Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Space Hulk 3rd Edition – Kicking Ass And Taking Names Since 1989

Every once in a great while a game comes along that transcends time and space, and manages to transport the player into the universe the game resides in. Right through the looking glass, down the rabbit hole, and into a world of the designer’s making where you find yourself gritting your teeth as your heroes face insurmountable odds and are staring death in the face at every turn. Any game that gives you this experience is clearly a cut above the rest, but to do it over and over again throughout hundreds of plays, well, that’s simply bloody brilliant. You just don’t get anything like that these days, normally, but out of the abyss was recently pulled such a work of sheer brilliance and timeless perfection that I felt it my duty to make sure that every one of my readers knows that this game should not be passed up for any reason. The game is the 3rd edition of the one, and the only, Space Hulk.

I know many of you hate Games Workshop for what they did to their fan base by writing letters of “cease and desist” en masse like an indigent forging stolen checks for cheap liquor all around town. I understand the reasons that many of you may despise them like a bee sting to the scrotum, but this is not a valid reason to preclude you from acquiring a copy of this game, even if you have to sell a lung to do it. Space Hulk may be the single greatest board game ever made, and the 3rd edition is a work of art that is both a beauty to behold and is far less a game than an experience. Any game that has the ability to make you care about the characters as if you were personally related to them and cause you to sweat profusely from its intense, maddening feel is just too amazing to pass up simply because the guys who produced it have a bunch of overzealous, cockweasely barristers. You just need to shed your nerd-rage and get a copy, and that’s that.

Allow me to get into the history of Space Hulk briefly before getting deeper into this latest iteration, to provide some perspective on how this all came about: Twenty years ago in 1989, Games Workshop produced a game that would forever change the way that people viewed wargames, and it was magnificent. It contained a level of quality that was unrivalled at the time for a stand-alone board game, containing myriad interlocking modular tiles that were amazingly illustrated, even by today’s standards, and a mountain of plastic soldiers and aliens that surpassed anything on the market then and is easily on par with the best games available today.

Space Hulk’s box had the tagline of “Man Versus Alien In Desperate Battle”, which is without a doubt the single most bad ass tagline for a game ever. Better yet, it was completely true to the gameplay. Although complex both in theme and interactive mechanics, the game was actually quite easy to play, with rules that were completely ahead of their time in effective and elegant simplicity as well as tactical accuracy. The concept was simple: Space Marines were to board a derelict, giant conglomeration of parts that were equally spaceship and celestial body, called a “Space Hulk”. These Marines’ mission was to embark upon a righteous and glorious campaign to rid the Hulk of a terrifying scourge; a seemingly infinite horde of alien horrors, the Genestealers, and to recover any alien technology.

These missions had the undermanned Space Marines plodding along narrow corridors with far too many entries and corners to effectively defend, facing Genestealer aliens who craved nothing more than to claw open the Marines’ armored suits and tear their throats out just to hear a last dying gasp of, “Emperor, why have you abandoned me?” The sheer level of intensity when a line of Genestealers is moving forward was enough to make the toughest gamer sweat, and that alone made it unique, and what made it the masterpiece it was.

Two expansions were released shortly after the initial printing of Space Hulk, both of which changed the game substantially. The first was called “Deathwing”, which focused on bolstering the Marines capabilities via new weapons, and more importantly, with the inclusion of a new character, the Librarian, who was equipped with arcane powers. The expansion also included expanded rules as well as a new set of missions which really provided a unique new scope to the game. The second expansion was called Genestealers, and had new Genestealer forces called Hybrids, as well as expanding the game via a complete package of psychic combat rules.

During the time before the 2nd edition of Space Hulk was released, both the White Dwarf and Citadel Journals magazines expanded the game even further with some new rules and scenarios. Much of this was later reprinted along with a good deal of new materials in what became the Holy Grail of Space Hulk, the much sought-after compendium called “Space Hulk Campaigns”, which was a hardcover publication initially in 1991 and was later reprinted in paperback in 1993.

Fast forward to 1996, and out came the 2nd edition of Space Hulk. It was again a visual masterpiece, with highly detailed miniatures and a new array of even better looking tiles, but the rule changes made in this version were so massive and actually took quite a bit from the original recipe that it was largely used by the owners only for the upgraded art, tiles, and models while continuing to play with the 1st edition rules. I mean, they even changed the tagline, which was a move of the highest level of stupidity I can imagine. That being said, the artwork was a great improvement over the already exceptional original, so it sold reasonably well, but then died on the vine despite a large, rabid fan base.

Finally, after a tremendously long 13 year hiatus, the 3rd edition of Space Hulk was released in September of 2009, and it’s simply the best iteration of what is arguably the best board game ever made. The miniatures are beyond compare and put even the best models that Fantasy Flight has to shame. Instead of each faction having identical models, almost every Space Marine is completely unique, as are the Genestealers. Although the models are the best that I have ever seen in my 26+ years of gaming, the modular tiles are, without reservation, the most utterly superb game artwork ever envisioned by man. They’re masterfully embossed, with the space separations and thematic artwork raised several 32# paper thicknesses higher than the depressions. To top off the embossing, the glossy tiles are amazingly well drawn and absolutely give you the feel of a dark, desolate, abandoned freighter. In short, everything in this new edition is truly in a class of its own and should be viewed as the metric by which all other games are judged. The rules took a step back to the original 1st edition, with many of the 2nd edition rules being relegated to the scrap heap of history, but new rules were added as well, making this game as close to perfect as I can imagine.

Now that you know the history of Space Hulk, let’s move onto the components. When you crack open the game, you’ll be met by what feels like hundreds of 9x11 sheets of markers, terrain tiles, some very cool looking dice, an hourglass, and the best part, several sprues of plastic figures that hold untold legions of Space Marines, Genestealers, and some campaign items such as a small robot, a chalice, and a fallen Marine on a throne. Although none of the models are painted, they are of the highest caliber of sculpting and are reasonably easy to assemble, provided you’ve had even a pittance of experience in your lifetime in the art of building models.

There are also two books within; one is the rulebook that explain the mechanics of the game and the other is the campaign book that walks you through the missions, in a narrative and exciting format, complete with illustrations that show you exactly how to assemble the portion of the hulk that you’re planning to cleanse. On the back of one book is an excellent quick reference guide that helps resolve almost every possible query you might have during play, and the other book contains a portrait of each of the Marines, perfectly painted, as a guide to use should you decide to paint your troops. The box art is astoundingly good, and along the edges reside photos of fully painted Genestealers should you elect to paint them as well. If I recall, there’s even a reference on which precise paints and inks to use in order to duplicate the magnificently painted sculptures.

It is very difficult to explain what the object of Space Hulk is due to the “sandbox” nature of the game system, so I’ll discuss the game in generalizations. The tiles are laid out in either a prescribed configuration or one of your own design, and the players mark the entry points for the Marines, the entry points for the Genestealers, and the objective which the Marines are attempting to fulfill, depending on the scenario chosen. All of these points are indicated via the wonderful markers provided within the game, and if the scenario calls for finding a specific item, you may place those models in the appropriate area.

The concepts of the game are essentially unchanged from its first iteration, with the Marines starting their assault in a predetermined room or rooms, and the Genestealers starting out as “blips” on the Marines’ scanners, indicated by blip tokens which the Genestealer moves in lieu of models. This mechanic allows the Genestealer player to move forces without revealing how many individual units of its forces are represented by the circular blip marker until a Marine views it directly within its line of sight. When a blip is seen by a Marine, the Genestealer player immediately reveals it and places the indicated number of models in the adjacent spaces. Further, while the Genestealer player can take as long as they want to plot and execute the insidious plan of wanton destruction upon the Marines, the Marine player is limited in the amount of time that can be spent on any given turn by the included sand timer, giving a level of tension and urgency that is not often found in wargames.During their turn the Marines can perform certain actions, such as moving, turning, and firing upon the enemy, where the Genestealers are limited, mainly, to moving and attacking Marines that are adjacent. Marines have ranged attacks, but up close and personal the Genestealers are simply unstoppable. If a Marine gets attacked by a Genestealer, the odds are very, very slim that they’ll survive, which again adds to the incredibly tense feel of Space Hulk. This forces the Genestealer and Marine players to play completely different strategies, and adds to the already limitless replayability by allowing players to switch sides between matches and get a completely different experience.

All that being said, the true magic of the game is in two mechanics that set the bar for all games that followed: The overwatch mechanic and the command point mechanic. Overwatch is a special game condition that costs a Marine a certain amount of action points to initiate and allows a Marine to take a shot at a target any time that anything comes into that Marine’s line of sight, as well as any time something within that line of sight moves or takes any other action. The downside of overwatch mode is that if a Marine rolls doubles while taking shots, his gun jams. At that point, he must use the other mechanic, command points, to clear the jam and continue firing, provided he has command points remaining.

This simple mechanic adds a level of tension to the game that is unparalleled in any other game I’ve ever played, and is incredibly well executed. When a Genestealer is rushing toward a Marine and his gun jams, the Marine player will truly become panicked at the prospect of his Marine being torn to pieces, invoking true emotion, which is rare at best in a boardgame. It’s simply a cut above any other tactical combat mechanic I’ve ever seen.

The other interesting mechanic, the command point system, is a randomly assigned amount of extra actions that are allotted to the Marine side that can be used at any time to perform any legal action. This can be used during the Marine’s turn, or alternatively, to interrupt the Genestealer player’s turn. This mechanic gives the Marines a tactical advantage, but the overwhelming advantages granted the Genestealers due to their infinite supply of units and unlimited turn time are still formidable at best, and downright insurmountable at worst.

In short, this game is amazing, groundbreaking, and has a legacy that is simply unrivalled in wargames both modern and classic. If you don’t own this game, you need to, and if you think you won’t like it, you’re probably going to be pleasantly surprised.

Things That Make Space Hulk The Sistene Chapel Of Boardgaming:
*Overwatch is a marvel of game design and provides a level of pure intensity that is simply unequalled
*The art, components, models, and every single bit within the box is absolutely of the highest possible caliber of design, manufacture and execution
*The theme is so strong in this game you may actually have dreams of walking the catwalks and corridors of a Space Hulk
*The rules and mechanics are so well explained in the rulebook that one play will be enough to have you completely understand the game
*Every single decision you make is important and relevant to the outcome of the game
*The luck factor is definitely in Space Hulk, but it’s not just a dicefest in Chanceland

Things That Sadden The Emperor:
*The MSRP of the game is USD$100.00, which is a hell of a lot of money
*The Marine player usually loses, which can disenchant the simple-minded
*Games Workshop makes this, and they are being a bunch of douchebags lately

This is to boardgames what Biz Markie is to beatboxing. It is the Muhammed Ali of squad-based tactical wargames, and as I said before, I believe it to be one of the best games ever made. If you’re a complete eurolitest that has a genetic predisposition to hate dice, theme, and fun, you may not enjoy this game, but I hear farming is nice.
5/5 Stars

To learn more about Space Hulk, go to Board Game Geek, because Games Workshop was apparently a recipient of a Cease and Desist letter…I can’t find Space Hulk anywhere on their website:

Are you still reading this? Dude, go out and GET SPACE HULK! It may be another 10 years before they reprint it!

And as an aside, if you, Games Workshop, wish to cease-and-desist me for using these images, please review, in detail, Title 17 of the United States Code, specifically section 107, which defines Fair Use of a copyrighted work as:
"Notwithstanding the provisions of sections 106 and 106A, the fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright."

This is a criticism, commentary, and a news article, hence the copyright holders are not being infringed. In short, tell your slag lawyers to go fuck themselves and get back to doing what you do best: make exceptional games.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Sorry for the Hiatus...Working on Epic Engagements!

Sorry, Circusgoers, for the delays in writing a new article, but it's not because I'm's because I'm enthralled with a new game system that I've been developing for use with virtually any miniatures game bits, Epic Engagements.

Epic Engagements started with my interest in making Star Wars Miniatures: Starship Battles a fun, playable game versus the lame, boring dicefest that it is as delivered by Wizards of the Coast.  So, after creating an entire rulebook that completely fixes the game and makes it truly enjoyable to play, complete with rules for ramming, fighter launches and recoveries, new weapon abilites and whatnot, I realized that there's a ton of miniatures games out there that could take advantage of these rules, so I am in the process of redesigning this, complete with print-and-play spaceships (forgive the artwork, I'm great in business and as a writer I can hold my own, but as an aritst...not so much!), tokens, and statistics cards.  It's going to be....well....EPIC!

Just to show the love, please feel free to download my very lovely 24x36" Star Map (w/2-inch square spaces), it's a Superfly Original:

In other news, Wizkids/NECA has announced that it will be releasing a couple of Star Trek Miniatures games, one with Sulu and Kirk kicking the piss out of 4-armed green guys, Clix style, and the other is going to be a space-based combat game, Clix style.  The good news is that Epic Engagements can take these ships and use them in the game system if the Wizkids game sucks!  Woot!

Press Release Here:

Finally, to all the Dads out there, Happy belated Father's Day. It's great to have one day a year where the wife is obligated to get freaky with you and the kids actually listen to you. :)  Enjoy that tie, boys!

New article looking like it's going to be released on Wednesday, and this time it's going to cover a game we all know and love....SPACE HULK 3RD EDITION! That's right, boys and girls, the Game To Beat All Games will be reviewed right here, on the Circus.  If you didn't get it when it was re-released, well, "you done fucked up", as they say here in Kentucky.  It may be the best game ever, unless you think that "pretending to be a 15th century farmer" is a viable use of a Game Night, in which case, God love you, get your farm on and have a good time.

See you Wednesday!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Star Wars Miniatures: Starship Battles – How To Destroy A Licensed Product In One Easy Step

I am a big Star Wars fan, but not the type that walks around in Vader costumes or quotes Obi-Wan Kenobi on a daily basis. I just dig the movies; the whole “rebellion against a tyrannical government” theme and a soundtrack that changed filmmaking forever is more than enough reason to love a film. So, when Star Wars Miniatures: Starship Battles came out some years ago, I was jazzed, and I was thinking about picking up a starter. It was at the moment that I said “starter” in my head that I realized what a waste of money any “collectible” game is and decided to hold off until it went out of print so I could try it on the cheap.

Fast forward a couple of years to June 2010 when I noticed a Starter on sale for $32.99 at my local FLGS. I asked the guy at the counter to hold onto it for a couple of days, and he eagerly complied. I went home and broke out a can of Search-Fu, typing away to see what people thought about the game, check out some reviews, and see what it is all about. I also went to Ebay to see what a complete set would run in case the addictive portion of my psyche kicked in and forced me to get everything, and I was giddy to learn that the entire set could be mine for a mere hundred and fifty bones. It was at this point that I realized that people were generally pretty negative about the game and that it appears to have some serious issues with range and other little niggles. I also noticed a huge vacuum where there should be a bunch of reviews of the game, and so I decided, in the interest of journalism, I had to get a starter pack and a booster to run it through its paces.

I got the satchel of Force-powered goodness home and tore it open like a seven year old on Christmas, was delighted to see two capital ships, a Mon Calamari Destroyer, a Super Star Destroyer, and seven little baggies that contained all manner of fighters, complete with cool little stat cards. I was then sorely disappointed when I got past the ships and found a single D20 die, some of the cheapest, crappiest wound markers that have ever been printed, a completely bland, foldable, double-sided spacemap, and a crappy little rulebook whose high point was a cool catalog of the entire set in the back, complete with flavor text. There were some other bits of paper in there that appeared to have some purpose or another, but I waited until I read the rules to determine their purpose. All in all, the ships are really cool looking and appear to be pretty durable, although some of the fighters were bent to hell and back.

It was at this very moment that all of my hopes and dreams of epic combat above the orbital spheres of distant worlds were crushed like a wet paper sack full of vomit. Why, you ask? I read the rules, and they were as ridiculous as a condom dispenser at a Catholic church. The first thing I noticed is that the standard fleet size was listed at 300 points per team, and the starter set only included around 190 points per side, with one side having less points than the other. Even after I opened the booster, which only had about another 100 points or so of figures, I didn’t have enough to field the full 300 points per side that was listed as a standard fleet. Still, I liked the idea of Star Wars ships fighting in space, so I soldiered on.

The idea of the game is that you start with a group of capital ships, frigates, and corvettes in space on opposing sides of the spacemap, and the two sides duke it out until one side is completely destroyed. There are rules that allow for scenarios with victory objectives, but again, without the ability to field even fleets, this was going to be hard to get excited about. Further, the lack of weapons range rules indicated to me that the game would revolve around my two capital ships shooting the piss out of each other from opposing sides of the map, with little in the way of “action” other than rolling dice, and very few important decisions to make. In short, all ships can blast any other ships on the map, with the exception of fighters which can only attack or be attacked when adjacent to an opposing ship.

When setting up the battlefield, each side puts their Class One, Two and Three ships, which equate to the largest of ships to the smallest non-fighter transport ships, into play on their side of the map, with the Class Four fighters being held in reserve to be launched later. Each ship has a card associated with it that indicates the point value of the ship, the class of the ship, how many weapons the ship has, and which special powers it has, like whether it can launch fighters and how many fighters it can launch per turn. Each card also indicates how much damage a ship can absorb before being crippled, and when the ship has taken enough damage to be crippled, the card is flipped to the reverse which has lowered defense values, reduced weapon counts, and fewer special abilities.

Once the ships are set up, the game begins and is played in both phases and rounds. Each player rolls the D20 to see who gets initiative, and the winner of the roll is allowed to move their entire fleet. Each ship class moves up to the amount of spaces in its class, so Class One ships can move one space where Class Four ships may move 4. There are some logical restrictions on the largest of ships, such as that they cannot move diagonally where smaller, more maneuverable ships may. Once one side’s ships are moved, if any of their ships have fighter launch capability, they may launch up to their allotted amounts of fighters. Once the first team has moved, the opponent may move in the same manner. I should note that each ship has four defense ratings, one for each face of the ship, and some weapons may only be fired from one face of the ship, so the facing of capital ships makes a tremendous difference in both offensive and defensive capability.

Once all movement has occurred the fighting begins, and this is where the game falls apart like a cheap Dollar Store straw hat. Although each side takes a turn firing every weapon they have at any enemy target they want, except fighters who may only attack or be attacked by adjacent ships, the damage isn’t “official” until the end of the round when both sides resolve the combat. In other words, it’s a simultaneous action system, where everyone shoots at once with damage resolved after all parties have shot. This is a really interesting mechanic for the game, and it works really well, but the problem is that there is no imperative reason to ever move anything but your fighters. The lack of range rules makes this a really lame little dice tossing waste of time. The randomness of relying completely on the result of a dice roll makes this game always end with the capital ships launching fighters and shooting each other from a static position until only the fighters are left, duking it out until one side loses. There are even line of sight rules for the game, but since ships don’t block line of sight, and the map has not a single planet, asteroid, or other terrain feature to block line of sight, there’s simply no reason to even think about it.

It’s arguable that moving your capital ships is imperative to get a broadside shot on an enemy for the purpose of attacking the enemy ships’ flanks, where the defense rating is generally lower, but in the games we’ve played it’s a moot point because the capital ships are so heavily laden with attack bonuses that it amounts to a 50/50 shot of scoring a hit every single time you roll the dice. Fighters have a far higher defense rating, generally, but each capital ship also has a “point defense” attack that allows them to attack every adjacent fighter once per round in addition to normal attacks, so it becomes a game of attrition and sheer luck.

The last little rule that is interesting is the inclusion of a command point system, which works well. Some capital ships are allotted command points, which allow them to place a marker on a command sheet which allows a special action by all ships of the class that is chosen during that round. Once the command point is used, it is gone forever, so it’s important to use the points at the most effective time. It doesn’t save the game, but it does make it slightly more interesting as well as provide a hair more Star Wars feel to the game.

The final straw that broke my will to ever play this game again is that the price point is egregiously high, with a starter normally retailing for about thirty-five bones and each booster, which contains a measly seven ships, coming in at twenty bones. As noted before, one starter and a booster cost me about sixty bucks, and even with that outlay of cash I didn’t have enough ships to play the standard scenario. That’s complete bullshit. For that same money I could’ve bought Space Alert and Tikal, a Heroscape Master Set and two expansions, or any other variety of games that are far better and more fun to play. The only saving grace of Star Wars Miniatures: Starship Battles is that the ships are really cool to look at. There have been innumerable attempts by homebrew designers to fix the game, but none have caught on, so this really was a huge waste of time and money.

As of this writing, Wizards of the Coast has lost the license to Star Wars and this product line has been cancelled, with the original set being all that will ever surface. I am sure that this craptastic abortion of a product had something to do with this, inciting nerd rage against Wizards for making such a horrible rule set for a game that could’ve been exceptional, especially considering that Star Wars nerds will buy anything that has a Star Wars logo somewhere on the box. This is the second game that has come out from Hasbro and its subsidiaries with the word “epic” in the title: Star Wars: Epic Duels, and this game, Star Wars: Epic Fail. Well, that’s what it should’ve been called, anyway.

I want my damned sixty bucks back, and I want an apology from Wizards of the Coast for doing what they’ve done to this game, Heroscape, and pretty much anything they get their retarded hands on; completely ruin it and subsequently attempt to destroy the franchise.

Things That Exuded Executor-Class Kick Ass:
*The miniatures are very nice, and although the larger ships aren’t very detailed, they’re still cool
*The cards and the damaged ship mechanic is really interesting and is the high point in the design
*The command point system adds a modicum of control to the game, making it slightly less random and more interesting
*The simultaneous damage system is great and provides excellent balance to the attack phase

Things That Bled Womp Rat-Level Suck Ass:
*The lack of range rules was a huge oversight, and it’s clear that nobody playtested this, ever
*The fact that sixty dollars spent on a starter and a booster was not enough to play a standard match is a complete load of bullshit
*The double-sided starmap is completely bland, boring, and the exact same on both sides, except for the color of the planet that sits on one fringe of the map
*The damage marker chits are the cheapest, crappiest chits I have ever seen, and are rivaled in quality only by the worst print-and-play freebies on the market
*The simple fact is that the game is as boring as a blind man listening to old folks playing bocce

I sure would love to tell you that this is the most exciting, engaging space combat game ever, but I can’t. This game sucks, and I’m talking Jar-Jar Binks level of suckage here. I’m sure it could be fixed by some house rules, but I review games based on what they are, not what they could be, so, in short, don’t buy this game unless you have a clear-cut purpose for the cool little ships in mind beforehand.

1.5/5 Stars

At this point I’d tell you where to learn more about the game, but Wizards of the Coast is so embarrassed by this epic failure that they’ve completely deleted all reference to this game on their website. Try BGG if you really want to know more, or just look at this video of my buddy RJ kicking the crap out of some guys in a Shorin-Ryu demonstration, as it’s far more entertaining:

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Ghost Stories - One Part Jackie Chan, One Part Ghostbusters, Two Parts Priapism

First, let me tell you that "I ain't afraid of no ghost." I mention this because while I may not be "afraid of no ghost", the prospect of ever beating Ghost Stories scares the hell out of me. It's clearly haunted by the ghosts of the noted masons Ci Alis, Via Gra, and Levi Tra, because this game is just so damned hard, even on the easier levels. I've played it no less than 15 times with a multitude of different game groups, and I have yet to be party to a single win. That being said, it is a really fun little jaunt through a Wong Fei Hong film, but in this film, the bad guys win. To top it off, it’s as Ameritrashy as a Kentucky trailer park, but it’s smart like a euro game; I guess the analogy would be that Ghost Stories is the chemical engineer that lives in the trailer park, toying mercilessly with the toothless inhabitants of the park about the merits of fluoride.

This game's recent iteration as published by the powerhouse that is Asmodee Editions may be one of the hardest games I've ever played, but it's also one of the most fun cooperatives I've played. It's not as abstract as Pandemic, and it's not as light-hearted as Castle Panic, but it's easily as much fun as either of those games while being far more difficult than either. The art is superb on every single printed part, and the Chinese Kung Fu theme is soaked through to its soul. If only my Kung Fu was not so weak...

When you crack open the box, which is the standard bookshelf size, you'll be met with several rulebooks in different languages, four double sided player dashboards and several sheets of truly well illustrated chits which were manufactured with the best die cutting I have ever seen. The pieces glide off with an incredibly small effort, so when you remove them be sure to have the upturned box under them to catch them lest you lose one as I almost did. Next, there are about a hundred cards which all represent evil spirits, all superbly drawn and thematic to the hilt, and nine heavy cardstock village tiles with equally impressive art. Also, there's five dice, one of which is big, black, and loaded with evil, four plastic miniatures, in four colors, that represent your characters, and a handful of black, plastic ghost miniatures used to haunt spaces. Finally, and most hilariously, there are two little golden Buddha statues, complete with little pointy hats and chubby little bellies. The quality of everything in the box is superb, but with the myriad little bits you'll definitely want to bag these up separately. I ended up getting, through sheer luck alone, some little Plano boxes that fit perfectly within the box cavity and hold every bit separately, although I had to deface the cardboard insert to make room for the cards and the village tiles. It worked out really, really well, to be honest!

As noted, the premise of the game is that there are ghosts and Chinese monks battling, but let me get more into the meat of the theme. The idea of the game is that the Lord of The Nine Hells, Wu-Feng, has located his ashes in this little village, and if he gets them back he will wreak havoc upon the world. Luckily, four Taoist monks with all manner of superpowers are around to stop him, but he has an almost endless supply of minions he has summoned to fight for his cause. In short, there’s only one way to win, a ton of ways to lose, and there’s a ton of luck involved in the outcome.

Luck is the word of the day, because the only real way to do that is by rolling dice or spending a very limited supply of chits in lieu of dice rolls. The ghosts that materialize are also random, so getting certain combinations of ghosts coming up in quick succession can be an absolute killer for our brave heroes as well. That being said, even with all the luck, there's a ton of strategic options and the real spectre of the dreaded the real strategy in the game boils down to placing ghosts in the right slots at the right times, using the right powers at the right times, and having a coordinated strategy with your fellow wee monks. So, now that I've told you about what the game is about, let me tell you a bit more about the game itself. The game is playable by 1-4 players, but because it’s most fun with four, I’m going to explore that.

Setup is a breeze, and should only take a couple of minutes, provided you have your chits separated. First, each player takes a player board and decides which side they wish to use, as both sides are printed and almost identical, but each monk has two special, persistent powers that completely change the way each player acts, but only one power per player may be selected to use per game. Next, you lay the nine village tiles face-up in the center of the play area in three by three pattern, with the player boards being laid across each side. Chits are then handed out, with the amount being varied in the difficulty desired. In all game variants, though, players are given some amount of life tokens, a special Yin-Yang token that allows you to break a few rules, and one Tao token in the color of the player. Finally, you take an appropriate amount of “Incarnation of Wu-Feng” cards, and stuff them in the deck of regular ghosts at certain intervals as prescribed by the level of difficulty you elected to play at. These are the super-baddies, and defeating these is the only way to win the game, and on the easiest level of difficulty come into play 10 cards before the end of the deck. Once that stuff is done, you’re ready to rock.

Gameplay is fairly straightforward and is broken into the Yin and Yang phases, which translate roughly to the upkeep phase and the action phase. In the Yin phase, you first update your player dashboard and check that any effects are resolved, if any. Now each player board has space for three ghosts, and thus if you have three ghosts you lose a life and then move to the Yang phase. If you do not have 3 ghosts on your board, you draw a ghost from the ghost deck and resolve it. As noted before there are 4 colors of Taoist monk, and the ghosts come in those four colors as well as black. Ghosts of your color must be played to your board, and ghosts of other colors must be played to their respective boards, with one exception. Black ghosts, who are particularly nasty, must be played to your own board, if possible, otherwise may be passed to another player’s board.

The fun of Ghost Stories really begins on the Yang phase, where each action you take is critical. The first thing you can do is move your player one space in any direction to an adjacent village tile. You may then attack one or more ghosts that you are adjacent to, or alternatively, use the tile that you are currently on to perform an action. The tiles have a wide variety of powers such as killing any single ghost in exchange for a life point, taking a Tao token from the pool into your inventory, resurrecting a fallen Taoist, and so on.

Combat, however, is where the luck comes into play. You are allotted a default of 3 Tao dice, which are D6’ers with each side matching a ghost color, plus a white side that acts as a wild card. To kill a ghost, simply roll the dice and if enough of its color comes up, you win and it is defeated. If, perchance, you do not roll sufficiently, you can use the Tao tokens of the proper color to bridge the gap and defeat him, whereas the ghost is defeated and the Tao token goes back to the supply.

The ghosts themselves have powers as well. Some ghosts have abilities that come into play when they are first summoned, some have persistent abilities that force you to roll the black Curse Die, which has a 66.6% chance of causing ill effect, and the worst of the abilities ghosts have is the Haunter ability. The Haunter, when put on a board, has one of the black ghost miniatures placed on the card. Each turn the owning player takes, you move that Haunter figure forward one space toward the village, and on each second turn the ghost haunts a village tile and returns to its card, thereby repeating the cycle every two turns. When a village tile is haunted, it is flipped face-down and its action may no longer be used by the players. If three of these tiles in a row are haunted, game over, man. Some ghosts, when killed, also reward you in a variety of ways, such as with a life point, a Yin-Yang token, or Tao tokens. Some, however, curse you on the way out and cause you to roll the dreaded Black Curse Die of Doom. All in all, the order of killing ghosts is very important because some ghosts inhibit you from performing certain actions, steal your Tao dice, reducing your attack strength, or are immune to certain types of attack.

Play continues until either the players lose or the Incarnation of Wu-Feng comes into play, at which point the end-game begins. Players have roughly ten to defeat the scourge, because if the players run out of ghost cards to play before the incarnation is dead, they lose. The incarnations have special powers that make them a real terror to kill, such as only being able to be defeated if moved onto a dashboard space that is occupied by a Buddha statue. Defeat the final incarnation, and you win, defeating evil and restoring the village to its normal communist state.

Since I brought it up, I’d better explain the Buddha statues. There is a village tile that allows you to pick up a Buddha statue for later use, and once you have one you may place it on a player’s dashboard on an unoccupied ghost space, after taking all other actions, on any of your turns. These little dudes are chubby little ghostbusters, and if a ghost is placed on a tile that’s occupied by a Buddha, the Buddha goes back to its village tile and the ghost is killed instantly, without reward or ill effect taking place.

The final aspect I haven’t mentioned are the variable player powers. These are the single most important weapon in the Taoists’ arsenal, and they are as varied as the ghosts. The red Taoist has the option of either moving to any tile you wish on your turn, or alternatively moving your own Taoist and then another player’s Taoist. The yellow Taoist can either take a Tao token of its choice for free, or may curse a single ghost and reduce its defense value by one point. The green Taoist can either re-roll any or all of the dice it rolls on its turn, including the Curse die when applicable, or may instead opt to use a fourth Tao die in combat and be immune from being cursed. Finally, the blue Taoist may elect to have the ability to attack in addition to using its current village tile’s power, or alternatively make two attacks consecutively or use a village tile’s power twice consecutively. You choose your power at the beginning of the game, and it is both persistent throughout the game and may be used every turn for free.

The power selections you choose for yourself as well as the synergies between the other players’ selected powers truly make or break you, so careful discussion of which power you choose to use is vital. The rules state that the selection of the players and the powers is random, but after loss number 10 I’ve decided to drop that quicker than a bet on OJ Simpson’s innocence and choose which we want to play with. I’m sure that this was designed to extend the game’s replayability, but the game stands well enough on its own that I just don’t think it matters that much.

All in all, if you like ghosts, Chinese mythology, Kung Fu, Ameritrashy dice fests, cooperatives, and really tough thinking games, this game is for you. I bought this, yet again, with my own cash and I’ve fortunately not regretted it, even though I have gotten my ass kicked mercilessly fifteen or so consecutive times. This game is a total keeper and I highly recommend it.

Things That Prove Ghost Stories’ Kung Fu Is Strong:
*Smart, sophisticated gameplay make this a thinking person’s game
*Great, beautiful art and really interesting theme choice make this a beauty to behold
*Production quality is great, with every bit being appropriate and purposeful
*The replayability is phenomenal, as I’ve illustrated, and I still want to play it again, even knowing I’ll lose
*This game is unique in its blending of European and American styles; truly a treasure

Where Ghost Stories’ Kung Pao Chicken Tastes Like Dog:
*The difficulty can be absolutely tremendous, which might be a turn-off to lighter-fare lovers
*There rules took me several readings to understand, and without Universal Head I’d have been screwed

I have to say that this is one game that lives up to the hype. It’s a great fun, and can be played by all kinds of people with all kinds of tastes with all liking the game equally. I can only envision the snootiest pure Eurolitist not liking this, and it would be because dice come standard with the game. Pick this one up; it’s a winner.

4.0/5 Stars

For more paranormal research, check out Asmodee Editions Ghost Stories site:

And if you want to NOT read the manual 4 times before “getting it”, try the Headless Hollow’s “Freebies” Page here:

Friday, June 4, 2010

Last Night On Earth –A Magical Toolbox Of Fun Loaded With Rotting Flesh…And Dice

Well, after ample delays and a bizarre stint on Jury Duty that had me viewing several images and a video depicting feces, I finally have a moment to jot down my thoughts on a board game. Tonight’s review is of a fantastic game in the ever-popular genre of the walking dead, Last Night On Earth: The Zombie Game. I sure do loves me some zombies, too; you can’t help but admire the selfless flesh-eating ghouls as they decimate populations to solve both human overpopulation AND global famine in one fell swoop. I mean, that’s the definition of a philanthropist, right?

Anyhow, this little gem is published by our friends at Flying Frog Productions, and I'm here to tell you that it is unimpeachably the finest zombie combat-adventure game that I've ever played. It's engaging, fun, and the folks at Flying Frog have even gone so far as to utilize live actors for the overwhelming majority of the game’s art, which is a real departure from the norm. One look at the cover art and I was hooked; I plopped down 40 bones right then and there.

The art and photography is so well executed that the grim theme pours off of the box like blood off of a feeding zombie’s chin, creating a truly unique game experience. In fact, there is not a single “LARP Lightning Bolt Guy" hall of shame inductee in the whole box, and all of the imagery is dark and believable. The only drawn illustrations in the game are on the modular game boards and a few tokens, meaning that every piece of art is literally a stylized photograph of someone doing something sinister or heroic. The only complaint that I can see anyone having is that although many zombie flicks have a hot naked heroine catching some albino Cyclops at one point or another, there's no such luck here, so don't expect to see the Farmer’s Daughter doing the “Roadhouse” or the Nurse playing doctor.

Moving to the bits department, when you crack open the box you'll be met with a well illustrated and designed rulebook containing the core rules and depictions of important points that explains the game easily and completely. Additionally included is a truckload of plasticized, ultra-thick cards, a sun track that acts as a game timer, a wealth of miniatures cast in three colors, platoons of little D6 dice, six "L" shaped boards, one square central board, a bunch of chits that serve various purposes, and finally, a large hero dashboard depicting each hero figure along with several scenario cards. The plastic insert is also really well designed because once punched, all the bits fit in with little effort and are segregated by type. It’s as if they knew you’d bag every little bit, so they left space for that too, if you’re an organization freak like me. I never thought flying frogs had such masterful engineering skill, but I now stand corrected.

Truly, the best way that I can describe this game is to say that it is the ultimate zombie adventure toolbox. With the modular boards, the wide variety of cards for both the zombie and hero sides, and the multitude of chits that can be used in diverse ways to create your own scenarios, this game will never get old if you have even a microscopic semblance of an imagination. It is such a far-sighted game concept in that it allows you to “build your own adventure” at will, or use a stock scenario, and has continuously been enhanced by ample licensed expansion material.

Now usually I'd go into the premise of the game and opine on the merits of, or detriments to, the game's design but really, the game comes with a handful of stock scenarios that range from mass re-murder of the previously deceased all the way through to getting the hell out of Dodge in a beat up '55 Ford before the sun comes up. As described above, there's a tremendous flexibility in the ways to play the game and the game is really only limited by the owner's imagination. Flying Frog even has a free, downloadable template on their website to make them look like the real deal, if you create a great design you’d like to permanently include in your box for future use.

For instance, if you’re a Lovecraft fan, the game comes with a book item marker and bunch of numbered item markers, all of which are identical on the reverse side. These allow you to easily and quickly develop a scenario where you designate a turn limit for the game then randomly place all the markers and the book, face down, and have a hunt for the “Necronomicon of the Mad Arab Abdul Alhazred". Add a gas can marker, and now you not only need to find it, you need to burn it.

Alternatively, there's a tractor marker included as well as several gas can markers, so why not create a "Mow Them Down" scenario that requires the heroes to mulch a predetermined amount of zombies with the tractor within the turn limit, complete with a refueling requirement. It's simply a sandbox to build into whatever you wish, and it all works incredibly well. To illustrate the ease of creating new game experiences, the two scenarios I just wrote about I literally just came up with as I was typing them. They may not be incredibly creative, but the underlying mechanics are perfected to the point that almost anything you can come up with will have a natural balance between the sides.

Now that you know how easy it is to develop scenarios, I’d like to move you toward the underlying precepts of the game that drive the game engine. These are a constant between all the stock scenarios, and all scenarios will use certain components universally, starting with the turn timer, which essentially depicts the timeline between midnight and sunup. There are 20 numbered spaces on this track which gives you the latitude to make a game as long or short as you wish, with most scenarios ranging from 15 to 20 turns. This equates to an hour or an hour and a half playtime, depending on the turns allotted and the number of players actually playing.

Setup is very simple, with the players first selecting a scenario and then surrounding the appropriate face of the central board with four or more of the six L-shaped boards to create one large playing surface. The outer boards depict buildings and structures which act as the item warehouses that the hero players can search, and the central board depicts a field on one side and a manor house on the opposing side, allowing “home defense” scenarios.

Next, the game always requires four hero players and up to twelve zombies be fielded at the start of the scenario. This allows six players to join the feeding frenzy at most, and if fewer players are around the game scales very well down to a mano-a-mano slugfest. The figures themselves are well detailed little sculptures and are a bit of a bitch to paint, if you don’t have a very small brush or a steady hand, due to the fine lines and subtle features. The zombies are cast in brown and green plastics and the heroes are in the industry-standard grey plastic, but the heroes are, in my opinion, imminently more detailed, although the zombies are certainly very well done too.

Setup is that simple, and your large player dashboard cards tell you where to place your hero figures for starting positions where the available zombies get evenly dispersed on the extents of the board as denoted by big red X marks which denote a zombie spawning pit. Once you’ve placed your figures, the game is ready to rock.

Turns alternate between the hero side and the zombie side and the heroes have far more normal turn options than the zombies, but the zombies have an unlimited number of cards to draw from and always draw up to a limit of four before taking their turn. Zombies cannot pick up any weapons, and thus are resigned to playing cards that effect the game in other ways.

The Hero gameplay consists of phases, starting with movement or searching, then taking a shot if they’re armed with a ranged weapon, and then combating any foes within their space. To move, the player rolls a D6, and they get to move up to that many spaces. Instead of moving, they can elect to search a building, provided they inhabit one, which is one of the only ways that the heroes get cards drawn into their hands. Once the player has completed their movement or search action, they can take a pot shot at a zombie that happens to be within range of the hero’s weapon, provided they have one. This amounts to a simple D6 roll, generally, and the number needed to be rolled for a killshot varies with the weapon equipped. Many weapons also have a requirement to roll a failure check after use, which can result in depleting your ammunition or having the weapon explode, forcing you to discard it. Finally, if you end your turn in a space that contains zombies you must fight them, be it one or four, serially. I’ll get into combat in a second as it deserves its own paragraph.

After all heroes have taken their turn, the zombies step to the plate. First, the zombie player must move the turn timer down a space toward daybreak. Next, the zombie player rolls 2D6, and if the roll is higher than the amount of fielded zombies, you may take zombies from the never-ending pool into your reserve for deployment at the end of your turn. After determining what your reinforcement will be, you then draw zombie cards up to your limit of four, replenishing your hand. Movement comes next, with each zombie on the field moving one space in any direction unless they’re currently in a space with a hero, in which case they’re locked down, trying to get a snack. After all your movements have occurred, if you have any zombies engaged with a hero, combat ensues.

Speaking of cards, hero cards that are acquired through burglary of the town’s buildings may be weapons, items such as first aid kits which can heal heroes, or cards that can be played with persistent effects that can only be removed by a zombie player playing a cancel card. Zombie cards are primarily limited to one-time use combat enhancements, reinforcement enhancements, and cards that weaken the heroes in one manner or another. There are also two sets of cards for each team, basic and advanced, with the latter adding special abilities and game options and the former that have varying and more powerful effects than would be otherwise available. Cards can be played at any time, generally, with the exception of cards that have emboldened red lettering declaring that you must play them immediately. Again, these are also cancellable by the opponent playing a cancel card.

I don’t really do the cards justice when speaking in these bland terms as every card is tremendously thematic and provides a reason for an event to happen, such as the “This May Be Our Last Night On Earth” card with flavor text reading, “Give me some sugar, baby”. This particular card, when played, causes a male and female hero that are on the same space to lose a turn while “performing last rites” on one another. I suspect that they were specific about the co-ed requirement on the card to avoid an uncomfortable silence if a zombie player could elect to play that card when the Sheriff’s Son and the Priest are on the same square inside of the farmhouse.

To end this codex of ultimate wisdom of all things LNoE, let me finish up with the combat mechanics. Combat is really slick and different, with the zombies always rolling one die during a fight and heroes always rolling two dice unless a card power or weapon modifies these rules. A wound is inflicted upon a hero if neither of his dice are equal to or higher than that of the zombie's roll, but the zombies are only wounded if the hero player rolls doubles on any two of his dice, regardless of the denomination. If a hero doesn’t roll doubles but one of his dice is equal to or exceeds the zombie roll, the zombie is stunned and no damage is dealt. Heroes have multiple hit points, where a single wound inflicted on a standard zombie means instant and gruesome death to it, but when a hero is killed they don't just drop where they stand, they get back up as a zombie hero that has multiple hit points, as well as multiple combat dice, under control of the zombie side.

As noted, the event cards on both sides can counteract wounds being inflicted, change the amount of dice rolled, allow dice to be re-rolled, or all other manner of influence on the battle, and this doesn't even include the hero weapon cards, which are semi-persistent. These close combat weapon cards range from the fan-favorite chainsaw all the way through a baseball bat, a pitchfork, and my personal favorite, a big ass meat cleaver. To add to the carnage, advanced cards include some choice goodies such as dynamite, gasoline, and a lighter to create lovely pyrotechnic events that are equally effective for removing old tree stumps and bursting zombie torsos wholesale.

All things being considered, this is an exceptionally fun little romp through George Romeroland, and I would recommend this to anyone who likes Ameritrash, zombies, or horror genres. The art is indeed graphic, and may be inappropriate for small children, unless you’re OK with giving your kids the willies, in which case it’s good for the kids too. Either way, it’s on my list of games that will never be traded away and I expect that after a couple plays you will take that position too.

Reasons To Spawn This Game From Its Grave:
*The art is outstanding, making you feel like you’re playing a movie rather than a game
*The “toolbox” aspect of the design makes this game infinitely replayable
*The combat mechanic makes the game challenging, but not frustrating and unwinnable
*The card system is exceptional, with every card having purpose within the game
*It’s surprisingly easy to learn and play, with short turns and minimal downtime

Things That Should Have Stayed Dead:
*Trying to roll doubles with two dice in unarmed combat can ruin your day; get a weapon, posthaste
*The thickness and durability of the cards is nice, but they stick together a bit and are not conducive to shuffling

In short, these designers have blown away the competition in the zombie game arena on a scale of magnitude that I can only describe as being on parity with the destruction of Alderan by the Death Star. Last Night on Earth is just that good. If you like zombies, this is one hell of a ride through Romeroland.

4.75/5 Stars

For more investigation into the dark arts of necromancy, feel free to check out Flying Frog Productions’ page for Last Night On Earth here:

If you didn’t get the “LARP Lightning Bolt Guy” bit, you need to see this to understand:

Finally, because there’s a bazillion expansions, all of which you can buy direct from Flying Frog, here’s the page with everything listed but the kitchen sink: