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.

Advertisements

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.

20171225_183341

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

Breath of the Wild-Inspired World Map

We’ve been playing Breath of the Wild as a family lately, and constantly referring to he map while exploring this huge game has inspired my six year old to create a map of her own, “Crystalworld.” She points out that the orange and green land masses have share a similar design, a concept inspired by the “Dueling Peaks” mountains in Breath of the Wild. We’ll have to wait and see if further development of the history, places, and people that make up this world will be forthcoming.

SAM_4836.JPG

Some Thoughts on the GW-FFG split – Part 2

A little less than a year after it was announced that Fantasy Flight and Games Workshop would be parting ways, WizKids just announced that they’re partnering with Games Workshop to “extend the Warhammer 40,000 universe IP across multiple categories, including, Dice Building Games™, board games and more… WizKids will create two new board games, along with dice games based in the Warhammer 40,000 universe, with additional plans to republish classic board games Fury of Dracula and Relic.”

So, basically what FFG had been doing up until about a year ago. I think Nicolas Cage’s character in Con Air summed up my assessment of this new situation the best:

1xw7f0.jpg

In this scene, there’s a ’67 Corvette Sting Ray tethered to the back of a C-123 transport aircraft. While it’s in flight.

 

Nothing against WizKids (I really wanted to like D&D Attack Wing!), but in terms of board games and miniatures, they’ve always seemed like the store-brand alternative to the more expensive name-brand. I suppose if you’re a Trekkie you’d go for Star Trek Attack Wing over X-Wing Miniatures, but the general consensus is that X-Wing is the better game (both in terms of quality of the components and the game itself), and it’s certainly the more popular one. So for Games Workshop to be partnering with them less than a year after announcing their split with FFG seems like a major step down for them.

I had always assumed that it was GW that wanted to end the arrangement with FFG because I couldn’t see the upside of FFG wanting to break away, but maybe this wasn’t the case. Of course, I’m only speculating without the benefit of insider knowledge, so maybe there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation, similar to how the events of Con Air naturally led to a ’67 Corvette Sting Ray being tethered to the back of a C-123 transport aircraft while it is was flight.

Or hey, it’s 2017. We’ve got a pair of infantile man-children at the helm of two different countries playing chicken with their nations’ nuclear arsenals, the Cubs have a shot at winning the World Series for a second year in a row, and Princess Leia is dead*. Maybe GW partnering with WizKids instead of FFG is just part of the new normal.

 

*I’m not speculating on Leia’s fate based on the trailer for The Last Jedi that was recently released; I’m referring to Carrie Fisher. Still haven’t gotten over that one.

“THAC0” appears in the 5e PHB!

Came across this (admittedly extremely old-school gamer nerdy) Easter egg the other day while scouring the index in the back of the D&D 5th edition Player’s Handbook for something else entirely:

THAC0

I was already aware of the “couch gag”-style blurbs that appear at the front of each book because I’m just the type of person who looks at that part of the book; but I hadn’t heard about THAC0 being included as entry in the index. Sure, it just redirects you to the entry for “attack roll,” but the fact that it actually appears in printed form at all serves both as an inside joke for old-school gamers that’s sure to confound anyone who started playing D&D with 3rd Edition and later, and further indication of Wizard’s dedication to reaching out and reuniting D&D players under one banner.

Some Thoughts on Lords of Waterdeep

At just over five years old, Lords of Waterdeep is a modern classic — which is a polite way of saying that, in boardgame years, it’s kind of old. On the other hand, considering that it’s still being played five years later demonstrates that it’s withstood the test of time thus far; personally, I’ll rarely turn down an opportunity to play it.

We had six guys at our recent game night — slightly more than our usual four or five. Most of the games in our respective collections top out at five or less. Furthermore, Ty was joining us the first time, so we wanted to avoid jumping too far into the deep end right away. These parameters narrowed down our options pretty significantly. Fortunately he did have some prior gaming experience (including playing D&D), so Lords of Waterdeep fit the bill perfectly.

At its core, Lords of Waterdeep is a fairly straightforward worker-placement game. Each player, taking on the role of one of the hidden (as in, secret) lords of the City of Splendors, sends their agents out to various locations around the city to recruit adventurers to go out and complete quests. The rewards for completing quests normally come in the form of influence over the city, represented by victory points, but they can also take the form of gold or even additional adventurers. Taking a page from Ticket to Ride, each player is randomly assigned a lord at the start of the game which gives them bonus points at the end, typically based on types of quests completed, but there are a few exceptions.

There are five basic resources in the game: four types of adventurers (fighters, rogues, clerics, wizards) and gold coins. Each quest requires a specific group of adventurers, and frequently a sum of gold as well. Gold is also used to purchase buildings — other locations around the city where agents can be sent in order to recruit adventurers, earn gold, or gain other types of benefits, ranging from the relatively mundane to the quite powerful. Of course, this being a worker-placement game, there is also a sixth resource, the most precious one of all, hidden in plain sight: the number of actions available to you over the course of the game, represented by the number of agents under your control. Each player has the same number of agents throughout the game, but there are a few ways to do some “sequence breaking” and acquire additional actions.

Everything functions within a fairly tight set of parameters. Although not explicitly stated, there’s a firm exchange rate in place on the relative value of adventurers, which can be seen with a little effort by comparing the number of adventurers required to complete a quest with the rewards that it yields. Essentially, two coins equals one fighter or rogue, and two fighters or rogues (or one of each) is equal to one cleric or wizard. The starting locations also bear this out, as you can recruit fighters and rogues in pairs at their usual hangouts, but only a single cleric or wizard at their respective locations. There’s also a starting location that earns you four coins.

There is a clear effort in the design to balance all of the moving parts and for the benefits of each action to be incremental and sometimes even beneficial for multiple parties. For example, when a player sends an agent to building, that player receives the reward for placing their agent there, but the owner also receives a small bonus as well. Likewise, Intrigue Cards will frequently provide a bonus to multiple players, not just the one who plays it. Even Intrigue Cards that attack other players aren’t terribly punishing.

The board is reasonably sized, but you’ll never have too much space available to play this game.

 

For those steeped in D&D lore (specifically, the Forgotten Realms campaign setting), the game takes on extra flavor and immersion. The quests themselves are fairly thematic. For example, a mission to break into an ancient crypt is primarily rogues’ work, but a wizard or two may be necessary in order to assist with any magical dangers that may be present.

On the other hand, a common criticism of game is that the theme feels tacked-on. This is a fair assessment, and something that will be felt most acutely by those who are not familiar with the setting. Extrapolating from the name of a quest why a particular group of adventurers is needed requires a little imagination on the parts of the players, and being familiar well-versed with D&D, or fantasy tropes in general at the very least, is definitely helpful in this regard. Making the extra effort to refer to the cubes as the type of adventurers that they represent (not simply by their color) along with reading the little bits of flavor text that are present on the Quest and Intrigue cards will also go a long way for creating a sense of immersion.

The tight design of Lord’s of Waterdeep, whileone of its greatest strengths, is also an easy target for criticism. For all of the flavor present in the quests, there really is no differentiating one type of quest from another. Sure, Piety quests will typically require clerics and Skullduggery will require rogues, but they’re all simply worth points in the end based on a fairly straightforward calculation and they are mechanically identical; the only reason to choose one over another is based on the particular lord you’ve drawn and the types of quests they earn bonus points for.

The burdens that accompany the role of being one of the hidden lords of Waterdeep proved to be too much for Spike.

 

Expansions
Lords of Waterdeep has two expansions available (or “modules” as they are referred to within the game, a nod to classic D&D lingo): Undermountain and Skullport. Both come in a single expansion set called Scoundrels of Skullport (a questionable marketing move since by focusing on “Skullport,” the name downplays the fact that there are two expansions present in the package).

Undermountain is basically what Prosperity is to Dominion: no changes to core mechanics or gameplay, just more of it, bigger and better. It adds a new section to the board with several powerful areas where lords can send their agents, along with bigger quests that require larger groups of adventurers going for bigger payoffs, and more expensive buildings that provide greater benefits to their patrons. It adds a new layer of decision-making: is it better to complete several lower-point quests, or go for more difficult but higher-value ones? Worker-placement games are fundamentally about action economy and determining optimal moves. It takes fewer actions to complete a single higher-value quest, but it requires more actions to recruit the requisite number of adventurers, so it’s not always clear which is the better decision.

I’m not sure if there’s a direct Dominion analog for Skullport. Alchemy would probably be the closest because, as with Alchemy, Skullport also adds a new resource type and with it, new mechanics: corruption. “Resource” is actually a misnomer because, while it must be carefully managed, it’s a negative side effect that comes frim sending agents down into Skullport, the seedy (literal) underbelly of Waterdeep, represented by another separate board with new starting locations, or by participating in particularly unsavory actions (new quests and Intrigue Cards). The payoffs for sending your agents to these places is significantly greater than for sending them to the more reputable parts of the city, but they come at a steep price — represented by subtracting victory points for every corruption token that you possess (or does they possess you?) at the end of the game. In a really clever example of game design, the tokens start out on a corruption track and are removed as players earn them, revealing a progressively worse negative value for each token. A small taste of corruption can help an ambitious lord get ahead; too much will easily bury him or her in the end. As with Undermountain, Skullport introduces its own set of new buildings, quests, and Intrigue Cards.

Each expansion adds three new lords to the game, with benefits that are more interesting than the standard “earn 4 victory points for these two types of quests” from the base game. In our gaming group, we have a house rule where we divide the lords according to whether they come from the base game or the expansions. Each player is randomly given one from each group and chooses the one that they wish to play as. My personal favorite is the beholder crime lord of Skullport known as the Xanathar.

In a nearly complete inversion of the corruption mechanic, and one of the rare instances where the mechanics and theme of using a particular lord converge, the Xanathar actually scores 4 VP for each corruption token at the end of the game. The catch is that he still takes the penalty as well. Effective play with the Xanathar comes down to making the most of locations and quests that confer corruption, carving out enough of a lead over the other players during the game in order to still be in the lead even after lords are revealed and bonus points for quest type are awarded. This is decidedly not how it turned out for me during my group’s last game.

I got the Xanathar! Oh, happy day.

 

We played the full version of the game, using both expansions, and I was thrilled that I drew the Xanathar as one of my lords. However, I ended up struggling to score many points during the game, due to a combination of some sub-optimal choices I made early on, as well as the vissicitudes of the game, particularly which quests came up. There was a relatively low number of the big 40-point quests that showed up, which meant that they were even more valuable when someone was able to score one. Despite having a fairly high number of completed quests none of them were of the coveted 40-point variety, and I finished in fourth place.

My resources and completed quests at the end of the game. Needs more points.

 

For almost the entire game, it appeared that Nick was going to finish closer to the bottom than the top. Nick has earned the reputation of being our resident game shark, so no matter who wins, it’s always at least a minor victory for everyone else as long as it’s not him. [Just kidding, Nick, you’re awesome! Please don’t take umbrage and destroy me even worse in whatever game we play next!] However, in the last round, he pulled off an impressive combo involving a couple of different Intrigue cards and Quests, rocketing past several other players on the score track, and finishing tied with Joe at a respectable 124 points after bonus points were tallied. Of course, being Nick, he ended the game with more coins in his tavern than Joe, winning the tie-breaker and the game.

Although it wasn’t a very good showing for me, I got to make some fun plays over the course of the game. I drew an “Open Lord” Intrigue Card early on. Playing it meant that I revealed to everyone that I was, in fact, the Xanathar, but it also made me immune to Mandatory Quests and other attacks from the other players for the remainder of the game. I was also able to complete the “Unleash Crime Spree” quest during my final turn, true to form for the Xanathar and a (im)moral victory at least. I may not have won, but I got to tell a fun story with the quests that I completed.

It was an enjoyable game with an exciting and unbelievable ending, and I’m happy to have logged another play with this classic.