Saturday, January 29, 2011

Crossroads at Darklion Pass - Magic, Math, and Might, In Technicolor

You all know I have a soft spot for small press publishers, so when I found out about Strategy Rich games, I was all over it. I contacted Steven Schroeder, the owner and chief designer, about his premiere game, Crossroads at Darklion Pass. He was kind enough to send one out, and as we chatted it showed that he not only loves the game, he truly believes in it. I really admire people who not only come up with a game design, but actually have the balls to publish it themselves, on their own dime, and get it to market, so "kudos" to Steven.

Now let's go back to the idea of loving a game, as a designer. It's OK to love your idea, but it's not without its dangers, the greatest of which is that when you fall in love with something, sometimes you get so caught up in the idea of it that you miss some of the flaws. In my estimation, Crossroads is a game full of cool concepts, some of which I haven't seen before, but that just didn't all quite gel together in as a final product. Not only is this game one of the least attractive games I've ever seen, based on its art direction, there are some design elements that sap the game of a lot of the fun that might've been had otherwise.

Some people have called this a "Dungeon Crawl" in the vein of Castle Ravenloft or Descent. First, let me tell you that anyone that thinks that has not a semblance of a  clue what they're talking about. This is NOT a dungeon crawl, and it's not even really an adventure game. The fact that it has a fantasy theme makes it seem a lot closer to a Runebound-style adventure game than a dungeon crawl, it's really more of a "race" game with an emphasis on hand management where the players try to get to the finish line before their opponents can outmaneuver them on the paths and out-kill them during quests. The fact that I absolutely adore adventure games, with Runebound likely being my all-time favorite game, made me thrilled as a virgin on his honeymoon to get a copy of this to try it on.

Now that I've played it three times, I have to say that, using the former analogy, it turns out that the new bride misplaced the key to her chastity belt. I sure wish that there were a few things that were different, because a lot of the really interesting aspects of the game were buried by poor artwork, very confusing and scattered game concepts regarding characters, and the fact that in many cases, simply walking around on the map will provide you more benefit than killing a demoniac creature. At no point was I able to suspend my disbelief and "feel" as if I was adventuring, and when you're playing an adventure game, that's the "fix" you're looking to score.

Speaking of that, let's get into what this game is really all about, shall we? The game has a party of two to six adventurers all travelling through the world on a set path, slaying vile creatures and earning experience points to enrich themselves and leave behind a legacy that would make Odysseus jealous. Yes, we all know it's been done before, but I'd argue that it has never been done like this.

In this game, each player actually has the opportunity to bid for each of the character roles in the game each time combat ensues, and there are many levels of depth to selecting which character to choose at which time. Because many of the treasures in the game are only truly effective for certain characters, it's imperative that you make sure to think about what your next move will be on every turn. Again, the object is not to defeat the monsters for the purpose of saving fair maidens and liberating their girlyparts, the object is to hose over your fellow adventurers at every opportunity and claim all the glory for yourself. While the players all travel together toward the end of the path, this is decidedly not a co-operative jaunt In reality, it's actually pretty nasty.

Now that you have an idea of what the game's all about, let's talk about the game "product" itself. The components have been derided as very amateur, but I wholeheartedly disagree. The bits serve their purpose well, and while some might have preferred wooden cubes to tiddlywinks, I don't think that the bits detract from the game one bit. I know some of us are bits whores that require hundreds of small plastic soldiers, fully outfitted for battle, but this game doesn't require that. What makes the game show very poorly is the spotty artwork. All of the art appears to be clip art with the exception of the board, which is the worst of all. To describe it, I will simply pass on a paraphrase of a comment that was issued when I laid the board down: "Sweet Mother of God...what the hell is that?? It looks like Rainbow Brite ate some bad Skittles and shit in the box!" Suffice it to say, it is very, very colorful as you can see, but the "theme" is questionable at best, and the best way I can describe it, in my own words, is that it looks like a video-to-board game port from a shareware, 256-color, VGA computer game.

The most problematic thing about the game as a whole, from a visual standpoint, isn't that the art is all bad. It's not. It's that some of the art looks really great while the rest is absolutely terrible. That being said, the actual quality of the board, cards, and bits is excellent. The smaller cards are thick and durable, and come with a great little cardboard tuckbox, while the larger cardboard cards re all thick and very durable as well. Were the art not so bad in spots, especially that board, this game would actually be, from a production quality standpoint, quite good. The final bit in this box is the character sheet tablet. This is actually a neat little concept that I've toyed with implementing in my games, and it works great for the game. There's ample sheets here to play maybe 25 four-player games, and there's no copyrighting on the sheets so you won't have a hassle at the local copy shop if you want to make more copies.

The only true disappointment about the complete package is that the game will require you to have an eraser handy, and the game only comes with one golf pencil, completely devoid of an eraser. This means that you will need to have one to play the game, so I have to point out that the game is not, in my estimation, a completely playable package. I'm sure there's a way to do it, but the nature of the character pads are such that you need to be able to erase by definition, and if I'm going to beat up Munchkin for not having a complete package, then I'm going to have to be consistent and do it here.

Now let's look at the setup, which is a total breeze. There's a bunch of stacks of cards you need to shuffle and sort by color, and then each player takes a predefined allotment of "Play cards" as a starting hand. Further, each player takes a colored chip to denote which dot on the board itself benefits them, as well as one of each of the three colored smaller chips. Finally, they take one character sheet and give themselves a name. In our first game, I chose "Darthak The Dragonraper" as my moniker. Once you're all set up, arbitrarily choose someone to be the first player, then hand over the Travel Leader card to them, which simply identifies their status. Place the party movement pawn on the start space, and you're now ready to slit throats.

The game itself is broken down into what amounts to six rounds, and within these rounds are two distinct phases, travelling and questing. To travel, the first player may discard Play cards, which have a footprint icon on the lower right side, and these feet indicate how many spaces you may move. The idea is to pass over the circles that have your color and gain 100 experience points, which is equivalent to one experience level. Thus, the vast majority of experience points you will earn during the entire game will be through this. Once the Travel Leader has moved the party, each player, in sequence, may do the same.

Landing on a treasure chest icon will allow the controlling player to take a treasure card, which can be a multitude of items or will simply be an experience bonus. When all players have indicated they wish to pass, a new Travel Leader is chosen, and each player takes two Play cards to replenish their deck, to a maximum of seven cards, the hand limit. Note that the only player that is actually mandated to cause movement is the Travel Leader; the other players aren't bound to actually spend cards if they choose not to. The travel phase ends when a Quest space is reached on the track, at which point the quest phase begins.

Questing is really simple, mechanically, at first. Starting with the Travel Leader, each player bids cards in order to become the Quest Leader. The Quest Leader is the player who may attack the monster first, which really doesn't matter much as every player gets a shot at the monster, but being Quest Leader allows you to place the Experience Multiplier tokens as well as be the first to choose which Character card they wish to play for the duration of the battle. There are eight to choose from, two each in four colors/types, and each has its advantages and disadvantages. Each type of character may only play attack cards of certain card colors, and thus it's possible to gang up on the leader and stop them from taking the color choice that he may want in order to cripple his ability to do damage to the monster, thus limiting his ability to earn experience. There's also the Experience Multiplier tokens, which players can place on the monster card itself to provide benefits or liabilities to character types by halving or doubling the experience earned in battle. At the end of the combat, Experience Multiplier tokens are lost forever, and each player only gets one of each color, excluding grey, so it is essential to play these at just the right time.

As noted, the quest begins with the bids and subsequent selection of characters at which point the Creature card is drawn along with a Damage card. Each creature has strengths and weaknesses to specific character types, and thus the draw can really change whether a player can gain a lot of experience or not in battle. That being said, due to the randomness of the card draws, you can be handed a fat lemon and be forced to make do with some very sour lemonade. After the creature has been revealed, the damage card is revealed and each player takes automatic damage based on the type of character selected. Once you've resolved damage, the actual combat begins for the players, and this is the very place where I, and all the players I played this game with, felt that the game really started to fall apart.

Combat starts with each player casting any "start of quest" spells, where players may use specific cards to elicit various effects upon the game. Further, some skills that were bought with experience allow players to effect the game as well, such as drawing free treasure cards or trading away one of your cards for a like card. Once everyone has done so, then combat actually begins.

Attacking the monster and resolving the attack amounts to a ton of inappropriate mathematics; you can combine up to three cards in an attack, and then on top of that, you may use the character skills you've purchased based on the color of the character you chose at the beginning of the quest. Early in the game, it's no biggie, but midway through the game it ends up seeming like an algebraic expression that needs solution rather than a game. It's not tough math, don't get me wrong; it's that keeping track of all the bonuses can get a bit overwhelming. Once you've tallied your bonuses, you roll the dice as determined by the attack cards you've played and add any damage bonuses and subtract any creature defensive bonuses to that roll.

Whatever your final number is, you then multiply that by ten, since you earn ten experience points per damage point caused. Then you may multiply that number by one and a half if you're playing a grey-colored character as they carry a multiplier ability, and finally you look to the Experience Multiplier tokens to see if your color matches, multiplying or dividing that number a final time. It is truly complicated, and since there's no chits to help with this, you're scribbling notes like a madman on the back of your character sheet.

I will also note that the Quest Leader is the one who has to track the creature's life, and again, with no chits, they're doing so on the back of the character sheet. If the creature was not killed, which is very unlikely if the players didn't discard all of their cards during travel, the Quest Leader may choose to go for a second round, essentially rinsing and repeating the aforementioned combat steps. If, at the end of the first round the creature is still alive, the Quest Leader may decide to just dip out and effectively retreat from combat with the party, ending combat.

If the creature was killed, all players that weren't killed get a treasure card for their trouble, but in the case of retreat, they get nothing. If any players have more than 100 experience points, they need to then convert them to levels and retain the excess experience as unconverted, denoting it in the provided space on their character sheets.

Rinse and repeat this process five more times, and the game ends. The player with the most experience is the winner, counting both unconverted experience as well as levels, which count for 100 points each. In all three games I've played, those who choose grey characters always seemed to have a distinct advantage in combat because they're immune to the multipliers and always get one and a half times the normal experience allotment. The only detractor from being gray is that it limits your character to only playing grey cards, but even this is muted because the grey character powers are some of the best in the game. That being said, the rest of the game is fairly unbalanced as well as whomever chooses to be the "red player" has a distinct advantage during travel as there are about twice as many red dots on the board than there are any other color, meaning there are more chances to gain massive amounts of experience by default.

The long and short is that although did I not enjoy the actual playing of the game at all, there were some interesting elements that I thought were pretty slick, and the nastiness of the player interaction was really the saving grace. As a hobby gamer's game, I just don't think this passes muster, especially for the USD $35.00 price tag, but I actually thought of how this game would best be implemented. This game would be a great choice for a teacher in a middle school where they were learning about decision making and basic mathematics. I really, really wanted to like the game for a variety of reasons, but I simply found myself unable to do so.

Why I Liked The Road Less Travelled:
* This game is all about player interaction, and it's all of the nasty variety
* I really like the character sheet concept and wish more publishers would do this instead of using billions of chits

Why The Crossroads Should Be Avoided:
* The board art is unforgivably bad when compared to its peers in the fantasy market
* The card art ranges from good to terrible, and that hurts the immersion of players in the game world
* The mathematics and struggle to keep track of bonuses simply sucked the fun out of the game
* It's pretty clear that the red player has a large advantage
* At the end of the day, it's just not much fun to play

This would be great as a teaching tool in a classroom, but when it comes to playing it as a hobby game, it just can't command the interest of the players and is certainly not equivalent to its peers in the marketplace, especially at similar price points. The spotty art and gameplay complexities simply killed this. I just can't recommend this to a hobby gamer, as much as I'd like to in support of a small press publisher, but I'd be lying if I said I had any fun playing it. Honestly, this was the hardest game I've ever forced myself to play thrice, and I can unequivocally guarantee that I will not be playing this game ever again. I am actually going to donate it to the local elementary school to see how they like it there, because that's where I think this game belongs.

1.5/5 Stars

To learn more about Strategy Rich games and this game in particular, check out their site here:

As I said, I think the company has promise because there were a lot of elements that were interesting, so perhaps the next game they make will learn from the lessons of Crossroads and be a whole lot better. There's solid foundations at Strategy Rich, and of that I'm sure.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

I'm feeling good tonight, so I'm giving something away!

On the 15th of February, I'm going to post a couple of winners. Winners, you ask? What is this talk of winners? I'll tell you, but you need to stop interrupting.

I've got several games here that need to have a new home. They don't get played because my friends don't want to play them, and playing a game designed for 2 or more, solo, is just wrong on so many levels I can't even begin to explain. So, that being said, I'm going to send out, on my dime, WORLDWIDE (cuz tha's how I be rollin, beyotches. Reco'nize!), a couple of bad ass games. The economy sucks, and Obama's spending borrowed money like he won it on "Jeopardy! Asshole Edition", so what the hell. Why not hook a brother or sister up, right? "Spread it around (TM)". Maybe I'm just prepping myself for the socialist state, komrades. Shit..really...who knows why I do what I do. I just do it, and you guys get the benefits. Rock on, Pedro.

Anyway, back to the story. What games, you ask? How cool? I told you....stop interrupting.

Very, very fucking cool. The kind of cool that could shrivel your man-parts to the point they may never snap back. The kind of cool that would make your nipples contract to the point that if they were analyzed, a new element, Nipplium, would be discovered and it would be the hardest substance in the known universe. The kind of cool that can only be described, and  only in part, by words that do not exist in this dimension. I'd attempt to translate them for you, but after reading it your eyeballs would freeze over and you'd shit York Peppermint Patties for a month. That fucking cool, mijos y mijas.

I've got a copy of Twilight Struggle sitting here, right now, looking all twilighty and sexy. But said there were 2 items! What could be cooler than the #1 game in the world, according to, you ask?? The fact that it's the Deluxe Edition. Not some chincy, fucked up poo-butt edition, and not one that'd been puked on or defiled in any manner. It's pristine, and it's yours. So what, you ask, does the great and powerful Wizard of TNT have in addition to this ragingly fucking cool superprize?!?!?

Again with the interruptions...ease back, people. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

The other game I have here, sitting pretty in oh-so-many-ways, is Cutthroat Caverns! I mean, you know I love backstabbery on  a scale that only "Spartacus: Blood and Sand" has more blood-geysers shooting from the backs of fallen foes. Having sex with your sister and then framing your father for it kind of backstabbery. I'm talking about mean, nasty gameplay that can ruin marriages and make children flee, screaming, from their own homes, hands locked to their teddy bears with a Kung Fu death grip. That's Cutthroat Caverns. And that's yours.

HOW DO I WIN?!?!? HOW?!?!? Simple. First, stop interrupting. Then, just be signed up as a follower, over there on the lower left side of the page. See those suckers loyal readers? They're followers. They get this tripe emailed to their RSS reader weekly. You can be them. Think "Old Spice Guy" moment here.

It's that simple. Don't worry, I'm not selling your email addresses. Shit, I don't even know that I could find out what they were if I tried. I'm a writer, not a "web guy". Look at my's fucking pathetic. It's like that guy in the wheelbarrow from "My Left Foot" (that later ended up killing his buddy for oil and talking that "there will be blood" bullshit...) drew it with a sharpie with his left foot, while high on LSD. No, I'm sure that I can't figure out what your email address is.

Why, then, do I do this for you, knowing you're the only ones reading this? Because I think games should be played, not sat on a shelf to somehow make my life more complete. I am secure with the size of my penis, or at least that's what I tell myself. Sometimes. So, I don't need to have a giant game "library" that has more dust on it than George W. Bush's dictionary to make me feel whole. But that's just me. I like what I like, and sometimes I buy games that I don't like, not knowing I won't like them. So, my stupidity is your gain.

Ah...I digress. Sign up, and I will randomly (and will post pictures of the drawing if I can) choose the winners. I am the final arbiter of who the winners are, and if you don't like it, as they say in Mother Russia, "Toughsky Shitsky". I haven't decided if I will be putting small photos onto a cardboard target and throwing darts to select winners, or if I will simply have my children choose 2 avatars they like the best. I may float little paper boats and load them with wee standies of your avatar so I can sink the boats with my pee, having the last person's avatar to sink become the winner. I don't know yet...these things are delicate. I have to contemplate the most absurd way to select a winner and then make it more absurd. I'm thinking rockets will be involved. Yes, definately rockets.

Anyhow, I will announce the winners here at the Circus (if you've read this far, you know it's aptly named) and if you don't email me to acknowledge you want it, well, you really didn't read the blog (see disclaimer below) and therefore aren't getting shit from me. I'll hold onto it for the next drawing. Or something. Or maybe, if I can figure out how to post video to the blog, I will explode the game, upload the video, and admonish you publicly so you know what you could have had if you'd only simply checked the blog on that one, single day, the 15th of February.

Fuck it, you know what? Let's throw in a copy of Saboteur, too. That's 3 lucky winners. Just remember me when you're looking for a solid game review and maybe a chuckle, we'll call it even.

Good luck!

Note: If you sign up just to win something, and then you delete your subscription, you're an asshat. Nothing will ever fix you. I hope you shit your pants badly (while farting exceptionally loudly and unexpectedly) on a very romantic date with the girl of your dreams, and she pukes on you from the smell, leaving you sitting there in your own soiled, filthy, formerly tidy whities and never returning your calls. Ever.
If you sign up and enjoy the commentary, thanks for reading!

Monday, January 24, 2011

Forbidden Island - Not Really Forbidden, Just A Bit Soupy

You know those people who win the lottery and then wax philosophic about "how they were always fortunate" and it was "only a matter of time" before winning? Yeah, I'm not that guy. I don't play slots because I don't win. I don't bet the horses because if I did, I'm almost positive the horse would have a pulmonary embolism right there on the track. When it comes to any contest of chance, I'm just not that guy. I have a wonderful, amazingly hot wife, and two wonderful kids. I have a great job that I love and don't mind working my ever-loving ass off for because I believe in the company. I figure that I am incredibly blessed and fortunate, so I am OK with not winning these little things very often. Why do I say this? Because of the way I came into getting a copy of Forbidden Island.

I won this in a contest on sponsored by an incredibly generous soul known as Cate108, who sent me the game unannounced as a "surprise" because she couldn't send the original item I had won, a John Carpenter film. I told her it was fine and she'd done so much already that it wasn't necessary, but she insisted on sending something, and thus I am now sitting 5 feet from the box as I type this. Good form, Cate108, you're a real gem amongst the rough.

Anyhow, this game is actually pretty neat. It holds a lot of resemblance to the mechanics in Pandemic, just not quite as nasty and no chance that we'll lose because the Arabian peninsula contracts a bad case of amoebic dysentery. In Forbidden Island, six opportunists land on the island, which is slowly sinking as Atlantis into the frigid depths of an undisclosed body of water. These mercenary sorts are intent on gathering four treasures of incredibly archaeological and historical renown (read: worth a pretty penny) and must get them before the entire island is overtaken by the sea. Once these not-so-noble explorers have the treasures, they need to catch a chopper off the island from the lone helipad before it, too, is drowned beneath the waves.

Looking at the components, whose visuals were nominated for a 2010 Golden Geek Award at, I have to say I cannot possibly conceive of how this game was nominated. Yeah, it's decent looking, but not award-winningly so. The game itself comes in a petite tin which holds a perfectly-designed blow-molded insert. I have to give it to the Germans: those guys sure know how to design their bit-holding inserts.

Anyhow, the game comes with maybe 60 cards of three types, 24 game space tiles, a water-level indicator board, four plastic treasure icons, and saving the least for last, six colored pawns. Everything is above-average in quality, and the little wooden pawns are fine. What has me a little pissed about them, though, is that the German version of the game boasts six little prepainted miniatures. It's pretty salty that those in Hamburg get nice little guys to play with but someone in Peoria gets the shitty end of the stick, stuck with six nondescript wooden dowels. All things considered, the game looks and feels durable as hell. Some of the art is a bit on the repetitive side when viewed in the game's totality, but it is pretty nice, regardless.

Setting up the game takes all of about three minutes. First, lay the 24 tiles out in a "plus sign" shape, with the tiles' colorized side facing up. Next, randomly choose a role to play from the six available, or cheat and take the one you like best since they all have unique and game-changing powers. Starting positions are based on the color you chose, so you will place your figure (if you're in Berlin) or dowel rod onto the tile that has the matching colored icon. After that, decide how hard you want the game to be by setting the water level indicator to the designated height on the indicator board. The rules say to put the four plastic treasures in the corners, to add ambiance, I'm guessing, but it's best to just let them sit in the box. In fact, it's a great idea to keep the box nearby, with the unused player cards sitting at the bottom of the little deck-holder area. Anyhow, the last bit to do before you play is to have each player take two treasure cards and then draw six tiles to be flooded by drawing six cards from the "Flood deck".

Now that you know how easy it is to set the game up, let's examine just what the hell you actually do to win. On any player's turn, that player may take three actions. These actions consist of the option of moving to an orthogonally-adjacent space, or bailing water out of an area, giving an item to a teammate on the same tile, or taking a treasure if you're able. Some cards in the treasure deck provide you some special powers as well, and can be used at any time, and without penalty. That's pretty much the whole nine yards on the available options, but the game gets more interesting after your turn is over. After you've taken or forfeited your actions, you must draw two cards from the "Treasure Deck, remembering that the hand limit is five. These treasures generally have an icon of one of the four treasures on them, and when you can collect four of the same one, you can then go to one of the two tiles that has the same icon on it to claim that treasure.

The last action you must take before your turn ends is that you must draw as many cards from the "Flood Deck" as are indicated on the water-level indicator. Each one of these cards indicates a tile that must be flooded, and thus you must flip over each tile to the "flooded" side. If the tile that corresponds to the card you drew is already flood-side up, that tile and card are taken out of play. The sinking of that tile causes a hole in the map, so to speak, that all but the Diver character may not move through.

There's one variable factor that I haven't mentioned that gives the game a slight sense of tenseness...the "Waters Rise" cards in the Treasure deck. These cards, when drawn, immediately are played and cause the water-level indicator to bump up a notch on the scale, meaning that more flood cards are drawn at the end of your turn, but in the immortal words of Billy Mays, "...but wait! There's more!" In addition to potentially making more tiles flood at the end of each turn, you must also reshuffle the Flood discard pile and place them on top of the remaining flood deck, meaning that tiles that were previously flooded have a high probability of flooding again.

These cards are not exactly ample, but they come up fairly often and in the seven games of Forbidden Island I've played so far, these things can come at any time, including coming up several turns in a row. Unlike "epidemic cards" in Pandemic, these are just shuffled randomly into the Treasure deck and therefore have no even distribution. Add to this that when the Treasure deck is completely empty that you simply reshuffle them, these can come up infinitely if the players are slow to collect the treasures.

To win, it is incumbent upon players not allowing loss conditions to take place, which amount to losing the helipad, losing two of any kind of treasure area without first getting that treasure, and having a player drown by being on a tile that sinks from under them without having an adjacent tile to "swim to". Add to this that one player must have a special power card, gotten in the Treasure deck, that allows escape via helicopter in addition to having every player's pawn on the helipad when this is enacted. All in all, it's a light, fun little game that plays in about 30 minutes and can be learned by anyone at all.

Why Forbidden Island Needs A Tourism Department:
- Nice art on the tiles helps the theme of the game shine through
- Fast turns and easy rules make this a simple game to learn and play
- This game is a better filler than the stuff inside a Twinkie
- Supporting six players makes this a great choice for a party game
- This game sells for around 12$ at many online game's a hell of a deal

What Makes Me Glad The Island Is Doomed:
- It's a little salty that the miniatures were lost in translation to English and us Yankees only get colored dowels as pawns
- This game can suffer from one player "having the solution" and bossing other players around
- The art on the treasure cards is really pretty bad, especially since the island tiles are so much better

Light, but not overly light, and fast gameplay makes Forbidden Island a great go-to game for a family or as a filler game while awaiting a deeper or longer game. I recommend this to anyone who has kids between 8 and 14 years old as the game really requires teamwork, and it's short enough to keep kids engaged without getting bored. Definately one I'd think you should pick up and keep around the house, although I don't expect that it will be played on a daily basis.

3.75/5 Stars

If you want to learn more, head to Gamewright's website:

And a nice person on BoardGameGeek was nice enough to dig up some "official" variants, although they are nothing more than just placing the tiles in a different starting position...

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Castle Ravenloft Adventure: Hunt for the Fiend

Well, as promised, I am releasing my Castle Ravenloft Campaign, "Hunt for the Fiend", which is the proof-of-concept design that will show you, by example, how to build compelling adventures to extend the lifespan of the Dungons and Dragons: Castle Ravenloft Board Game.

Within is an indication of the level of complexity, scalability, and narrative feel that you can very easily add into the game without changing the "core game" rules.  Others have opted to rewrite the rules to the game, effectively obsoleting the included rulebook and reference cards. I believe this to be a barrier to entry for new players as well as causing paradoxes with existing players who already know Ravenloft and how to play it. 

While it's fun to design and play your own version of a game, this 3-adventure narrative campaign seems the best way to increase the complexity of the game without breaking it by changing the core rules. The fact is that the game was designed to fill a certian gap in the market, the light dungeon crawl, and by changing the order of actions, the allowable actions per turn, and any other factor, the game slowly inches away from the core concept of being an easily accessible light dungeon crawl. I consciously chose to leave the core alone and just work within the confines of the adventure rules themselves.

I do not wish to hear about "balance" in this campaign, because the fact is that what separates a good game from a great game is the ability for the game to throw you curveballs and "Kobiyashi Maru" moments that are exciting, engaging, and most importatly, memorable. I've done my level best to make this very difficult, although winnable, and virtually the entire campaign is scalable based on the number of players.

Without further delay, I am quite proud to offer you this campaign for your enjoyment:

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Castle Ravenloft - Hunt For The Fiend Teaser

Due to overwhelming curiousity on the part of my beloved readers, I've decided to upload the first half of my Hunt for the Fiend campaign for use with the Castle Ravenloft Board Game. I will be releasing all of the adventures within a Superfly Circus Exclusive Special Limited Edition (yeah, that makes it sound all kinds of fancy-pants, doesn't it) release. In other words, it'll only be here.

Anyhow, this teaser will indicate the kinds of adventures that the clever lad might deign to create if one were to have the time and imagination.  In my recent Castle Ravenloft review, some morons at noted that by "changing the rules" I was not actually evaluating the game itself, but rather "my version of the game". It's clear that those who said this have never actually played the game or read the rules, or they'd have understood that this clearly was not my epiphany, but rather, expanding the game under the confines of the existing rule set was the realization I had.

Well, to those who said such erroneous things, I respond with this: "Fuck You Very Much."  I would be banned from Boardgamegeek for saying that (and have been) but I can say what I want here, so please, have a coke and a smile, get out of your parents' basement where you have been living while dodging real responsibility and  pursuing your third MBA (Masters of Being an Asshat). Get a real job for the first time in your lives, you miserable, bitter fucks, and try actually creating something other than a white, crusty stain on the bottom of your desk, rather than attempting to constantly prove how smart you are by tearing others' work down.

Moving on...and back to the regularly scheduled programming.

The game is more than just a game, as anyone who has played it beyond the first 3 scenarios can see. It is a game system with virtually limitless options on what you can develop for it.  I'm not talking about major rules changes like "Branam's Variant" that substantially alter the core rule set and make the printed manual and reference cards included with the game virtually obsolete. I'm talking about scenario-specific, sanctioned changes that do not alter the core rules one whit, but instead build upon what was in the rule manual as well as the examples given in the adventure guide.

So, without further delay, I am happy to furnish you with the first part of this multipart campaign, "In Ravenloft's Shadow":

Monday, January 10, 2011

Castle Ravenloft - Why It's Justified To Commit A Felony To Fund A Purchase Of This Game

I'm starting to realize something about myself and my reviews, and it's quite enlightening. I've come to understand that what sets me apart from other reviewers is that I actually play a lot of a game before reviewing it, generally; at least 3 times per game, and almost always with different people. Many other reviewers seem to think that an opinion can be formed by a single play, and many reviews are rife with assumptions and, in many cases, errors. Maybe that's why I have almost ten thousand reads of my article (that I can track) over the entire internet with all of my syndication partners. I'm truly happy to have you as a reader, and it's because of you guys and gals that I put my life on hold for 4 to 6 hours every Sunday to review games for you fine folks in order to help you sort the chaff from the wheat.

Let me begin this review by noting that I initially thought this game was mediocre at best, and that it didn't have much in the way of compelling gameplay. I thought it to be too mechanical, with many other dungeon crawl games being far superior and thus found myself wondering why I would want to purchase a game like this with such other, better, games out there on the market. Then, like a bottle of Smirnoff to the head, it hit me. I had an epiphany of epic proportions regarding Ravenloft that changed my mind entirely, and now I realize that this game system is far superior to almost all of its peers in the genre. It's not because of the bits, although the bits are tip-top. It's not because of the mechanics, really, because they are fairly bland and a little wonky at first. It's because this game has such an amazing host of possibilities in creating scenarios and has such an open architecture that you can create, and are encouraged to, add house rules to it that are scenario-specific.

I don't know why I didn't see the beauty of this game in the first 15 plays. I think it's because, to be fair, the built-in scenarios are really not that interesting, and they do not take advantage of the mechanic that I have discovered in scenario building which really is what makes this game such a fucking gem among the ore that's out there today. I realized on Saturday night that by stacking the decks in a specific order, you can create an incredibly compelling narrative within the game and create a true D&D-worthy adventure for you and your friends to participate in that evokes strong feelings of fear, terror, and ultimately, supreme satisfaction. My only regret is that I didn't realize this until so recently.

I know, I'm putting the cart before the horse. You're asking yourselves, "Pete, what the hell are you talking about? You haven't told me dick about the game yet, so how can I understand what you're talking about until you frame the former comments in a context I understand??" Well, let's get into that, shall we?

The concept of Castle Ravenloft, from a 10,000 foot perspective, is that up to five noble adventurers are compelled to head to the land of Borovia, which is home to Castle Ravenloft, roost of the dread vampire Count Strahd. This "world" was envisioned back in 1983, in an Advanced Dungeons and Dragons module named 'Ravenloft'. Anyhow, this update of the theme has adventurers roaming the catacombs of Castle Ravenloft in search of adventure and riches beyond imagination, although they generally will find nothing but vile beasts and death.

It's an atypical dungeon crawl in that it has Space-Hulk style interlocking tiles that are mostly placed in a random order, meaning the game is different every time you play it. Every aspect of the game is set up from the scenario you choose to play, where certain items are listed to be in play or certain tiles pulled from the stack and placed at key locations. Generally, a 'goal' tile is placed nine to twelve places deep within the random tile stack, and when the players reach that goal the endgame begins. There's no scoring in this game, and it's an Ameritrasher's dream in that there are only two states the game can end in, which are total victory and the utter destruction of the heroes.

The box is very large in depth but the standard bookshelf design as far as length and width. Inside are a virtually endless sea of chits, unpainted plastic miniatures, a boatload of cards, and a crapload of incredibly well produced interlocking dungeon tiles. Also within is a very, very short rulebook and an equally miniscule adventure guide, which serves as the blueprint to play scenarios which do little more than get you accustomed to the concepts of the game. While not precisely telling you so, you are compelled to want to create your own scenarios, and this is where the game's true shine emits from. Suffice to say that the art is very nice, and while some people call it bland, it is not so in my humble opinion. The cards themselves do not have much art on them at all, and there are no magical weapons depicted anywhere, really. There's no shiny armor.

The cards are, in fact, all text-based, with the exception of the monster cards which have a hand-drawn image of whatever creature that the card represents. While some see this as a shortcoming, I think that it leaves things to the imagination, which is par for the course with D&D, so it's actually quite thematic to have omitted the pictures. Anyhow, everything is of the highest quality regarding construction, and you will certainly not be disappointed.

My only beef with the entire box is that the miniatures are unpainted versions of existing Dungeons and Dragons Miniatures Game minis, and I'd have rather paid 100$ for the game with painted minis than have to try to go out and source them from a singles retailer or paint them myself. That, my friends, was a typical Wizards "Fuck You, Consumer" move that should not be easily forgiven. So, in response to that, "Fuck You, Wizards, you cheap bastards." The smart play for them would be to release a "Ravenloft Upgrade" package for $50 that has all of the miniatures for the game in it. I would jump on that like a recently-released inmate on a prostitute. I've always liked Wizards, and Ravenloft hasn't changed that, but this again makes me wonder who the hell is driving the sales force over there.

Anyhow, the setup is completely determined by the scenario you choose to play out of either the book or your head, depending on how much effort you wish to put in. The common factors, though, come down to each player picking a character and selecting the skills they wish to use for this game. The skills are cards from a character-specific deck which have three classes of powers.

Two of the powers, the 'At-Will' types, are essentially your hand-to-hand or ranged weapon powers that you can use over and over again. The other cards, though, are generally one-time use powers that may be recovered by winning the ability to do so through a lucky treasure down the road. Each player also gets one Treasure Card at the beginning of your game, which may or may not be helpful. In all cases, though, the "dungeon tile" stack gets placed within reach, and a starting tile of some sort is placed in the play area, with each players miniature put thereon.

There are several stacks of cards which need to be set out and shuffled: the Treasure deck, the Monster deck, and the Encounter deck. There's another deck as well, the Adventure Deck, but that is generally reserved for cherry-picking certain items out of if certain scenario-based actions happen. Personally, I like to shuffle that deck right into the Treasure deck for general consumption because the Treasure deck is mostly comprised of very small one-time boosts where the Adventure deck is where most of the weapons and "items" that you'd want to actually carry with you are located.

Gameplay consists of each player taking their two actions, which are either to move and attack, attack and move, or move twice. Once they've done these actions, if they are on a tile that has an open edge and they are standing on that edge, they add a new tile. If they are not standing on an unexplored edge, then they pull and resolve an Encounter card, which are ALWAYS very bad news.

Also, if a player pulls a tile with a black arrow icon on it when they pull a tile, they place that tile and then pull an Encounter card. In all cases, though, when a new tile is pulled, a player must pull a Monster card, place the miniature on the skull pile icon in the newly placed room, and place the Monster card in front of them as they now control that monster. After you've resolved the Encounter card, Tile pull and subsequent Monster card, or both, you must then activate any monster types you control, in the order you pulled the card that controls them.

Each monster has a specific script that it follows, and this is simply the most brilliant boardgame AI system I've ever seen. It's far superior to the Dungeon Twister 2 AI method, although it is similar. In short, each monster has its own personality, and the monsters were all done very, very well. This mechanic alone will be copied by all other dungeon crawls, if we're lucky, because this was the one stand-out design triumph that I noticed from play one to today. It's, simply put, flawlessly designed and executed.

Another Dirty McNasty aspect of the game is that the Encounter cards almost always attempt to mercilessly curb stomp the players by placing traps into the dungeon, causing very bad events to occur, placing "auras" into play that affect all players and in some cases all monsters, or generally enact some other form of fuckery. The word "Encounter" doesn't normally mean "something very bad is about to happen to you" in life; I mean, you could "encounter" a beautiful woman who wishes to perform sexual favors on you, right? Not in Ravenloft. Bad stuff ALWAYS happens when you have an "Encounter".

Maybe it's just the fact that stunning, nymphomaniacal women don't generally hang out in a vampire-haunted crypt, but either way, I dread pulling these cards, to the point of irrational terror while playing the game. In all the failures I've had, Encounters were the prime target of my ire postgame because they always seem to just plain 'hate on you' at every turn. So, yes, I am man enough to admit that I hate, and I do mean HATE, Encounter cards. Hate them. Oh, do I hate them. Grr.

Traps, as I noted before my minor rant, can come about by the hated Encounters (grr...) and these are generally one of the nastier varieties of nastiness that the Encounters can cause. They're nasty because they always come into play right where you're standing, and the fact that you've pulled them means you've already taken your turn and are about to have to resolve the traps, along with the monsters, so you're about to get messed up in a major way. These lovely traps are fireballs, spears, crossbows, smashing walls...all kinds of bad stuff. The good news is that on players' turns, they can attempt to disarm them by a die roll, and if you've played the 'Rogue' character, you have a 75% chance of success in doing so. Traps are activated just like monsters, luckily, so only one player will activate it, and most traps only affect players on that tile during activation, although a few have a ranged effect.

Combat with monsters is all resolved by playing one of your power cards, and every single aspect of the game is resolved with a D20 roll, so this is no different. The short version is that you roll the D20, add your power's modifier, add any treasure modifiers, and compare against the enemy's armor class. If you equal or exceed that, you hit him for the set amount of damage listed on the card. If you hit the enemy hard enough to exceed its hit points, it dies. You keep the monster card, which is taken from the controlling player, and it earns the hero team an experience amount as listed on the card. The player who dealt the killing blow also gets a Treasure card for their trouble.

Speaking of Treasure cards, I should explain why I'm not a big fan of them. Most of the treasures in the game are not treasure items, but rather helpful effects that can do things like heal a character a little, or allow you to look at the top three Encounter cards and rearrange them to your liking. There are a few "+1 Sword of Ballbusting" type items, but most of the real goodies in the game are in the Adventure Treasure deck, which is a separate deck altogether that generally isn't used. My advice to you is to take that deck and mix it into the regular treasures, because it really feels more like an adventure when you find cool stuff. The other aspect is that the Adventure Treasure deck has a different back, so it will be known when a cool treasure is about to be found. What I like to do is take that card and place it under the next monster that is pulled, and when that monster is pulled, the slayer takes that card as his treasure in lieu of pulling from the Advenure deck.

Experience points are of an odd sort in Ravenloft. They can be used, when five are amassed, to cancel an Encounter card or to level up a character. These experience points are shared among the entire team, so they build up fast, and are spent even faster. To level up a character from level one to level two, the player who wishes to level up must roll a natural 20 on any roll they make and may spend five experience to do so. This is the weakest mechanic in the game, and as such you will not see this happening more than five percent of the time, statistically. The bump you get from leveling up is pretty much a one armor class point boost and a couple of hit points, with one additional special power being revealed. The physical difference is that you simply flip your cardboard character sheet over to the opposing side, and now you're a level two character. There is no level three, so once you're boosted up, that's that.

Now that you understand the basics of how to play, let's explore my initial point about Ravenloft. The magic of the game, in my opinion, is that it is so open ended that it leads you to the proverbial water and lets you drink as much, or as little, as you wish to. You can play an out-of-the-book scenario, or you can craft amazingly intricate, immersive scenarios to play. You can use random tiles, cards, and cookie-cutter rules, or you can have all hundred-and-fifty-or-so cards and all forty tiles in a specific order with scenario-based rules for each tile to make this a true-to-D&D adventure of epic scale. It's a grand sandbox to spill as much or as little blood into as you wish, and for those of us who are creative enough to see the merit within this system, this game is phenomenal.

I will be publishing a scenario that I came up with on Saturday Morning, which is a 2-part adventure, and even as simple as it is, it's far more engaging and challenging than the out-of-the-box scenarios which might lead you to believe that the game is less interesting than its potential enjoyability truly is. Keep an eye out for it here or on, if you're interested.

The long and short, in closing, is that this game that I initially thought was a short-sighted epic failure turned out to be one of the best, most immersive, dungeon crawls I've played to date, and I've played a shitload of them. Don't let your first couple "learning" plays dissuade you, and once you've got ten games in and really, really understand the game's core concepts, pace, and flow, try to come up with some bad-ass scenarios on your own that fit your expectations and group's style. That's what makes this game magnificent, really. I just wish I hadn't publicly scorned the game so much, because now I look a little bit like an asshat for it. Honestly, though, that's what makes me a decent reviewer: I play the subject game a lot, and I'm not set on an opinion until I feel I know the game well enough to review it. And sometimes, I need to have an epiphany.

What Makes Castle Ravenloft An Amazing Summer Home:
* Theme drips from this game like urine from a kid who has seen a vampire
* The simple core rule set makes this approachable and learnable in a very short amount of time
* The art, while not DaVinci, is quite nice and appealing
* The sandbox architecture of the game makes this an amazingly agile game system

What Makes Castle Ravenloft Look Like A Shit-Filled Outhouse:
* WTF, Wizards? You already had the molds and small Chinese hands to do the painting...why are the minis unpainted???
* There has not been an AEG/Alderac-style aftermarket "painted miniatures" pack released to fix the aforementioned oversight
* The Treasure deck is mostly loaded with shitty items and one-time-use crap

What a great game! I wish I'd seen the light earlier, but I had been so indoctrinated by other dungeon crawls that I overlooked the sandbox aspect. The only downside, which really isn't that big of a deal, is that the game ships with unpainted miniatures, which it should not have. This game should be an auto-buy for anyone who even thinks they MAY like dungeon crawls. It can actually appeal to a person who only likes Euro games as well, because the mechanics are so simple that even a Container disciple could get the game without blowing a circuit and having to chant "Tikal, Tikal, Tikal" to save them from flipping the light switch on and off seven times in a row to save the planet from imploding.

4.5/5 Stars

To read more about Castle Ravenloft, check out WoTC's dedicated site:

And they've got NEW scenarios, downloadable and free here:

If you were offended by my use of cruder language and/or my making fun of Eurogamers and people with OCD, tough shit. I've played nice for the last 4 months and I'm finding it's not nearly as fun to write, nor read, my articles and since I do this for the enjoyment, I've decided that political correctness will not make me another casualty of the American Thought Wars of the 21st century. Learn to take a joke and laugh a little; statistically, happier people live longer.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

2010 Review - Why 2010 Didn't Suck For Boardgames, At Least For Me...

I've heard a lot of ramblings this year about how 2010 was not a great year for boardgames in general, and certainly not for Ameritrash. Personally, I have no idea what the hell those folks who decry 2010 as a craptastic year are talking about. This year had me playing all kinds of great games, and I was thoroughly impressed with not only the volume, but the quality of the games that came out this year. I'm not one of these egomaniacs that need to, let alone feel I'm capable to, point out the single best game I've played this year, so I've decided to toss my opinions out there on games released in, or nearly in, 2010 that were head-and-shoulders better than the rest.

Yes, I'm aware that some of these games were released late in 2009. Since I don't subscribe to the cult of the new, nor do I get massive truckloads of free review games to praise or pillage, I play what I can, when I can, and I review them only after I've played them at least three times as to provide a true opinion on how the games actually play. Some reviewers may play a game once or twice with the same people, or worse, as a solo game, but I think that every game should get a fair, educated review and thus a game can't really be evaluated without giving it a fair shake with both a multitude of plays and plays with different groups. So, without further delay, here's the list of the best games I've played this year!

First, let's talk about a game that I found to be outstanding in almost every regard, and a game that I love dearly: Cyclades. Some people bitch that it's not Ameritrash, others that it's not a Euro, and some just bitch because it's neither. What it is, my friends, is an exceptionally fun, tightly designed game that is both challenging, well produced in terms of components, and easily one of the most beautifully illustrated games I've played this year. While some might not like the fact that you bid upon actions you can take during the game, it adds a tremendous amount of strategy to the game and allows for protracted strategies to take place where a player can build wealth, waiting for the precise moment to strike and defeat opponents' armies.

Cyclades - 4.5/5 Stars

Next, a phenomenal game that received virtually unanimous high praise is Summoner Wars. This game is fast, pretty, and smart, and to top it all off, it's cheap. I'm not a huge fan of card games in general unless they involve taking suckers' money, but this game broke the mold for me. When you consider the expansions and lack of CCG or "deck building" that permeates many card games these days, this game was a breath of fresh air and still a game that I like to play, nearly a year later.

Summoner Wars - 4.5/5 Stars

Now, speaking of card games that have changed my mind about card games, let's talk about one of the most prolific designers I've ever had the pleasure of meeting, John Clowdus. The man is a phenomenon unto himself, pumping out fresh, new games through his Small Box Games brand on a monthly basis. Sure some of them have made me wonder what the hell he was thinking, such as Tempt, but the vast, overwhelming majority of his games are tight, brilliant, and most importantly, fun. Irondale, for one, is a tremendously smart city-building game that captured a lot of peoples' attention this year, and it still hits my game table fairly often. Another game that exploded onto my game table and has since taken up permanent residence is a smart, fun game that had all my friends conspiring and betraying one another, Politico: Fall of Caesar. Finally, a game that I consider to be his Opus Magnum, Bhazum, is the single most engaging, fun card game I've ever played, and anyone who wants a game that can be played in a half an hour with a single opponent should own it. It's simply marvelous, and with Small Box Games' low price points, anyone can afford to play these amazing games.

Irondale - 4/5 Stars
Politico: Fall of Caesar - 4.5/5 Stars
Bhazum - 4.5/5 Stars

Moving away from card games to my first love, miniatures games, you have to admit that 2010 was a wonderful year. There were quite a few games that had little plastic warriors attempting to commit genocide upon the opposition, but in my mind, one of the absolute cream of the crop this year was Grindhouse Games' Incursion. It built upon the solid formula that has sustained Space Hulk for all of these years by adding some incredibly slick mechanics, such as card-based abilities and "level-ups" that changed how I looked at Space Hulk and its clones, forever. While Incursion's "Weird War 2" zombies versus steampunk GI theme may not be as interesting to some as "Space Marines Versus The Alien Menace", the game's wonderful visuals and incredibly tight gameplay more than makes up for any shortcomings that one might believe exists in the theme. If you like tactical, squad-based shooter games, this is the one for you. Even better, it's a full fifty dollars cheaper than Space Hulk's third edition, making it a hell of a deal.

Incursion - 4.5/5 Stars

Another game that seemed to come out of nowhere and knock the piss of the "establishment" was Clever Mojo Games' Alien Frontiers. Not only is it easily one of the most fun games I have ever played, it has the distinction of being the only game I've played in recent history that had every single person I've played it with enjoy it to the point of asking for an immediate rematch. It's a dicefest to be sure, but the smart resource management and player interaction aspects of the game make this one of the cleanest, tightest designs of the year. No matter who you are or what kind of gamer you are, this is the one that suits all fancies. It's simply a blast to play, and the fact that it's being reprinted in a couple of months is a boon to anyone who missed out the first time and couldn't afford the $120 price tag that the Ebay folks were asking for it.

Alien Frontiers - 4.25/5 Stars

Area control games have always been a lot of fun for me, with games like El Grande, Cave Troll, and Tikal seeing a lot of playtime in my game groups. I was pleased to find a company called Assa Games, who put out two incredibly fun games, Conquest of the Fallen Lands and Galaxy's Edge. The former is a quest to retake a kingdom that has fallen to legions of fell beasts where the latter is a galactic quest for colonization and military superiority. Both are tile-based and have random layouts meaning the game is virtually infinitely playable, but that is the only similarity they share. These games knocked my socks off, and I am literally going to play a game of Galaxy's Edge in about a half an hour when my buddy gets here. Definately a couple of great games from a relatively unknown publisher that deserves some love for making a couple of really fun games. Galaxy's Edge is a lot better, but Conquest is a lot more approachable and one that I would consider to be a "family game" of sorts.

Conquest of the Fallen Lands - 3.75/5 Stars

Galaxy's Edge - 4.25/5 Stars

Last, but certainly not least is a tremendously fun game that was initially criticized for its use of the ever-hated Comic Sans font, but ended up being almost universally praised as one of the best games of the year. Defenders of the Realm is a mix of a lot of different mechanics, and all of them work. The fact that it's a co-op game can detract from some people's enjoyment as some people just like to kill one another all the time, but barring that, this game was the single best game I played this year. With great-looking art, tons of plastic, and one of the most incredibly smart AI mechanics I've ever seen, this game is all about fun.

Defenders of the Realm - 4.75/5 Stars

In closing, this was a great year for games and gaming, and I was very, very fortunate to be able to log well over 200 individual games played this year. Luckily, very few of them sucked ass. Some of the losers this year were Tempt, Small Box Games' first utter failure that I am aware of, Munchkin Quest, which was about as fun as gluing my ball hairs to my legs and then attempting to do jumping jacks, and the worst offender, Halo Interactive Strategy Board Game, which while interactive, is neither strategic, nor a game.

My outlook for 2011 is phenomenal, and my only concern is that I will not have enough time to play games as I would otherwise like to. God bless you all, my dear readers, and my resolution this year is to attempt to both increase the rate at which I publish articles as well as put in some proper attempts to get review games from publishers so I do not run out of games to review for you. I may not be the best, most prolific writer, but you know that I've actually played the games, you know that I won't bullshit you, and you know I always tell you why I like or dislike a game. Take me or leave me, but I'm not going anywhere. I hope you, my reader, will stay on board and enjoy the ride.

Cheers, and best wishes for the new year,
~Pete "SuperflyTNT" Ruth