense moments.

Castle Panic is a good choice to play with younger gamers. The theme is fun, and they won’t notice that it’s pasted on. The mechanics are easy to learn, and there are enough tactical decisions to make without it becoming overwhelming. It could also serve as a good intro to boardgames for gamers who are deep into the digital side of the spectrum: something they’re probably familiar with and that isn’t so complex that it turns them off to boardgames.

I have two takeaways from last night: 1) As long as your expectations are calibrated correctly, you won’t be disappointed with Castle Panic; 2) I probably need to play as someone other than the Xanathar.

Some (brief) thoughts on 13th Age

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13th Age is a game I fell in love with from the start, after reading enough of the core rulebook to get a feel for the design philosophy that Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet were going for with their game. This is incredibly ironic, considering how much of 13th Age’s design borrows from 4e, which I really didn’t like as an RPG. It’s been aptly described as a hybrid of 3.5 and 4e with some new mechanics of its own added to the mix.

Although this may sound like a recipe for a jumbled, unplayable mess, it works surprisingly well, especially considering how vastly the mechanics for 3.5 and 4e differ from each other. I had gotten the core book for 13th Age less than a year after the 4-year D&D campaign that I ran wrapped up. I remember thinking at the time that this is the game that 4th Edition should have been and that I very likely would have run A Time of Dragons using this system had it been available then.

Sadly, I’ve only gotten to play an actual game of 13th Age a handful of times, when I ran a very short-lived campaign for two of my friends. The campaign got off to an exciting, memorable start, but life events and schedule changes soon after caused our tiny group and campaign to dissolve. But I happily can say that the experience of playing 13th Age lived up to the expectations that had formed in my mind after reading the core rulebook.

The system is for experienced players. Like 5e, the focus is on storytelling, and 13th Age lends itself more to theater of the mind style play, even more than 5e. The blend of 4e-style combat mechanics with this style of play is truly an impressive feat, considering how trying to play through a battle in 4e without miniatures and a battle map makes about as much sense as using Windows without a mouse — technically possible, but utterly impractical. The game leans heavily on the improv skills of the GM and players, and those with the ability and willingness to put in the effort to create a collaborative story will be rewarded with many memorable moments, as my players and I were despite being able to play only a few sessions.

Since getting the core book for 13th Age, I’ve added a few other items to my collection. A copy of 13 True Ways was something that’s been on my radar almost from the start, but I only recently acquired one. I didn’t participate in the Kickstarter for 13 True Ways because I hadn’t even heard of 13th Age until after it was over, but I almost certainly would have if I had been aware of this game at that time. Although I haven’t played 13th Age in several years, it’s definitely something I want to revisit again, and even just paging through 13 True Ways has reminded me of how much I like this game.

Rounding out the collection

Nearly 10 years ago, during the early stages of running what grew into an epic, 4-year D&D campaign that I ran for my friends, we faced a crucial decision. I had been running what I had envisioned as a narrative miniatures campaign using a very light set of rules (along with the setting) adapted from Reaper’s miniature game, Warlord. However, a few games in, because of the strong storytelling aspect of the games, as my players naturally started approaching the scenarios with more of an RPG mindset rather than one geared for a miniatures game, I realized it made more sense to transition to a bona-fide RPG rather than continuing to wing it using the rules-light system that I had cobbled together. The question was, which system to use?

Interestingly enough, the timing of this transition coincided with the end of 3.5, and the impending arrival of 4e. Pathfinder was also in its nascent, pre-published form, having recently been announced as well. Other than my wife and myself, everyone involved in that campaign had little experience with tabletop gaming, and none at all when it came to D&D, so I had the luxury and privilege of deciding essentially on my own which system our group would use. I decided relatively early on that it would be between 3.5 or 4e. Pathfinder looked interesting, but I wanted to go with something that was already (or about to be) published rather than waiting another year before being able to get my hands on printed versions of the core books (I did ultimately adopt a few of Pathfinder’s mechanics for sorcerers into the campaign, however).

Like many other gamers, some of the things I had seen in previews for 4e had me concerned, but overall, I thought it looked promising, so I kept an open mind before its release. I was eager to try it out and got to play in a demo game with my wife and one of our friends shortly after its release. My response at the time was that I thought it was ok. We had fun with the demo and had a couple of memorable story moments, but it felt like too much of the focus of gameplay was on the mechanics themselves rather than having the mechanics facilitate the gameplay experience that is unique to tabletop RPGs.

Another 4e demo game sometime later, plus some forays as an observer in the edition wars confirmed my initial thoughts. I’m not offering any new insights here, but for the record, my thoughts about 4e can be summed up this way: it was a radical departure from previous versions of D&D. This didn’t make it a bad game, but one could arguably say that this did make made it a bad D&D game. I think the description of it being essentially a tabletop version of an MMORPG, with its emphasis on powers, even for things like basic melee attacks, and the frequency at which they could be used, is a fair one. That being said, while it may have been a bad D&D game, it excelled at what it was designed for: gameplay that focused on small-scale, tactical combat.

Had it been marketed as something other than the next edition of D&D (or possibly even as a spin-off game based on D&D), there would probably have been little controversy. Of course, the trade-off would’ve been not being able to lean on the D&D brand to help market the game and boost sales — not to mention the logistics and potential problems involved in supporting multiple product lines (which TSR had already experienced previously in its history). Then again, while WOTC/Hasbro were able to leverage the D&D brand to boost sales, it’s reasonable to question whether or not the resulting damage to the brand from the controversy surrounding 4th Edition was worth it.

I decided to go with 3.5 for the campaign. It had officially come to the end of its life cycle, but it was a new system for me and and my gaming group. My friends and I switched the campaign over to the new rules. It successfully ran its course over the next several years, with the PCs going from low-level fledglings to 15th-level heroes by the end. At the same time, I saw my collection of 3.5 books fill out from the three core books to taking up a decent amount of space on my shelf. Since that time, 4e also ran its course, and we’ve seen the advent of 5e. I’ve picked up many of the 5e books and even added a smattering of 4th edition books to my collection — but not the core books themselves.

A year or two ago, I decided that although I’m not terribly fond of 4th edition, given that D&D has been a part of my life for so long, I wanted have at least the core books as part of my collection. to own a copy of every edition of the game. I would occasionally search online and at Half Price Books, but I was never thrilled with the prices I saw for the condition that the books were in — for a relatively unpopular edition, the books still seem to be steadily climbing in price as time goes on.

I actually hadn’t thought much about them in a while, but as luck would have it, I recently came across someone selling a brand-new set online for a steal, and I jumped on it without any hesitation. The books have since arrived and found a new home on my shelf, and I now own a set of core books for every edition of the game.

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Anyone else just realize that the dragon on the cover of the DMG is scrying on the heroes on the cover of the Player’s Handbook?

 

 

Well, complete except for the 2nd Edition Monstrous Manual that I lent out to some old friends over a decade ago… And everything starting from AD&D 1st Edition, anyway; I’ve never actually owned a Basic set – Red Box, White Box, original, reprint, or otherwise. Not yet, at least.

It’s the simple things

This is totally a first world problem.

One of the pain points with King of Tokyo when playing the full game (which is the best way to play it, unless you’re playing with young kids or adults who are complete gaming neophytes) is having the components divided up among three separate boxes, each with a very specific layout for which parts go in which box, and where. This has always been a small irritation for me, particularly when putting the game away, as the process seemed to take longer and be more difficult than it should. A small irritation, but one that slightly mars an otherwise enjoyable gameplay experience.

I’ve owned King of Tokyo and both expansions for several years and have tried several times to come up with a solution to make setup and cleanup simpler and easier. I had found an organizer on Thingiverse a while ago, but I can be pretty dense sometimes. I finally got smart recently and printed it up. It works perfectly, allowing all of the game components to be stored together in the box for the base game, and allowing all types of similar components to be stored in a single compartment.

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Note that the organizer is nearly as deep as the box, so there’s a second layer of dice underneath.

 

I think the jigsaw design may be a bit over-engineered, because even without the interlocking tabs, once placed inside the box, the four parts of the organizer would have fit snugly inside with no room to slide around. Plus, I had a few issues with getting the parts to fit together smoothly (easily solved with a hammer), but this is likely attributable to shrinkage issues and other minor imperfections in the printing process. I also expanded some of the compartments by a millimeter in each dimension to allow a better fit for sleeved cards and to make it easier to put away the dice. Overall, a simple, elegant design that works great!

Something interesting and weird to start 2018

Something I just learned today: in 1990, a video game company called Color Dreams went to some pretty significant lengths to create a game for the NES based on the movie Hellraiser. It’s a short, but interesting read, even if you’re not particularly into video game history. Someone must have really enjoyed seeing Hellraiser to go to the lengths described here to attempt to adapt it into a video game, not the least of which being developing new (and expensive) hardware and programming tricks to enable Nintendo’s old workhouse to be able to run the kind of game they envisioned.

But there’s no need for me to rehash the same information here. The aspect of this story that I’m focusing on is how after this project failed, Color Dreams went on to rebrand as Wisdom Tree, releasing a slew of Bible-themed games for the NES and Super NES that, from what I gather, featured almost universally awful gameplay. I actually owned and played through one of these games as a kid: a blatant Zelda clone called Spiritual Warfare. It actually wasn’t too terrible, and the gameplay was fairly solid. But that’s not too surprising considering that it’s no exaggeration to describe it as essentially a reskin of the original Legend of Zelda.

While I was already familiar with Wisdom Tree, I didn’t know about their earlier start as Color Dreams. I’ve written some about how the moral panic surrounding D&D (not to mention heavy metal and other aspects of pop culture) impacted me as a kid. It would have been really interesting to see how the panickers of the time would have reacted if they had learned that the religious-themed video games being sold in Christian bookstores were made by a company that had been previously working on a Hellraiser video game before its rebranding (or maybe “conversion” would be more apropos?).

Also, since I mentioned Zelda and have been on a Breath of the Wild kick with my family lately, if you’re a Zelda fan as well, look up “Ancient Stone Tablets” if you don’t already know what this is.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

I’m doing some traveling with my wife and daughter for Christmas this year visiting some family members that we don’t get to see that often. Part of this evening’s festivities was playing an ignominious little game that I will refer to only as “LCR”, a non-game “game” that possesses the exact same level of strategy and tactics as Candyland and Bingo (or, the i.e., none).

Although I felt like I was betraying my identity as a tabletop gamer in some way by participating, you make sacrifices for family. And even though LCR isn’t really a game, it was a fun diversion that managed to bridge the gap between young an old and be something that family members spanning four generations could participate in and enjoy together. And in this case, it probably did it better than any board game could.

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Oh yeah, my mom ended up winning the pot and decided to split it up equally between her four grandkids. 🙂