Thursday, December 20, 2012

Strange Aeons - Two Parts Cthulhu + 2 Parts Diablo = The Best Narrative Game You've Never Heard Of

Every once in a while, a moment of clarity will occur in your life where you have to kind of sit back and re-evaluate just what the hell it is that you think you're doing. For some people, it's sitting in a bar, completely tossed and chain-smoking Marlboros, realizing they should quit the lifestyle before they become a sucked-up Iggy Pop look-alike. For others it's sitting, glazed, on the couch in a dope-fuelled stupor, perhaps concluding that you've been watching a TV that's not even on, and that you should put down the bong for a minute. Life tends to kick us in the bollocks from time to time with little gems of wisdom, and about a year ago or so, I got mine.

It came in the form of sitting, playing a quick game of Ave Caesar with my daughter. What, pray tell, was this great epiphany that changed my thinking? Put simply, it's that while I know I'm not really into card games but really like board games, but by and large, I realized that I really, honestly prefer tabletop miniatures games. Really, boiled down, I just really like toys, playing wee war games, and most especially neutralizing the enemy and blowing their shit up. So, as I was sitting there thinking to myself, "Wow, Ave Caesar would be way better if it was more like Circus Imperium, or better yet, if we were just playing that instead". I simply realized, in that moment, that even when playing games that I think are just cracking, I would just about always rather be playing a tabletop miniatures game.

Now, lots of people out there are the believe that mechanics and gameplay are equally as important to a game as an integral narrative is. Euro-game players might pretend that's true, but the proof that they don't actually believe it is that they play Euro games instead of American games. Games like Space Hulk are only great because they imbue upon the player the feel of being a doomed Space Marine plodding through the halls of an abandoned mining vessel, crawling with razor-clawed death. Unfortunately, a truly great game only comes out once or twice per year, if that, so in the interim you're stuck playing games that are merely average if you want something new. My recent revelation has shown me that not only do great games come out quite often, but that there's a huge back catalog of games that people have mostly never even heard of, but that are so tremendously good that it defies reason that people aren't talking about them.

I believe it's because the big-name reviewers of the world primarily concentrate on boxed products because that's the only way they're going to play them. After all, why would someone acquire and prepare terrain and miniatures for a game that they find sucks asshole? Aside from even that very valid point, most people hear "tabletop game" and think that the only ones out there are Games Wankshop style games that amount to spending six months painting and assembling an army for the purposes of throwing handfuls of dice once a week at a stinky game shop. I get that.

But, on the other hand, those same big-name reviewers will review "Living Card Games" which are essentially the same thing as tabletop games are, from the money perspective; you spend inordinate amounts of money on packs or boxes of cards to play what amounts to the exact same game, over and over again. Some even review "Collectible Miniatures Games" which are the worst form of spending too much on the hope of getting something useful. But many of these same folks will never bother to look at RPGs, even though they like board games with RPG elements. So, it's not really the fault of the reviewers, I think, as much as a fault of the hobby for not realizing that there's quite a few games out there that fall in the middle between tabletop games and RPGs, because people simply don't know that they exist.

In writing this, I thought about the fact that there's such a wide gap between the narrative and immersive theme between the realms of the RPG and the board game. For instance, in Runebound, a very thematic adventure game, you can choose one of many characters and their associated miniature, and you fight against cards depicting all manner of beasts. There's a narrative going on, and a fun enough adventure game, but when the game's over, it's done. When you want to play again, it resets and you start over, playing another two hours worth of game. You're not heavily invested, and so you get a fairly shallow experience, although Runebound delivers as much story as any narrative board game.

Crypt Scenery from UMW
On the flipside, you have RPGs, where you may or may not have miniatures, but the experience is really more cumbersome than some people want. I, personally, don't really feel compelled to play a game that rewards talking in a faux British accent (which is weird because Faerun isn't anywhere near the UK) or using antiquated words like "forsooth", "behold", and "hark". I, quite simply, don't need to be balls deep in-character to enjoy a game. That said, I do like the idea of a persistent universe, and I think I'm not alone in that. Maybe that's why so many people embraced the concept of continuity in Risk: Legacy. Some of us simply wanted more out of our games, and it's a shame that few board games deliver that experience.

Then there's the investment factor, the one thing I think that keeps a lot of people from exploring tabletop games. People envision huge outlays of money for "one game" and that's ostensibly true, but only if you still think Warhammer is the only one. The reality is that this new breed of games requires you to have only a few things to share between them all: miniature models and miniature terrain. For 200 dollars you can buy enough terrain and miniatures to have a good time of it, and if you've got a particular period in mind, such as "1920's", or "Victorian", or "Fantasy" in mind, you buy the models and terrain once, and simply change the rule-set to fit the game style you want to play. And honestly, if you own 100 games in your collection, you're lying to yourself if you believe that a $200 investment is even a blip on the radar, since of those 100 games, 40-50 of them have either never been played or have been played maybe once or twice.

Quite frankly, if you're looking for narrative and theme, I've never seen anything on the market that can compete with this new breed of tabletop games that I've discovered. I mean, there's games for every time period, every  genre. To that end, I'm going to be talking about one of the best games I've ever played, Strange Aeons, which is a Lovecraft-themed adventure skirmish game. It has all of the things that American-style gamers want: integral theme, persistent characters, easy to understand rules, and a beautifully crafted campaign system. To top it off, the game uses a persistent universe where the actions you take in one game affect every game you play in the future, but in this game, you don't have to rip up any cards or put pasties on the rule book. It, simply put, delivers more theme than Arkham Horror, takes less than 20 minutes to set up, and takes 30 to 60 minutes to play through a single scenario. You really can't beat it.

Scenario in-progress from Lead Adventures user Mason
The concept of Stange Aeons is that in the 1920's, Woodrow Wilson created a super secret government agency called Threshold, specially trained and loaded with experts on the subject of the occult, to stop the forces of evil. Each skirmish is part of a larger, ongoing campaign complete with character development, persistent items, as well as permanent injuries and death. In short, it is the "Diablo III" or "XCOM: Enemy Unknown" of tabletop games.Suffice it to say that it's a bad ass skirmish game that is wholly unlike anything else I've ever played, and there are simply no words to describe how completely awesome it is.

Strange Aeons can best be described as a tabletop and RPG hybrid. It has all of the elements of action RPGs such as looting, leveling, and buffing your squad. All of this is done in the frame of either random or predetermined scenarios, of which there are 11 of the former and a half dozen of the latter, and that's just in the core rulebook.  When you add in the three expansion modules, we're talking about a tremendous amount of unique scenarios, none of which feel overly similar to one another, leaving you with a wealth of replay options. It's a goldmine of great adventures, and as I noted, it's all persistent, so if you take a week or month off, you can come back right where you left off, with your characters still being set up and ready for action with all of their goodies.

The Strange Aeons core rulebook costs 30 dollars, and is a high quality, wire-bound affair. There are a very few things that I really had to think about in order to understand, mostly regarding close combat, but once I got to their site and, most importantly, found their very short FAQ, it was obvious that I was reading too much into it and that the problem was mostly me. The game is really rather simple to understand, once you get your head wrapped around it, which should take exactly one play-through, and after that, it's all gravy.

But let's say that you have no desire to get into painting, terrain making, and all that bollocks. The great news is that the entire game can be played using a box of Heroscape: Rise of the Valkyrie if you wanted to, because the system doesn't care what miniatures or terrain you use. If you don't want to do that, You can use a plain hex-map and ignore the hexes, or not, or you can set up empty toilet paper rolls on your table as columns if you want. Any minis or terrain will do. It's a hex-less system, although it can be played with hexes, so you can use any terrain you wish. I, personally, loved using Heroscape terrain because the scale was such that it made it very easy to implement. As I got into the game, I decided that I really had to get miniatures and terrain for it, because it's just that damned good and deserved the extra flavor.

Cultists III pack from Strange Aeons
Let's say, though, that you don't own a single miniature, well, then you will need to get some models to play the game. Uncle Mike's Worldwide has a pretty wide selection of them, all in PVC plastic (the same awesome stuff that Reaper's BONES line is using) that takes paint well without the need to prime. Each set is $12.00, although they have a starter kit for $50.00 that has a ton of models and pretty much everything you need to start playing. That's how I got started after playing the demo game with Heroscape stuff several times. 

Anyhow, back to the gameplay itself. The game is generally a one versus one affair, although the game has solo and multi-player rules which are actually really fun and don't feel "tacked on" at all. But in the normal game, it's a team of Threshold agents against a group of "Lurkers", with each game being different due to the layout of the board, the enemies you'll face, and the scenario you'll play. I just got their Shocking Tales #3 supplement, which will has more weapons, more sorcery, more bad ass scenarios, and the new Psychic Powers rules which will totally blow your mind. To give you an example of how truly unique and thematic the game is, if you want to activate a psychic power, your opponent holds up a Zener card, and if you guess the correct symbol, you get to activate it. Who does that? Most games would simply have a player roll a D20, but Uncle Mike doesn't fuck around. If it's in the game, it's soaked to the soul with theme.

Another scene from Lead Adventures user Mason
One of the neatest things in the game is that when any of your agents runs out of hit points, they're not just dead. They might just be incapacitated momentarily, they might just have been knocked down, or they might have been so seriously injured that they're removed from play. Even if they're removed from play, though, it doesn't mean they're dead. Models taken from the table can die, of course, but they could instead have a crippled limb which cripples him for the rest of his virtual existence. Or, you can be so injured that you become "Hideous" which causes any other human model, including friendlies, to flee in fear upon the mere sight of you. To top off the list, you can get a phobia, such as fear of enclosed spaces, which stops you from entering buildings or going too near walls in the future. 

It's simply amazing how much detail went into the game, and more importantly, how well executed it is. All of these things I've listed are seamless because they're put right onto your character's bio. It adds a lot of realism that is not found in any other tabletop game I've ever played, and truly makes you think about your actions because they will have consequences. It's not Warhammer where you basically just trade hockey-punches until the dice favor one side; it's very tactical, incredibly tense, and very, very exciting. Paired with the truly well-designed Lovecraft integration, the game is mind-bendingly good. I mean, I just can't think of enough adjectives to describe it. Flabbergasterously scrumdiddlyumptious, maybe?

To get into just how much content there is, to date, there's more than 40 unique Lurker types, ranging from the lowly, but deadly, Cultist, to the unseemly Tcho-Tchos, Hybrids, Blasphemous Construct, Formless Thing, and all the way up to a mind-bending Godling, all of which are totally unique. There's also maybe 30 skill types, 20 weapon types, three spellbooks, six or so special artifacts which present game-changing powers, eight types of special equipment such as a bullwhip and an lead breastplate, and an almost incalculable level of customization for your Threshold agents.

A Plasticville church - 12$
For each of the aforementioned Lurkers, there's several models you can choose from, and you can check out Uncle Mike's models at his website, which I've linked to at the bottom of this article. I've been a huge fan of Lovecraft pretty much forever, and the game, the theme, the setting...all of it really captures your imagination. I particularly like the fact that the models are made in PVC because the medium is just absolutely perfect for painting with Vallejo, Citadel, or Apple Barrel acrylics so that you can truly make them your own. But let's say that you're not keen on Uncle Mike's models, there's literally HUNDREDS of miniatures companies that produce resin, PVC, and white metal miniatures for whatever you want. I just purchased some Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield models from a couple different companies, in fact, because there's nothing better than fighting the forces of evil with a Bad Mother Fucker and an Amsterdam-loving junkie, right?

Initial Threshold squads generally consist of your main character, two or three supporting Agents, and perhaps a civilian or two. So, games are generally five Threshold models against what may be many or few Lurkers. Regarding the Lurkers, there are many more options available that affect the scenario itself, and are bought before the game begins with build points, such as adding "Scenes of Horror" which cause models to flee for their lives, or become catatonic with stark, raving terror. Lurkers can also add "Plot Points" with build points, which change the underlying rules of a scenario. The team size is symmetrical from the perspective of "force strength" as determined by the build cost of a list, but the teams are most certainly not symmetrical in their makeup, nor are the missions.

One last one from Mason, so, so fucking pretty
I don't have a ton of disposable income, nor do I have a lot of spare time, with a big job and 2 kids. And since I got sick, my gaming time has become a precious, precious resource that I guard jealously. Those of you who've read my articles for years now have a feel for me, for what kind of things I like, and the level of hyperbole that I tend to engage in using. But this time, I'm not being facetious or over-reaching. Strange Aeons is, quite simply, astoundingly good. I have literally sold off more than half of my board games because once I realized how great some games can be,  I don't have time for average any more. I encourage you with every fiber of my being to download the demo rules, play a quick scenario, and at least give it an honest look. It is remarkably good; so good, in fact, that I think it may well prove to be the perfect beer-and-pretzels, action RPG, skirmish game.

If nothing else, what I've learned from the experience of playing Strange Aeons is that there's this huge undercurrent of games that nobody I know is talking about. It's not being put up on BGG, likely because three quarters of the inhabitants there won't even think about a game that has an actual theme, requires more effort than being an expert in statistics and probability, or God forbid, requires a bit of imagination and creativity. But there are so many truly remarkable games, some of which are free but were developed by some of the old-school game designers like Chris Taylor, the kind of guys whose shoulders contemporary game designers are standing upon.

People really should explore these, because if you have a game collection of even 50 games that include Ameritrash, you can probably snatch some bits out of those games and play these tabletop miniatures games, and it costs you absolutely nothing. That said, if I had to spend my money on one, Strange Aeons is the one, and I've put far more than my fair share of money where my great big pie-hole is. Pair that with the fact that once you have a small collection of miniatures and terrain, you can then port them over and play games with similar styles but different themes, such as .45 Adventures, a "pulp crimefighting" game, or Chaos In Carpathia, a gothic horror game that has Victorian heroes fighting the likes of Dracula, Mummies, and Werewolves. That said, for me, Strange Aeons is the cream that rose to the top, and there it shall remain.

In the end, Strange Aeons has everything that an Ameritrash gamer wants: a strong, integral theme, it has a compelling narrative that develops during each mission and extends to every other match you subsequently play, it has truly meaningful decisions, it is soaked with replayability due to the nature of the scenario and campaign system, it has great bits, and new to the list, a persistent game environment. It's only real weakness is that it can require investment of time and money if you choose to get into the world of tabletop miniatures games, but the game itself can be played with things that you already have around the house if you choose to do so. All in all, it may be as close to being the perfect Ameritrash game as I have found thus yet, although I will delight in the continuing hunt.

Why I Never Had A Real Uncle Mike But I Could Certainly Adopt This One:
- The persistent "action RPG" nature of the game is unbelievably good
- Unique narrative tales are the staples of Strange Aeons
- Almost unlimited replay value to start, and ends cleanly with persistent, growing characters
- Incremental purchases and expansions allow you to buy as much, or as little, as you desire
- Constant publisher support, forums, and thousands of miniatures available make this a living game

Why This Tcho-Tcho May Be A No-No:
- If you get balls deep in this game, expect to spend a couple of hundred dollars on terrain and miniatures
- If you don't like to paint, your options for pre-painted pulp miniatures are somewhat limited

This is a hard "product" for me to write about because it's not like board games where it's a one-off purchase. At the end of the day, the review scores and commentary is based upon the core rulebook and the Morbid Adventures expansion. The fact that I bought miniatures and terrain is wholly irrelevant to the fact that the rules are what the game is made of, and since I initially played with Heroscape models and terrain, I think it's a fair assertion.

While the Strange Aeons miniatures are quite nice, and relatively inexpensive, the fact is that there is no requirement to ever purchase anything aside from the aforementioned rulebook to have the full experience, provided you have any miniatures from any of any number of games. Hell, you could really play the game with tokens if you wanted, although it would certainly take away from the cinematic feel of the game.

4.75/5 Stars

Take a look at the Strange Aeons site:

And take a look at the miniatures available from UMW:

And then, if you dare, explore the fora at Lead Adventures, starting with Strange Aeons' child board:

And then, when you're finally ready....I've made up some nice, thematic rosters and a quick reference guide with all of the major charts and rules therein:

All images used for this review are courtesy of Uncle Mike's Worldwide and/or Lead Adventures Forum user Mason, who is simply the best terrain maker I've seen.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Curse of Undeath - Just When I Thought My Interest Was Dead...It Rose From The Grave!

I said before, in my review of the launch packs, that I wasn't a big fan of the game system because it lacked a lot of the "white knuckle" factor because of the efficient model the system has at its core. Well, Curse of Undeath doesn't undo the fact that this game is geared towards being a purely strategic skirmish game without any real random factors. But what it did was rekindle an interest in the game for a variety of reasons, not the least of which are the quite wonderful miniature sculpts that were in this box. I'm actually considering picking up the Goblins pack just to see how it plays out compared to the previous iterations.

Anyhow, this is how it went: my buddy came down this weekend and brought his Dungeon Command sets, hoping to prove me wrong. In what can only be called fate, Wizards sent me a copy of the Undeath pack, which arrived Friday. Thus, I literally had no reason not to go forward and give it a go, especially since at this point, I am not one to tempt fate. It turns out that I stand by my assessment of the original game products, as products, but no longer do I think the system is, in and of itself, a failure. Rather, the system is actually pretty good, but the other packs' lack of interesting things to do when being attacked really turned me off.

See, I never got the Tyranny of Goblin pack and I gave away the previous Dungeon Command packs, so I had pretty much written the game off. It's not a bad game by a long shot, and I can see the draw for some people, but suffice it to say that from my five or so plays, I really just wasn't into the game, despite being a huge miniature skirmish kind of guy. That said, Curse of Undeath really kind of changed my mind on what the game offers, because this particular pack brings a lot of what I believe was missing in the other packs.

You see, the other packs I've played with to this point felt dry, predictable, and served the game's model for the sake of the model. The deterministic approach of the game is such that most of the time, you attack with your critter of choice, it does a predictable amount of damage, and then the other player does the same. There weren't a lot of really good countering options, truly strong ones that did more than simply reduce an amount of damage done. With most skirmish games, and my most, I mean every other one I've ever played, the dice are either your ally or nemesis, and your attacks are not guaranteed. That simple randomness is what made your toes curl as the die is cast while you prayed to whatever God you pray to in order to come up with a favorable result. And so it goes, until one side is crushed. 

Dungeon Command turned skirmishes to date on their head in that respect, because while other games like Star Wars Miniatures, for instance, have predetermined damage amounts, there is always the chance, slim as it might be, that the little battler will whiff. With Dungeon Command, there simply isn't a case where an attack would miss, and therefore much of what gets your heart pumping was missing. While that didn't change with Curse of Undeath, but what did change was the idea that you really couldn't do much about it other than reduce the damage dealt by playing a card against an attack. Even that hasn't changed, but the decisions just feel more meaningful based on the new cards.

With Curse of Undeath, you have a lot of new ideas that evolve from the simple fact that undead shit doesn't generally tend to stay dead once it's been re-animated. Vampires can drain life from their enemies and heal, and some of the critters that are killed get to get back up. There's a mounted critter that once killed doesn't just go away, but rather just has its steed slaughtered and you can put the rider right back into play where the steed was killed. And that's just the beginning of the awesome that they put into this release. I mean, it almost feels like a different game because of what got put into the box.

It starts with the commanders, in fact, because these two have a lot of flavor that is due, in part, to the theme of the box. These are evil bastards who want death to reign, and it shows. The other factions are much more tame as far as theme, and while I'd not say it was painted on, they were more of the fantasy tropes that people have come to expect. Undeath is really built on the idea of undead things doing undead thing shit, starting with the idea that if you kill off an enemy, you can summon them from the grave as skeletal critters. This has been abstracted into allowing one of the leaders to gain a higher leadership level per killed unit, which really adds to the box's theme of hordes of dead things rising up from the abyss to chew up the living. 

Then, the whole feel runs through the units, which is comprised wholly of skeletons, ghosts, and zombies, with a dash of skeletal dragon wizard. The miniatures are easily the best of the bunch, with a nice base coat on each, followed by a highlighting and a wash coat which is better than Heroscape's by leagues and, in fact, better than the other packs that I've seen. The wash on some of these miniatures is a low point, though, because the reddish tones don't really match the figures' ivory base coat, so they just look a little bit off. The dracolich, for instance, looks like he was bathing in black cherry Jell-o, for instance. Still, for a prepainted miniature, they're pretty damned snazzy. The art is also very good, as it was in the other packs, but that's to be expected from Wizards at this point. But that's not really what makes this pack special; it's the powers and abilities of this lot that really made me fancy these more than the others.

As noted, Zombies can rise from the grave, which ensures a nearly limitless supply of cheap, front line cannon fodder. On top of that, you have skeletal warriors, and a mounted skeleton that I spoke of before. Once the mounted skeleton is killed, you can drop a skeletal warrior right on the spot that the critter dropped, which means you lose no table position. Then there's a ghost which ignores walls and can't easily be hit. On top of that, you have a devil dog, a naga-like skeletal tomb guardian with four arms and multiple attacks, a vampire that regenerates, and some sort of death knight who hurts you just by being near him. Finally, you get a lich which can spawn creatures and a dracolich which is, essentially, the King Daddy of the faction, with three attacks and a skeletal paw full of whoopass. All in all, this is easily the coolest faction I've seen, with the most true variety in what they do.

Now, that said, the critters and their innate powers aren't really the draw. It's the order deck that really made this into a bad ass little set, and primarily due to the fact that the cards in this set are very different from the first two. For starters, they've included some cards that really could be used in Dwarf or Drow decks more than this, and it's apparent that this was the idea, since they depict Dwarves and skinned creatures. Two of them are simply magic sword cards that can only be used by humanoids, which are pretty standard fare. The other two, though, are cards that allow one creature to dodge a bunch of damage. The fact that these were included gives me the feeling that future iterations will include cards that are best suited toward building custom decks, which I think could be a real draw if a tournament scene were to emerge for the system.

The faction-specific cards, though, are where it's at, though. I am not in a position to talk about power creep at this point since I'm only three games deep into this faction, but I will say that I beat the living shit out of the Drow and Cormyr factions. The magic of this pack is in the fact that most all of the cards are deeply rooted in avoiding damage and healing as a result of causing damage. Paired with the durability of the characters and their abilities, it makes for a fearsome and potent faction that actually makes you feel as if you have meaningful things to do when being attacked. I still miss the dice, and I'm still staunchly against deterministic attacks in a skirmish game, but this new faction's abilities really got me over the hump to enjoying Dungeon Command.

The final thing to talk about are the cards for the Dungeons and Dragons Adventure System games, and this one is a shoo in for the best, because it gives Castle Ravenloft a delicious new set of baddies to beat upon with great disdain. Now, new doesn't mean better, and if you have Ravenloft, the Zombies are the same model, although these are painted, while the rest are new. The only complaint I have is that the cards are rather bland, with none having any special effects. This is particularly puzzling as there's a baddie called a Hypnotic Ghost, which I would've thought would daze a hero, but in fact doesn't do anything more than most other baddies do. I'm only a tiny bit disappointed in this, though, because when it comes to those games, anything new is a good thing.

Why I Like To Play With Dead Things:
- New mechanics in this pack make it something really different than the others
- The models are really quite nice
- Anything that spices up Ravenloft is awesome
- Nice that they included cards for other factions to include in their warband

Why I Want To Beat Edward And Bella To Death:
- The wash tones on some of the models are really odd looking
- The DDAS cards included in the set are pretty uninspired; nothing new to see here
- In an unrelated matter, any vampire wearing girly sparkle dust should be killed

What this pack did for me was show me what Dungeon Command ~could~ be. I stand by my assertion that the lack of randomization takes a lot of the white-knuckle anticipation away from skirmish games, but what this taught me is that when the cards are interesting enough, they can make up for a lot of the vacuum. It's sort of like reaching in your pocket and grabbing a box cutter when some drunken asshat is talking tough to you at the know something the other guy doesn't, and it's really going to ruin his plans for the night.

I was really pretty much done with this game system, but thanks to my buddy Frank, I think I'll check out the Goblin pack and see what it has to offer. I was pleasantly surprised that I enjoyed playing with this faction as much as I did, and while I miss the dice, this goes a long way to making me think that maybe the system isn't the problem as much as the initial factions released.

4/5 Stars

Check out the game system at the Wizards site:

And if you have NO IDEA what I was talking about, check out my original review, which goes into more about the game system and my feelings on it: