Saturday, September 28, 2013

City Of Remnants - Damn, It Feels Good To Be A Space Gangster

Anyone who has been reading the Circus for any length of time will soon realize that there are very few games that I appreciate more than what Ken B., of Fortress: AT fame, coined as "Dudes on a Map" (DoaM) games. There's just something about the idea of having a group of friends playing a game for several hours, using long-term gambits and overarching strategies to take control of the known universe. I have a hard-on for these kinds of games, and one that cannot be squashed, not even by a cold shower or Machinist's hammer. Risk Legacy, Ikusa, Conquest of Nerath, and now, City of Remnants from Plaid Hat Games, are all recent examples of this style of play. And, surprisingly, it is also one of the most underrated and least mentioned DoaM games of all time. Yes, it is that good.

The game is set in what amounts to a futuristic prison city that was created for the sole purpose of storing the survivors from a malicious alien race's perpetual war of conquest. Like most prisons, this one is a melting pot where profit-minded individuals banded together to form gangs, kill rivals, steal stuff, and the best part, create giant factories that spew out drugs. Yeah, that's right, it is absolutely a game about drug-dealing space gangsters, which is utterly awesome in every way. It really doesn't get much better than that in this life.

From a mechanical perspective, City of Remnants is a race for victory points, with multiple paths available to achieve that goal. Several factors come into the fold in order to be more effective, one of which is an "influence" mechanic that rewards having a large gang, an effective drug production and distribution network, and simply having a lot of money. The more influence you have, the more effective you can be, and this is abstracted via a points system that represents not only your influence, but the strength of your available actions. Higher influence allows you to move more miniatures about the board per round, which in turn allows you to expand your criminal enterprise more swiftly as well as make your gang army more effective in combat. The system is so smartly designed that it's a joy to play from virtually every perspective, with everyone's singular complaint being that the game is slightly too long. That said, you can shorten the length by lowering the amount of available victory points, and I'd add one more complaint: there's a rather steep learning curve despite the rule book being well organized and written in an intelligent, intuitive manner. 

The components in the game are mostly great as well dark, gritty card artwork, which is easily the high point of the overall aesthetic. It's got a ton of beautiful, little miniature models to represent your gang members, and it's got hundreds of wee bits, with mostly good artwork, to track all sorts of things. One of the most impressive parts of the design are the gang tracking sheets, which double as quick rules references; these things are marvelous when it comes to providing all the information in a simple to understand manner. That said, as nice as the art is, there are some questionable design facets from the practicality perspective in some of the little things. On the back of the building tiles that get placed on the board, there are just some icons and a name; the large icon is matched to a card which tells you what the building does. There's so much space left that it would have been great to ditch the symbol and just write the text of what the building does right onto the building itself. All this said, the game looks outstanding, aside from the board itself, and your eyes will most assuredly be feasting.

Now, Jerry Hawthorne, designer of Mice and Mystics and Plaid Hat regular, myself, and some of our mutual  friends had a conversation at GenCon about what makes a game attractive to buyers, and while I disagreed at the time, after deliberation I think he was right: It's everything. From the cards to the board to the bits, a game needs to be cohesive and have a great style to it in order to be attractive. As it sits, the art on City of Remnants' board is simply very bland.  It's as if someone thought confetti glued to a black background would be a great way to show an image of a city from space, despite so many being widely available for examples. I mean, I know what they tried to do, but they simply didn't execute it well. It's not distracting, but it's just so utterly forgettable and boring, especially in light of the otherwise outstanding art in the game, that I think it may be the sole thing holding it back from being talked about more, and more importantly, on everyone's table. It's just so impressive from a game play perspective that you have to overlook the art. I'm even considering creating my own board design and gluing it over the "factory" design. Yes, it's so good that it's worth the time and money involved in pimping it out properly.

One of the most impressive parts of the game is how everything seamlessly blends together to provide a cohesive experience. The mercenary cards deserve special notice in this respect because of how they are the centerpiece of the game's design, and they are flawless. First, when you buy a card, you get to put a new miniature into play, increasing your army, and thus the cards are your gang just as much as the miniatures are. But that's just the icing; the meat is that in continuity with the unique faction powers aspect of the game, each card is sort of "themed" to work with one gang, but is useful to all. Each card may be used by any player for its 'power' but that each card has a value of strength in battle for each faction, so that players may choose cards that benefit them in battle, benefit them through power, or if they are matched to your faction, the card helps for both. This means that the cards are a sort of social battleground, where there's several competing reasons to buy a card; you can buy one for the power, for its battle strength, both, or to simply deny an opposing gang the opportunity to gain a card that is very useful to them but not as useful to you. In a word, it's brilliant.

Additionally, in a stroke of genius, there is an underlying mechanic of turn management, as it were, but unlike so many other games that have the "UGO-IGO" format, the turns are really rather dynamic in City of Remnants. For instance, during a player's turn turn, they may choose to initiate bidding session on cards, which represents inducting new gang members into your cadre of thugs, and the person who initiates the bidding process chooses which of the four initially available cards is bid upon. Here's the catch, though: if someone else wins the card, sure, they get the card, but they have to pay for it and lose an action for doing so. This allows sneaky bastards like me to sap other players of actions, and since there's four available at the beginning of a round, and a new one is always available when they run out, you can literally run other players completely out of actions. Once a player is out of actions, they get skipped when their turn comes around, so you can start to muscle in on their turf with them powerless to stop you. 

Another really slick thing I'd like to point out is that City of Remnants has truly unique player strengths, but they're not defined by them. Every one of the four gangs excels at certain things, but it's balanced to the point of razor sharpness, which is another example of the tightness of design. What's most impressive is the fact that you aren't required to play to the strengths of your gang in order to win; you can play the ultra-aggressive faction as a "builder" and still win, just as you can play the "money engine" faction as a war-monger and win. That's incredibly hard to do in a game design that has unique faction powers and yet Isaac Vega and the Plaid Hat team managed to pull it off with style and grace. 

Finally, due to the large volume of cards, pretty much every game will play differently, even if the same play styles or strategies are employed. On top of that, replay value is added in the fact that there are eighteen unique buildings that can be developed in the box, but only nine are available for any given session, so the mix of buildings varies greatly; I've played this game five times now and have yet to see two of the building types come up even once. Each is quite different in what it does and why you'd want to develop it, and the more powerful a building is, the closer to the center of the board it gets placed, meaning that it's going to be under fire for most of the game.

In short, this game should be on the short list for anyone who likes the "conquest" style of game. It's a microcosm of everything that I love about DoaM games, and although it has a rather generic sci-fi fiction as a base, it is an impressive design that trumps virtually every game of its type that I've played, and in very smart ways. I think that the only flaws in the game are derived solely from the poor aesthetics of the board and the oversight regarding the building text not being on the back of the cards. This is not to say that these flaws are distracting or somehow muddle the game, because that could not be further from the truth.

I passed on buying this at GenCon primarily because I spent almost all of my money buying Wreck Age models and Mice and Mystics, and I didn't play this until the last day of my GenCon visit. Had I played it the first time, I'd have forewent buying some the models to pick this up instead. Luckily I was talking about how great it was with Jerry, who was kind enough to pull some strings and get me a review copy, which allowed me to write this article. And thankfully, this game has elevated itself to be placed on the "Forever" area of my game collection. It's a phenomenal game and everyone I've played it with save one thought it was absolutely amazing.

Why I Love To Be Breaking Bad In Space :
- Tightly integrated mechanics provide an amazing DoaM experience
- A totally novel theme and setting that is cohesive and ingrained in the mechaincs
- Really nice Chad Hoverter sculpts make the miniatures look very "Thug Life"
- The artwork is really superb aside from the board

Why This Game Might Be Sentenced To 25 To Life:
- Whoever thought confetti looks like a city from space should be cock-punched
- The game runs about an hour too long, although this can be mitigated
- It has a rather generic back story, but it's not relevant to play itself

This game can be used as a litmus test to determine if you like DoaM-style games, without a doubt. It's actually very easy to play, although it's got a lot going on, and once you've played it once you'll have no problem understanding it. It helps a lot to have the game taught to you by an experienced player, but that said, it's not the mechanics that are hard to understand as much as the interactions of things. All in all, as someone who has spent way too much of my life playing DoaM games, I guarantee that this is among the very top-tier of this style. This game will very likely be one of the last games I ever sell off or trade, because it is simply that much better than virtually all of the other DoaMs that I own or have played. In short, this is Isaac Vega's masterpiece.

4.75/5 Stars

Learn more about this game here:

Want to learn how to play? Check this bad boy out:

Or read the rules here:

Monday, September 23, 2013

Square Shooters - Banality In 54 Simple Steps

You may recall me doing some reporting on GenCon last month, and one of the pages had an article about how this little old lady who lives on the Mississippi figured out how to put a 54-card poker deck onto dice, while still allowing it to make a wide array of the high hands such as 4-of-a-kind and all manner of straight flushes. On its face, Square Shooters contains some pretty impressive stuff right there. Well, as it turns out, there's a reason nobody ever did that before; it doesn't make much sense. Besides the fact that not everyone can play at once unless you buy a pack for all of the players, at $20.00 a pack, the fact that these dice are almost the size of Vegas craps dice means that you're rolling nine huge dice. Unless you're Shaq, it's pretty hard to get them all in your hands at the same time. Plus, if you have a glass table like my neighbor does, every time you hear those dice hit the surface you're praying that they don't shatter the table.

But, let's get this started out right, and I'll explain the game. This is one of the most simple games of all time; you take a card that pictures a poker hand and has some text that tells you how many chips you get for getting that exact hand, and how much you get if you get the same kind of hand, such as a straight, but not the exact hand. You roll three times, Yachtzee style, and if you nail it, you get the chips listed. There's also a couple other kinds of cards in there that let you get chips when other people score, that provide you a free Joker, and that allow you to go head-to-head with someone for the best poker hand. There's rules for other kinds of games, like a weird Rummy analog and some others. But, in short, it's a Yachtzee-style set building dice game. 

Now onto the "analysis" portion of this article, and I want to get this started out right: Seriously, I couldn't stand this game, and I mean, like, white-hot "please can I just go home now" kind of searing, mind-destroying boredom. But, because I love you guys and gals, I played this game maybe 5 times. That feeling never really went away, but I did learn quite a bit about who this game is for, and I even have a variant for the drunken party-girl crowd.

This game does not fit into the "filler" game space, and it doesn't fit into the "main event" game space. It fits into the "put this in your camper and let the kids play it while you sip Genny Cream Ale by the fire. This is most assuredly a game like Uno, Yachtzee, Farkle, Bunco or even Sorry!; it is for people who like games but haven't been introduced into better games yet. It's not a bad game by any standard, although the fact that the dice are over-sized is a real bummer, it's that it's simply a mainstream game made for people who like things simple. I think the fact that it's been ported to iOS probably adds a lot as this game design is really well suited for that kind of play style; if it has asynchronous multi-player then it really would surpass Can't Stop iOS in the "over the 'net press-your-luck game category.

My kids loved this game, while my wife was a little bit unenthusiastic. That said, my neighbor, who lives to drink and party, really liked it. That said, she was utterly toasted when we played. She came up with the idea that every time you win a card, you get the chips shown, but every time you can't make the hand, you toss a quarter in the pot; the person with the most chips at the end wins the pot. Now, we play gambling games with her all the time, and you really kind of have to have money involved to make her like a game. That said, she was all about playing a second time and when both the wife and I pretty much said we were done, she was quite disappointed. So, there is a market for this game, it's just not primarily the hobby market. 

I'd love to do a much more in-depth review of the game, I really would, but honestly, there's no depth to it. It is essentially Poker crossed with Blackjack, where you have to beat the "dealer" instead of other players, but with less options than Poker, and that can be played by only one person at a time. Oh, and with monstrous dice, to boot. This game is the ultimate game that embodies "Your Mileage May Vary". Tom, the gentleman who gave me this review copy at GenCon, told me that they had sold over 200,000 units, so this may very well be the game that is remembered along with Yachtzee and Farkle as "classic American family gaming"; that may be close to the truth as my five year old and twelve year old liked it quite a lot. Who can say that they've never had a bit of fun playing a bromidic board game with their kids, not because of the game but of playing it with their kids? 

Why Square Shooters Aims To Please:
- It's definitely a game that kids and drunken neighbors will get a kick out of
- I can see this being a party game for campouts or barbecues
- Everything is very high-quality, from the dice to the chips
- There's a lot of press-your-luck in this game

Why This Game Is A Busted Flush:
- Why the monstrous, heavy dice are required, I'll never understand
- Quarriors is a better example of using dice as cards, at around the same price
- Monotonous play gets tiring after five or six rounds. Or less

While I think this game would appeal to people who have children of a certain age, or perhaps as a replacement for dominoes at barbecue gatherings or something, this game isn't one that I, personally, enjoyed very much. There's just so many better ways to kill 45 minutes, and just using the cards included in the game combined with a regular deck of cards would be a better gaming experience, I think. The long and short is that It's not a bad game, but it's not a really good one either, and it's most assuredly not one that was designed with the hobby game market in mind. 

1.5/5 Stars

Learn more about Square Shooters here, and download the rules here if you're so inclined:

And if you're a creative sort, check out their contest here:

Monday, September 2, 2013

Post-Apocalytic Wanderers Need Fast Food Too!

I've been spending a disproportionate amount of time creating terrain and painting models to play Wastelands 3: Total Meltdown as well as my new love, Wreck-Age. I love post-apocalyptic (PA) games quite a bit because the sky's the limit with the time-frame and the circumstances around the "end of civilization".  It really makes for interesting games with odd mutations, home-made and futuristic weapons, and myriad adventures that depict desperate raiders laying waste to towns defended by future farmers. I've talked about Wasteland 3 to several people and it is, at this point, my favored campaign-based PA game. Wreck-Age is definitely a better system, but the rules aren't out yet, so I'm still playing Wasteland as it's no slouch.

Anyhow, I was perusing the Wreck-Age forums and found a conversation about "raised bed planters" and how in desperate times, people might carry their produce with them, or simply raise food in mobile gardens in case they need to bug out quickly. A lot of good ideas came out of that thread and I kind of had to see what my mind eruptions could conjure and, subsequently, engineer.

So, here's what I've been doing over the Labor Day Weekend, aside from partying, going to the local pool, taking my youngest to the playground, and taking my eldest from party to party and sleepover to sleepover. It's worth mentioning that people can get really caught up in these projects, but never forget the most exciting adventure of all: finding ways to occupy your children so that you can have sex with your wife.

Anyhow, here's the veggie cart:
The body of the cart is made from Evergreen Scale Models V-groove Corrugated, in 0.030" thickness. This was to exude a corrugated metal look to the walls.

The I-beam below is also from Evergreen; it's a bitch to cut, even with a sharp knife, but I wanted it to look uneven and rust-eaten, so it actually was OK.

 The wheels and axle were "harvested" from a cheap ATV toy I got at the aforementioned indoor playground, which also boasts a small store area for cheap shit to sate your kids' need for new shit. Unsurprisingly, I was the only one who got to buy anything.  Finally, the hitch was made from two 1/4" balsa sections with a toothpick section thrust in between and square-cut. All of it was secured with cheap CA glue. The animal in the picture is a Wreck-Age Pack Boar, and I had initially planned to create a yoke to attach to it from the hitch, but in the end, I thought it better not to as if the boar was killed, the yoke would just be lying on the table, and probably would be easily damaged. So, it's free-standing.

One of my concerns was that I'd have to load the wagon with a lot of expensive scenery materials or something, so I opted to raise the height of the bed using Scrabble tiles. I use them in almost every project, somehow, and every time I see a copy at the local thrift shop, I buy it, because you can use all of the parts for all kinds of things. In a recent group of projects, I used the tiles as a "tile floor" for a ruined command center, and I used the little tile racks as a sign post for my "Mark's Junk" junkyard project. In any event, these things take all sorts of glue very well, and are almost identical in size, which makes them a shoo-in for all kinds of things. I've thought about even cutting grooves in the sides to make a magical tome or book of some sort, and the tiles scale very well for things of that nature.

After that was done and it was primed with Armory Grey primer, I had my eldest basecoat the entire thing with Vallejo "Mithril Silver", except for the hitch, which would later be painted with two Vallejo brown colors and washed with Coat D'Arms Brown Ink Wash, I truly believe it is the single best brown wash on the market, and all of their washes are superb, although the black needs to be watered down a bit as it is REALLY dark. The rumor is that this is the same paints Citadel used to use, and this company mixed them for Games Workshop until they went "in-house". In any event, the paint is pretty good, but Vallejo is easily better, with the washes being the exception. I have a ton of Cd'A washes, and I use the flesh wash exclusively for all of my models. It's simply brilliant. 

Anyhow, back to the cart build. After the basecoat dried, I applied the best stuff in the world for rusting things: Modelmates Rust Effect Fluid. This stuff should be in every modeler's stable along with some of their mud and oil washes, because it's both easy to use and gives utterly spectacular results, as you can see from the above. The final touch was loading the bucket with my "Superfly's Super Secret Sauce", which isn't secret, but is super:
2 parts water
1 part Titebond II PVA wood glue
1 part Mod Podge (satin or matte) PVA glue

Now, this mixture is not only watery enough to soak down into substrates, it's incredibly strong and durable. I dropped some Woodland Scenics "fine brown ballast" in there for dirt. The beautiful thing about the Secret Sauce is that the material becomes so hard that you can dry brush over it without loosening little bits of debris, thereby avoiding the ruin of your expensive brush.

I added a few more coats of the rust fluid to really make the thing look old and beat up, and then I put a drybrush of Vallejo "Beastly Brown" on the tires. I was pretty satisfied with the final product, so then I went on to finish the model by adding some Noch static grass as foliage for small plants in the front, and some Woodland Scenics fine green turf as a bed to cover the dirt for the larger produce.

I used Super Sculpey, a cheap and easy to use modeling material, which hardens in the oven at low temperature with no odor, to make the produce. Normally, I use Milliput for this sort of thing but it's sticky, makes a bit of a mess, and is more expensive.  In any event, I simply rolled some oblong balls for small turnip-style root vegetables, or perhaps tomatoes, and then I made some larger ones for watermelons. I figure that in the wasteland, you'd want to get as much water as possible captured in the fruit so that you can re-absorb it when you eat it, and I know people who grow them in Las Vegas' searing summers, so it seemed a proper idea.

Painting small things like this is very hard, but I have a method that always works: I roll the balls in a small palette, really more of a drop, of whatever color I want, and then slide them off to the side to dry with a small tweezers. If you don't know who Excelta is, you should check them out. I used to sell them to factories and they're the top of the line, lifetime tweezers and cutter company. Anyhow, I rolled the "turnipmatoes" in red paint and slid them off.

The melons were not so bad, but I knew I'd end up painting them and inadvertantly rolling them off of the cart onto the floor, so I opted to simply glue them to some scrap plastic and then paint them. I started with a dark green with the intention of adding lighter stripes, but that was harder than I thought, so I re-painted them in the lighter green after two attempts at the stripes. Happy with the results, I finished them off with a drybrush coat of the original, darker green, and what you see above is the product of that endeavor. 

I used some CA glue to affix the melons in place, but I used the Secret Sauce to affix the small red produce as they were so small that using CA glue would probably kill the paint job due to "frosting", a phenomenon that happens when CA glue is allowed to dry without actually bonding one thing to another. In any event, once they were down I used a small paddle tweezers and some more Secret Sauce to add a little more of the Noch static grass, and to add Woodland Scenics "coarse turf", which was comprised of a mix of both the light and dark green variety, to give some depth of color.   

As you can see, this thing turned out amazingly well, at least in my opinion, and it's a perfect fit for any PA game setting. I'm thinking it could also work well with a modern or pulp setting as it's designed to look like it was made from harvested materials, something farmers do fairly often due to necessity, especially out in the sticks.

Hope you enjoyed the tutorial!