Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Bane Of Peer Marketing, As It Relates To The Hobby Board Game Industry

I was involved in a conversation at Board Game Geek, and the subject was game criticism and the hesitance of people to do negative reviews. Up until the end, it was an interesting and compelling conversation, and it brought all kinds of people into it. As it turns out, some reviewers are trying with a straight face to somehow obfuscate the fact that compensation is received for the articles, videos, podcasts, et cetera, and that it influences them even a tiny bit. I'm sorry, but in my opinion, any sane, reasonable person would have to conclude that at some point, a motivation for doing serial reviews of games, and I mean more than a handful, has got to be access to review copies. I'm not saying the sole motivation, but I am saying that it's certainly one of them, and not a small one. And I'm not saying that people are in it for the money, either, but rather in the preponderance of reasons, access to review product is one of the motivators for people to begin reviewing games.

One participant of the conversation had concluded that receiving review copies is not compensation, or not nearly enough alone to want to do game reviews. I cannot envision how he could possibly come to that conclusion. Access to review copies is absolutely a factor into why many people I know have started doing reviews. It's common sense, and I don't understand why there's such hand wringing and soft-shoeing about it. Why deny it? Just say, yes, having access to review copies is one factor of me starting this blog/podcast/website. I know it was with the Circus...after all, I'm not interested in spending thousands of dollars per year on games, but I wanted to get my voice out there because I didn't see any "groupthink" reviews out there other than Opinionated Gamers, and I didn't particularly care for their style of writing or the games they review, in general. But you can't start a well-followed blog without a large collection of newer games, and unless you review new games when they come out, you will lack a great deal of relevance, because what you say has likely been said before, and a thousand times at that. So, access to new games upon release is a huge deal for a person wanting to do reviews, because it allows them to be on the forefront of people who are writing or talking about new games as they release.

Anyhow, this same participant who said that serial reviewers do it for "love of games alone" also said that when calculating compensation in the form of free games, you need to calculate the time you spent playing. Well, in my opinion, if you count playing the games you get as "work", then you're probably not doing it for love of games. I mean, some games, like Crossroads at Darklion Pass, or Halo Interactive Board Game can be work, no doubt, but the comments and guffaws at the game make it far more of a conversation about a bad B movie than work. Playing games is a hobby, and a joyous one; it's not work, unless you do it for a living or gain substantial money from it. Guys like Vasel put out such a huge volume of high-quality, edited, and professional content that I would ~dread~ doing that, and unless the compensation was so overwhelming that I could clear a hundred grand doing it and quit my job, forever. Even then, I'd probably take a pass, because I simply am not that invested in the hobby.

In that discussion, I did a little math to determine just how much "payola" someone like me could make, not counting advertising money on their site, access to paid previews, et cetera. I reckon that if a reasonably popular reviewer got 30 review copies in a year, which is 2.5 reviews per month, and the value of the average game at retail is $50.00, that person received $1500.00 per year in free product to review. Furthermore, if you consider an average effective tax of 23%, that person would've had to gross $1845.00 to pay for those games if they didn't have access to the review copies. If the average US household median income is $51,017.00, then they saved 3.6% of their annual household income by getting those review copies. That's $1500.00 in arguments with the wife about "your game addiction" that you didn't have to have. On top of that, there's free GenCon, Origins, ConnConn and other con passes you didn't have to buy, and of course, advertising revenue if your site has it.

I also figured that a review, soup to nuts, takes me two hours. It takes an hour to think about the article, review notes, and so on, and it's an hour of editing, uploading, photography if none was taken during the games while they were being played. You could even slide in 30 minutes for ten minutes of polling and discussion for each of the three games played (at least that's how we review things here) in order to get the scores and some of the key ideas that the Circus members wanted to get across. If that game is $50.00, and it takes you two hours, the savings rate is $25.00 an hour to write and "research" a review. I don't know about you, but that's not insignificant. It's a simple, reasonable argument that publishers pay me $50.00 to spend two hours of my time talking about their game. Now, if they don't like what I write, well, they hired me, so it's their own fault. But again, it's not about the money, although this was a good example of the kind of compensation that is available to a reviewer who wishes to get free product and wants to justify the benefit/liability matrix in their own mind.

So, as I can show, game reviewers are paid, and as I showed above, it's not insignificant. Some people write for that. There's also the "celebrity" factor, because some people have a need to be liked, and in writing about games a lot in our little niche hobby is the fastest way to get recognized. I think this is an even more pervasive reason in our world, because many people that are gamers are social outcasts, or socially inept, and this helps them break through the wall and be part of something larger than they ever were before; to be the popular kid. I've talked with some people whose biggest reason for getting into the gig is this one, and I can respect that. At least it's an honest answer, and it's not seeking payola for payola's sake.Some people have that need, and for whatever reason, gravity or fate, they found themselves doing this review thing because it made them feel special and liked. No matter why this is, I'm just happy that they found peace in something positive.

I'm not saying I'm any better, or any less flawed, or any less biased. This is why I set the Circus up the way I did: I have unbreakable rules, I reviewed and continue to review every review copy I was ever sent or will ever be sent, and I sought out people outside the board game hobby who had never played anything beyond the old GameMaster series, Monopoly, or similar games, because they would be the least likely to have preconceived notions. I also set up the rules for review copies being given away because that way I had no vested interest in them; the words I use, the rape jokes, the utterly vulgar language, all of these things pretty much ensure that I was not going to get a lot of review copies, and I am 100% fine with that. All these things I did because I didn't want to have the possibility of being biased, personally, and because I know I'm flawed. Again, I'm no better than anyone else, nor more principled, but I did things at this site solely to guard against the fact that I am indeed human, indeed flawed, and prone to weaknesses as others are.

Another factor in setting the Circus up as it was has to do with "personal relationship bias". I like a lot of industry guys, because they're smart, savvy, and game dudes that are just cool. Colby Dauch is a cool ass guy. Jerry Hawthorne is an even cooler guy, one of the coolest people I've ever met. James Mathe is a great guy, and I really, truly like and admire him. That said, not a single person at the Circus besides myself have ever met any of them, will ever meet any of them, and couldn't identify them in a lineup if they were the only ones in it. I did this because this insulates my review process from bias; my Circus brothers and sisters are loud, obnoxious fucks just like me, and we don't pull punches. There's no bullying them into anything, and there's no persuading them unless the argument is sound. I've got a great group here, and this is why the Circus is so effective at what it does, which is being a champion of the consumer.

I mean, there's nothing wrong with getting review copies on its face - it's not indicative of bias simply because you've gotten review copies from one vendor or another, provided you review all that you get. It's only indicative that you are human, and that you feel you produce good enough quality work that you deserve to receive them, and that you'd be a good news source for people. As long as you are explicit about receiving a review copy when you write or record a review, then the buyer has the relevant information and can then make a value judgement to determine if you are, to them, a credible witness, so to speak. This isn't even about individual reviewers, it's about how publishers rely on reviewers' fear of losing access in order to skew the entire industry to the positive. I mean, we used to get some review copies, but I stopped actively soliciting review games for the most part, doing so only if a reader specifically asked us to get a game, or if the game is from an unknown or smaller publisher and the game looked so cool that I felt an obligation to get it out there, in the hopes that a larger reviewer would follow suit. Again, that's our choice and we've suffered from it; we were up to 4,000 page reads a week and now we're down to 200, and I reckon it has a lot to do with my refusal to post to Board Game Geek and not being as relevant due to not reviewing "hot games" when they come out as we once did.

But in the end, my point in writing this article is that there's something not often talked about, or rather goes unnoticed, and it has everything to do with "industry bias", and marketing people's understanding of human nature. It has to little to do with "an individual reviewer's bias". The main point is really about major reviewers not reviewing games that they don't like, after receiving them. You see, many reviewers, and especially the big name ones, are not keen on doing negative reviews, for a variety of reasons. Joel Eddy, a major reviewer, has publicly said that he does not do many negative reviews because they're not worth his time, among other things, which is his decision and I think it is probably a valid one considering the costs involved with producing a video. Others have said they don't do it because they don't want to deal with public backlash from the fanboys of any given product. Others have said that they simply don't want to hurt anyone's feelings, such as a designer, or a friend that is a publisher. All totally legitimate reasons not to do something, with the latter being a form of misplaced nobility, I believe. 

But here's the catch: publishers know this about reviewers. They know that people don't want to waste their time on a game they don't like, that they don't want drama, and they don't want to hurt feelings. In fact, they count on this very human factor in order to ensure that they sell their products. The "review sales channel" is entrenched in "reprisal fear" to the extent that they have strong  evidence that their risk of receiving a bad review from a major reviewer is very slim, and even minor but vocal reviewers are even more at risk from this kind of thing. To them, it's a $20.00 bet; if no review comes out because the reviewer doesn't like it, they're out $20.00 and get a marketing write off. If a good one comes out, all of the sudden, you spent $20.00 and got $200.00 in sales, or $2000.00, or if you're big enough, $20,000. I mean, I might be wrong here, but I've been researching this subject for five years now, and thanks to my "day job" I can smell a marketing plan a mile away just like a 20 year Army veteran can smell an enemy soldier around a corner. It gets worse though, and more insidiously damaging to the industry, when all major reviewers are in the position that their ability to produce content is in jeopardy simply by doing negative, but factual and honest, reviews, without pulling punches.

Because of the incestuous relationship with publishers providing review copies, it's the publisher who benefits, not the consumer, because the publisher is fairly secure in the belief that they hold most of the cards. It's not their fault, after all, because it's their job to sell games, and if the public isn't getting pissed about the fact that so many mediocre games are being made but rated highly, why shouldn't they continue doing what's working? Until the stick is removed from their hands, we will all remain prisoners in this trap.

For example, look at what happened to Michael Barnes, who was blacklisted from FFG's review corps for the grave and inexcusable sin of speaking plainly about the company's failings. If this is what journalism is about, only telling the good stories and burying the bad ones, we're all going to be walking to the game store with our rose colored glasses on, provided at no cost by YouTube, Board Game Geek, and reviewers who have the carrot and the stick to consider when telling you about a product. I read that Tom Vasel was blacklisted for simply giving a "not incredible" review, although that's hearsay and I can't verify that, although it came from a trusted friend who knows him personally. These are the lessons being taught by this sales channel to reviewers: "get in line or you lose access", which affects their ability to do reviews at all, or at least often enough to remain relevant in the eyes of the eager and ravenous public. 

Let me put it simply: If every major reviewer generally refused to produce reviews of games they received but didn't like, as they currently do, the logical result is that the most popular reviewers who produce the best, most accessible content on the most popular sites will publish an overwhelming majority of favorable reviews, skewing the entire game world greatly positive, thereby giving the false illusion that almost all games are good. Think about it: if Tom Vasel and Joel Eddy hated a game, but Undead Viking liked it, the one review that will come out from a major news source will be positive. There will be no balance. Let that sink in, and contemplate it a minute: If every reviewer didn't take the opportunity to produce negative reviews as often as basic statistics would lead you to believe are possible, what you end up with is the top 5 news outlets taking turns producing positive reviews, which makes all games seem like they're good, from the 10,000 foot perspective. And the publishers count on this, after all, they're not hugely popular reviewers for no reason...they carry weight, and they are convincing in their reasons to like a game. What's missing is the back-and-forth that you might see when looking at Tom Vasel's Top 10 Most Overrated Games video from a Dice Tower Con. This is honesty  in motion...three guys disagreeing honestly about games. Why is it that we don't see this very often in the form of reviews upon release? It's simple: reviewers can't afford to lose their access to free product because they would be crippled in their ability to produce relevant, current content, which is the death knell of any news source.

I can't believe that more people can't see this, or maybe I'm just crazy. That's possible. I already see this phenomenon in the hobby realm, and it's only worse with Kickstarter, since projects on that site use blurbs from reviewers that is not wholly representative of the article, and they pay great sums of money to popular bloggers and video reviewers to "preview" products. This is leveraging your trust in a reviewer's unbiased opinion and his name recognition against the consumer, which is a sales tactic used in everything from deodorant commercials to beer. It's irrelevant what the reviewer said, because if a celebrity spoke about the product, paid or not, you know it's going to be good, right?  It's sort of a conditioning that has set in the hobby world, and nobody seems to notice it: if a reviewer of good reputation is reviewing it, it's probably good. Why do we have these stereotypes, despite the fact that it's not entirely accurate? I mean Joel Eddy had to create his own "Negative Review Geeklist" just to point out that he's not all roses and cake! So why do these stereotypes exist? Probably because if you do 100 videos and 5 of them are negative, people will simply assume that if you review it, it's going to be positive. This kind of dialogue about "why don't you do negative reviews" is a clear indication that most of these guys' reviews are generally very positive, which gives credence to the notion that "if they reviewed it, it's probably good".

Also consider that the lifeblood of the "review gig" is content, as I noted, and if a website is to remain relevant, constant content must be released. Unless a reviewer is independently wealthy and can buy 100-150 games a year to feed the need to keep content flowing, they rely on publishers to feed their content engine, which feeds their subscriptions and page views, which then feeds their advertising revenue stream. So, it's in a reviewer's interests not to write too many bad reviews because if they piss off publishers, they lose a content feed source, which then limits their ability to remain relevant without great personal cost. It's a vicious little circle, and it goes on behind the scenes, and isn't often talked about in detail, so what you have is a reviewer who can't cut himself off at the knees by doing as many negative reviews as they might otherwise, and you have a publisher who knows this, and therefore is willing to take a small risk at a small price with a tremendous upside. Not long ago I was watching a Vasel "Top 10" video whose subject was essentially bashing older games, and at one point, Tom said something to the tune of "Hey, they're a sponsor of the Con!" This indicates to me that reviewers are cognizant of the fact that they can't be too critical, but I don't think anyone needs confirmation of that; it's common sense. This is not an attempt to impugn anyone, hopefully it's the beginning of an ongoing dialogue about how games are sold to us, and to tell publishers that they cannot blacklist a reviewer for a negative review if they want to continue to sell us games.

I'm not in any way saying that any given reviewer is a scumbag, a shill, a charlatan, or anything. Not remotely. What I am saying, however, is that because of this incestuous relationship between the publisher and the "review corps", what you have are loaded dice; a stacked deck against the consumer. The impression is given that almost all games are worthy of purchase, and perhaps many are, but the amount of buyer's remorse that you can find comments about on any given game tells me that people are buying a lot of games they hate. The question is what motivated them to do so, and I posit the idea that it's the stacked deck in an industry that is wholly bought and paid for by participants who are stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to negative reviews. It's not one person shilling for a publisher, it's that the entire marketing system is set up under a structure that absolutely makes it deadly for reviewers to review bad games in a negative light. Worse, it ensures that all games get a good review by at least one major news source.

So, yes, I'm vocal, outspoken, argumentative, rude, and a loudmouthed bastard about it, but it's because I'm passionate and I was sold so many utterly shitty games by deceptive marketing and a "stacked deck against the consumer". I took it as a personal goal of making sure that everyone that I could reach understood the way that games are marketed and sold, so that they would know that the deck is stacked against the truth. 

In the end, I think the gaming industry would be better off, and higher quality product would be produced if reviewers as a whole would stop being afraid of the publishers. The reality is that it's not easy to become a Tom Vasel or Joel Eddy, and they carry an incredible weight with consumers. Publishers that blacklist them will have to accept that not every game they make is good, or fun, or even of high quality. They will have to accept criticism as it comes, without reprisal to the reviewer, or they will lose their cheap supply of marketing labor, some huge voices in the gaming world, and furthermore, its in their benefit to take the good with the bad. We hold the cards, as reviewers, not them, but only if we realize it.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Tobago - Can You Believe This Yahoo Is Comparing It To Android?

Why are Moai statues on Tobago?
One of the first things I realized about deductive reasoning games is that there are very few that I really like. I'm a big fan of Clue, but the problem with other games that employ the mechanic of deducing something from little clues is that you are pissing into the wind for a good portion of the game until you can slowly remove suspects enough to nail down a couple of strong leads. Tobago, from Rio Grande Games, is a different sort of deduction game because instead of looking for a murderer, the location of a Battleship, or the elusive Mr. X, you're looking for treasure, and the treasure isn't really so much "hidden somewhere" as much as "needs to be hidden by players". The difference between this game and so many others in the genre is that the players are the ones who control the actual locations of the treasures, of which there's four; Players have direct control over where the treasures are, yet are tasked with "finding them". Imagine Battleship where instead of putting white markers on your side of the board to indicate misses, you place them to indicate possible locations, and you can remove them by playing cards with Tetris-like patterns, allowing you to whittle away the pegs until there's only one possible location. That's what Tobago is, kind of, plus a little more.

Maybe it's the beautiful little Easter Island statues or the palm tree pawns, or perhaps it's the idea of hidden plunder, I've always wanted to play this. I finally got it on the cheap, and it sat here for six months or more, waiting to be played, because I loaned it out for a while, then I finally got it back, but now my wife an I are preparing our house for sale. That, and there was always something that I perceived to be "better" on my shelves. Well, last night I finally played the last game of Tobago with my daughter, and I'm not entirely sure that it will see the light of day again at the Circus, or at least at my house. It's not a bad game, and the most apt word that I heard said about it after beginning to poll players was, "It's funnish". That about sums it up: it's fun, in a not so fun, brain burning kind of way. 

The most interesting thing about the design is that it only allows players two options on a turn: move, or add a card to one of the treasure maps. You'd think that such a minimal amount of choices wouldn't cause the "brain burner" syndrome, but there were some really long turns of "analysis paralysis", which is very uncommon at the Circus. If anything we get "Highsfuk Syndrome", where players are too inebriated to be playing; rambling on for 20 minutes about a drunken tryst in the Philippines, debating the grammatical correctness of the use of the phrase "more perfect" in the U.S. Constitution preamble, or the superior feel of a Lucasi cue versus a McDermott. In other words, it's not that we don't know what to do, it's that we get distracted in conversation, at least normally. With Tobago, we were all kind of slow in taking turns because of the nature of the design.

Tobago has beautiful and plentiful bits, from the treasure and clue cards, of which there's probably almost one hundred, to the cast statues and trees, to the wooden vehicles and huts. As a beautiful final touch, the windscreens and headlights are even painted onto the jeeps. It's a very pretty little game, with nice art throughout, and if you were to judge it on its bits alone, it would probably score quite strongly with people. The best part of the game, at least in my opinion, is the rule book and reference card, which made the game easy to learn and play, which would otherwise be a bit hard to understand because it's quite the odd bird. 

Anyhow, in my view, Tobago can be compared to FFG's Android in some ways, which I was attempting to do at a game night, although it was met with vociferous caterwauling and a great gnashing of teeth. In Android, you're not looking to find a suspect as much as you're trying to frame a suspect. This is the same in Tobago, because you're not trying to find the treasure as much as use cards to remove possible locations, but the players are ultimately in control of where the treasure is through the use of clue cards to establish the treasure maps. In short, you're both looking for treasure and placing it, simultaneously.

The treasures start with a clue card that tells everyone at the table one thing, such as that it's "within two spaces of a river", or "it's not in the largest mountainous area", and then as the game goes on, players place new clues to create each map and narrow down the choices. Players have a vested interest in creating all of the maps rather than just sticking to one, because when a treasure is finally revealed, no matter who recovers it, anyone who contributed to the map gets a share of the treasure, although the treasure distribution is done via a sort of bidding mechanic that has a dash of press-your-luck. Some treasures are cursed, and when a cursed treasure card appears, any treasure cards remaining in the recovered treasure go away, and anyone who passed on previous cards is screwed out of the loot. Furthermore, anyone who did not claim treasure but partook in the map making for a cursed treasure has to lose their most valuable card, or use a recovered amulet to block the curse.

"Amulet", you ask? That's right, like so many Euro games, the designer gave players a way out of bad shit happening to them. When treasures are recovered, the little statues place amulets at the furthest point directly in front of them, along the beach. These things are the "Knight Card", allowing you to ignore the curse by discarding an amulet you recovered simply by driving over it and stopping. The not-so-Euro aspect of the thing is that you can also use the amulet to do other things, such as discard and redraw all of your clue cards, play a second clue card on your turn, take an extra move, or remove one cube from the board. It's most certainly an interesting little nugget, but the truth is that in all of our games, people had two or three in their pile of stuff, meaning that they went unused and were taken primarily for insurance against the cursed treasures, which is funny because there's only two curse cards in the entire deck.

Now, there's one truly fucking horrible design aspect that every single person who played it decried: the cube placement. The idea is that you place these little cubes in possible treasure locations, but you can't always do it when there's only one or two cards, primarily because there's not enough cubes to put on every possible space. So, what ends up happening is that players have to spend too much time imagining the spaces, then look through their hand of four cards (six in a two player game) to figure out what would reduce the possible locations. This is where the "brain burning" comes in, and it's not really that bad, but it's also not a whole lot of fun. The game ends when the thirty treasure cards are depleted, which takes about an hour with two players and a little bit more, but not much, with four.

One of the best design aspects, if not the bits, is the board design. There's three double sided boards which are set up so that no matter what permutation you choose, there's always a "largest area" for any given terrain type, a feat to behold on its own, but that also gives you 32 or so different ways to set the board up. On top of this, the bits that get placed are always placed randomly using some no-go rules which makes every game very unique and really does afford the game a lot of replay value. It's like playing Scotland Yard if every time you played, the board setup was wholly different, disallowing "favorite strategies".

I've played it with two players, three players, and four players, so I've got a good grasp where the sweet spot is, and I think it's with three. With four players, it's a little too crowded and there's a little too much shit going on. It becomes a bit of a race, to a degree. With three, there's enough room to roam around without being beset by other players in an area. If there's one overarching praise that I feel needs to be heaped upon Tobago, it's that it has no "kingmaking" in a three player game, which is incredibly hard to do. The game seems player-neutral, and by that, I mean that there's no apparent leader, and no real way to beat up on the leader. 

The one overarching complaint that I, personally, have about this game is that there is zero player interaction, either direct or indirect, except in the treasure capture phase, and even then, it's simply taking or passing on a given treasure card. It doesn't seem to hurt the game any, and few people in my group mentioned it, but to me, it's a very "multi-player solitaire" kind of game; every player pretty much just plods along and "plays their own game, on their own terms", so to speak.

At the end of the day, Tobago is a surprisingly interesting little game of treasure hunting, with a small dash of truly exciting moments. For instance, my daughter moved her car onto a space for no apparent reason, but the next turn she dropped a clue that removed all the cubes from a treasure, leaving her on the exact location and allowing her to immediately recover it. I never saw it coming as she had been moving randomly for a few previous turns, or so I thought. There was a simultaneous sense of both pride and dread because while she was sneaky enough to pull a fast one on dear old Dad, she was sneaky enough to pull a fast one on dear old Dad. I'm not sure I'm comfortable with that, and I know I'll be watching her a little more closely at this point.

Why Tobago Is A Nice Place To Visit:
- Great components and art make this look very nice on the table
- Clever design allows you to play this daily for a month and never see the same map
- One of the more interesting deduction games we've seen
- The amulets allow for some sneaky little gambits that nobody will see coming

Why I Wouldn't Want To Live There:
- A little too much brain burning regarding the cubes, at least for our tastes
- Zero player interaction makes it a solo adventure, but with others
- How Moai statues got onto a Caribbean island, I'll never know
- Very few "gotcha" or exciting moments make this a very, very dry game

I really am kind of mixed on this game, as were some of my comrades. On one hand, you have a really slick deduction mechanic that makes the game very interesting, but on the other you have this very dry, Euro-style game with very little interaction between players. I guess the only word that I can use to describe it is that of a 12 year old little girl: "funnish".

3.25/5 Stars

Read more about Tobago here:

Friday, April 4, 2014

Rampage - I'm Not Cute...I'll Mess You Up

I'd heard almost nothing about this game, except for the fact that it was a dexterity game and that it looked cutesy, but I'm a sucker for dexterity games, especially ones depicting wholesale carnage in a city of meeples. Further, I'd heard that the meeples come in six colors depicting different types of personality, such as soldiers, old men, and blondes, and that who you ate mattered. Since I've had extensive appearance experience eating blondes, I thought it would be a good fit. I un-pledged my 250$ or so from the new Dwarven Forge Kickstarter because I already have six 27-gallon tubs of the stuff, and proceeded to being on a bit of a spending spree. In my house, if money gets allocated, it had better be spent, or you lose it; I ended up with Rampage, Settlers of Catan (again), Quarriors: Quartifacts (May my 12 year old suffer for this), Lords of Waterdeep (again, this makes 3 times) and Stone Age (again). That burned through maybe 3/4 of my cash and I'm holding out for something truly awesome. Feel free to recommend, and if you say "The Duke", eat a bag of dicks, because I played it 30 years ago when it was called "Chess".

Anyhow, Rampage caught the most immediate attention, and so it was the first to be un-boxed and played. The rules are incredibly simple, and Repos Production, the publisher, was kind enough to include a shitload of examples and a short FAQ section that did a great job of guiding us through play. As it turns out, if you were to look at this from the 10,000 foot perspective and announce that it's a kid game, you'd be wrong by several orders of magnitude. It looks like a kid game, but it is in fact one of the truly fucking nastiest, most utterly evil, brutally confrontational games of all time. It's like Godzilla meets Diplomacy if you play it right. Maybe that's just how we play it, but it's not at all like what the artwork would have you believe. There's a ton more game in the box than the Super Mario art illustrates.

I'm going to go off on a little tangent here, because it seems appropriate: As an open statement to all publishers, I'd like to point out that if you want to sell a game to gamers, don't hide the game under a coating of art that appears to have been drafted by The Lollipop Guild. This game would've been SO MUCH MORE AWESOME if it was done by some of Michael Bay's special effects artists. People wouldn't look at it as some weenie kid game, they'd look at it as the big monster game that people have pined for since Godzilla was on TV. It was a missed opportunity, at least for us.

Anyhow, regarding the components, it's kind of an amazing design regardless of the cartoon art, which is actually quite good despite being very youthful. One of the smartest things are that not only is it a puzzle board that actually fits together well, but the little ruins tiles that come along with the game are sticky-backed and you remove a film which allows you to glue them onto the board. This is important because you flick discs to move on the board, and if the glue boards weren't glued down, every flick would topple a building; the glued boards act as little bumper areas so that you can bounce off of them without toppling buildings. There's also the fact that you place these big wooden monsters on the discs when you're done moving so that people can take actions to knock you over, which scores points and hurts your ability to act.

Beyond that, the wooden monsters have little ridges on their heads so that you can place the car tokens on top without having them slide off. Throwing cars is a big part of the game, and this was just a smart, practical design move. It's these little details that make this a very smartly designed, well thought-out game. Also, there's three unique sets of cards in the game that define which monster type you are, what your powers are, and one of the cards is a one-time use power which can be played to give you a big boost. My copy from Coolstuff Inc was shipped with some meeple stickers, which was the low point, since they are cut poorly and since the meeples aren't all cut uniformly, the stickers hang over in spots. It's also 45 minutes or so to sticker the whole thing versus five if you forego putting the meeple stickers on. Finally, I will caution you to be very careful removing the glue liner on the back of the puzzle piece because even though I was careful and I have a high level of hand precision, I still managed to pull some of the laminated cardboard up. The good news is that a dab of Mod Podge between the layers and an overnight stay under a heavy book will sort it right out.

I can talk about all kinds of neat little aspects in the game, but for me, the best part of the game, to be honest, is that the actions you can take in the game. These revolve entirely around flicking cars off the top of your monster's head, putting your chin on the monster's head and blowing things over until you see stars, flicking your disc to move as I mentioned before, and my personal favorite, picking up your monster and dropping it on top of buildings, blowing them to high heaven. It's a very tactile game, to say the least, and there's not a single thing that you can do in the game that isn't inherently fun. I can't really think of any other game, even my beloved Heroscape, that can say that. My only gripe about the game, which was echoed by others, is that the board is a little too small for four players, making it a bit claustrophobic and too easy to attack other monsters. This ends up with a lot of nearly-toothless monsters, which needlessly lengthens the duration.

Besides simply breaking things, the idea of the game is that you can take actions to knock over the buildings, comprised of card stock floors sandwiched between layers of meeples, and when the buildings fall, you can score by "eating" the meeples and floors. The trick is that the meeples come in six colors, and to score them, you have to have a full set of 6. Each set of 6 is worth points, unless you have a special power that allows you to score other meeples, so having 7 reds, greens, blues, yellows, and blacks, but only one grey will only net you a score for one full set, with the rest not being worth anything. The kicker here is that during the setup, when you're assembling the buildings, you randomly snatch four meeples per level and place them as the supports for the next floor. Each of the six buildings have 14 meeples each in them, and the stadium has 4, so it's not like there's two hundred or something. That's what makes the game so nasty.

If you play the game as a meeple hunt, biting as many in half as possible in a blind orgy of destruction, you'll be disappointed. A child would love it, but not an adult. It's banal if you play like that. The real strategy comes from figuring out how to get sets, while leaving enough meeples of colors you don't need to entice other monsters away from their current location. The best part of all is that meeple eating is governed by the monster's amount of teeth, which start at six each, and can be reduced to two through injury and attack. You may only eat one meeple per tooth, and so it's a viable strategy to attack enemies to reduce their ability to consume wooden flesh, thereby preserving the wee wooden citizens for your own appetites.

How's about you kiss me hard on the mouth. Godziller?
Another factor that makes this game neat is the "run away" board, a little side tableau that stores meeples that have eluded the monsters via being knocked off the board. It's double sided and has several sections, with each having a set amount of spaces per section before calamity strikes the monster that knocked the last one in a section off. It's another facet of the game that allows you to pursue alternate strategies, such as intentionally knocking off just the right amount of meeples so that the following player has to be incredibly careful or suffer the loss of a tooth and other tragedies. I'm telling you, for as many teeth as are lost in an hour of play, this game might've been called Kentucky Rampage.

The long and short is that you should never judge a book by its cover, and with Rampage, this adage is incredibly apt. I am disappointed that they went the King of Tokyo route on this instead of making it a really grim, dark monster game, but that disappointment is tempered by the fact that this game is fucking awesome on every level. I rarely say something is for everyone, or a true "auto-buy", but if you don't own this, you're missing out. If you don't like this game, there's something seriously wrong with you. Not a single person I played with, from a 47 year old man to a 12 year old girl, had anything but great things to say about it. There's very few games that are so universally lauded, repeatedly, by my groups. I think the only downside is that the temptation to play it over and over again will eventually lead to burn-out, but 6 games in I'm still fine with playing it again, and this is over the span of 4 days. My real gripe is that I can't get Stone Age to the table, but I suspect that has everything to do with the smell of the dice cup.

Why I Want To Go On A Rampage:
- While very cartoony, the art is good and the components are very high quality
- The design of the board is brilliant
- Replay value is huge, with tons of different power and creature combinations
- There are not a lot of rules, and the rules help the game rather than hinder it
- Anyone can play this game, but it's not as simple to play well

Why Tokyo Is Safe:
- The art is cartoony, and some of us would've preferred more dark, grim art
- With a board 5" larger in each direction, it would've been better for 4 player matches

I can't begin to tell you how much we love this little gem. This immediately took a place on our Forever Shelf, next to the likes of Survive, Zooloretto, Ravenloft, and Pandemic. I can't remember a game so universally accessible, easy to learn, easy to teach, and fun to play. With Spring Break starting today, I plan to pit my 5 year old against my 12 year old which will keep them occupied, but once they're in bed, the wife and I are going to bust out some cocktails and get down with some monster fun. I'm dead serious - this game is a 100% sure-fire auto-buy in our opinions, and I can't see anyone not having a great time with it. 

My only caveat is that you view it as a serious strategy-dexterity game like Ascending Empires despite the game's mechanics and look; if you simply play to eat more meeples than the next guy, you might be disappointed in the long term. There's more to this game than meets the eye, and if you play it as the scoring system intends, there's something wrong with you if you don't love it. 

4.75/5 Stars

Check the game out here:

I'm not cute, I'll mess you up...

The enormous monster crotch catapult...

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Wreck Age: Post-Apocalyptic Wargaming Done Right

For me, the gold standard for a miniatures game has little to do with the fiction that created the world where the game takes place, and even less to do with the miniatures. Miniatures are awesome, and I have a lifelong love affair with them, but I don't think that the quality or look of the miniatures has anything to do with whether the game is good or not. The fiction might augment a game that's already good, but if the game is bad, it's like putting beautiful, fresh cut flowers on top of a festering garbage can. In short, many things can aid a good game and make it great, but the window dressing is just that: something to augment the game. 

To that end, everything that surrounds the rules themselves, from weapons and equipment, skills and perks, and the most important factor - campaign rules - are what make any miniatures game worth playing, in my opinion. It's what makes Strange Aeons so incredible, for instance. Now, I've held  "Wastelands 3: Total Meltdown" up as the gold standard for any post-apocalyptic miniature skirmish game because its campaign is so well devised and executed that everything else that I have ever played prior to that looked like a rotting horse carcass in comparison. Well, to a great extent, the new miniatures game, Wreck Age, has trumped it because of the level of depth involved while remaining understandable and playable for experienced miniature gamers.

Wreck Age, simply put, is an RPG with deep skirmish rules as the core, driving mechanic for the game. To me, it's not unlike Robotech RPG in that many people buy the entire rulebook, but only play the skirmish rules. This book is every bit of 244 pages long, and is full of beautiful artwork, charts, and little flavor text sidebars that give examples of play. It reminds me a lot of Bablyon's Burning in that much of the book is written in the form of stories, and that just the stories alone make it worth reading, despite the fact that there's also a game. The artwork adds to that, because it is some of the best artwork I've ever seen in a post-apocalyptic game, and it adds so much to the reading, since storytelling has become such a visual medium these days. If nothing else, the art makes it easier to explain the scope of the game to players, since a picture is truly worth a thousand words.

The theme of the game surrounds this very rich fiction about the depletion of the world's resources, the plan to leave Earth, and a giant lie told by the aristocrats that left much of Earth's populace left behind to wither on the vine. Not only is it plausible, but the story and rules were written in such a way that the story is integral to the game play, therefore making your adventures in post-apocalyptic Earth fit seamlessly into the narrative presented in the built-in scenarios and characters. 

One of the things we all really dug about this game is that it has a very strong "western" influence on the theme; sure, there's plasma weapons and laser rifles, but there's also revolvers. The art exudes this and everything about the game is linked in some way to the theme of humanity rebuilding itself after we, essentially, mined the planet dry and the richest folks got the hell out of Dodge. It's really irrelevant to the game itself, but with the whole kind of "space-faring age mixed with western frontier sensibilities" vibe to it, we really kind of dug it. I'm a Firefly guy; not a superfan or anything, but I like the show and the theme, so this kind of hit that same note with me.

A major difficulty we faced in reviewing this game as a whole has everything to do with the fact that while I am a former RPG player, none of the others in my group are, or ever have been except for Mickey, who would never admit to it. The first 33 pages are nothing but story that develop the narrative, and it is an amazingly well written and engaging read that frames the game. This was primarily meant for RPGers, so that GM's can give the context to players the sessions and explain "the reason" for the situation, as well as provide a backdrop to the campaign. For me, all it did was give me a really great story to read while sitting on the commode, and give me a lot more paper to print and bind. In fact, the rules themselves don't actually come into play until the 50th page, so from the standpoint of reviewing the "game", that's where I'll start. Before I go any further, I need to divulge that I got the PDF sent to me by the publisher, Hyacinth Games, and furthermore, I did some editing and writing work for them, pro bono, because I believe in the game. I elaborated more on this and my experience with it, which can be found at the bottom of this review for your amusement.(*) The short version is that I got one Adepticon promo model and the PDF download version of the rules from them, and it's worth mentioning this kind of stuff because it's important that my readers know everything about these sorts of transactions so that you can weigh this information against the review. Anyhow, let's carry on.

As far as mechanics go, at its core, it's a simple D6-based game that has you chucking small handfuls of dice at one another, with the central goal of passing tests. If you're looking to shoot someone, you need to pass a shooting test which entails rolling the amount of dice equal to the shooter's skill at shooting, and rolling above the weapon's target number at the given shot range. There are modifiers to the target number, such as the target being under cover, but the long and short is that each die that hits the bogey is counted as a success. If a hit was scored, the attacker and defender roll against each other, with the attacker rolling his weapon's power value against the defender's; if more attacker's dice succeed, the damage done is equal to the number of dice that were not "blocked" by the defender's successes. 

Combat, for that matter, is wholly brutal and swift, which makes the game sail along at a brisk pace. One wound damages a character's abilities, two wounds put a character out of action for the rest of the encounter unless they can make a very lucky roll at the end of a round, or if someone else stabilizes them, which downgrades them to wounded status. Now, a third wound essentially delivers a mortal wound, and without prompt help from a friendly, they will absolutely die; no lucky rolls can save them. If a fourth wound is delivered, that character is immediately killed in action, dead on the spot, and is FUBAR. Wounds are cumulative, so an out of action character who is unable to defend themselves is a very, very delicious soft target. I cannot tell you how many times I've placed an improvised mine on a downed figure, just to watch him roll that lucky 6 on his end-of-round saving roll and subsequently to burst like a ketchup-filled water balloon thanks to my unavoidable mine. Watching the hope disappear from an opponent's eyes when he rolls that first 6 to get back up from death's doorstep, but then fails to block the explosion....that's fucking priceless, right there. That's what Ameritrash is all about - standing on the brink of the pit where hope goes to die, and watching your buddies fall down it. Even more so when you're the one who pushed them in.

Anyhow, all of the game's actions are resolved in this manner, by either a test against the character's abilities, skills, or traits, or in the form of an opposed test where another player is actively seeking their ruination during the endeavor. This is a simple, very fast playing system that is not really all that novel, but the fact is that even though this is a "me go, you go" alternating activation system, it really seems to be faster playing than many other skirmish games. There's just not that much fucking around with Wreck Age; you can surely min-max "power game" to try to be more competitive or something, but at the end of the day, it's much more of a narrative game than a tournament game, although they are having some promotional tournaments at the Harry Carey Ballroom during Adepticon this year.

What sets Wreck Age apart is that it integrates a great many of the RPG elements into skirmishes, so that instead of simply being pigeonholed into an "accomplish X task or kill all the bad guys" kind of game, it can be as deep and complex as you want, and there's underlying rules to support it. This allows huge flexibility in actions taken by a character, and the framework of the rules allow people to do off-the-wall shit, agree on the difficulty of the task if it's not specifically in the rules, and then perform a test to see if it worked. 

As an example of the system's ability to create varied scenarios, one I recently played, which incidentally was the first I ever played, has you attempting to send suicide-bomber boars into a settlement to destroy a gate. In contrast, another stock one I played has you attempting to infiltrate a village through ancient sewer tunnels in order to subdue and kidnap the opposing force's players and their patrons in order to harvest their organs...while they're still alive. This kind of richness allows for players to have widely varied experiences in a campaign, and the book includes several skirmish scenarios which are all quite different. Additionally, you can download a short, 3-scenario campaign which we used to review the game, amongst others found on their forums, such as the aforementioned kidnapping scenario.

The beauty of the system is that players such as myself, who just want to engage in skirmishes or skirmish campaigns, can easily put these together because there are a sea of character archetypes, complete with point values, to drop into play. To a great degree, if you want to create interesting and plausible scenarios, this is where all that potty reading comes into play, because you have numerous locales and "motivations" to draw from in order to craft them. Thus, players and GM's alike can create these on the fly, without really thinking too hard about it, choose a point value, and outfit their crew using the point values, expressed as "resource units" to fit their play style. There is a very broad range of weapons, weapon classes, skills, and traits to choose from, and the rules allow for after-action cleanup which allow a player's crew to advance in skills, change archetypes, or purchase and craft new, better equipment.

Additionally, there are numerous factions to choose from, ranging from stoic settlers to desperate raiders and from technology worshiping ideologues to drug-addled, hedonistic sociopaths. Every faction has its strengths and weaknesses, and there's a sort of "faction purity" mechanic that disallows cross-pollination between factions to a great extent, so games are generally played as a force-on-force skirmish between two or more factions. At one point we played a five-player skirmish I came up with in about 10 minutes, where the goal was to explore an abandoned military base and recover its caches of supplies, for example. Each player took command of two to three members of a faction, using pre-built characters, and we had an incredible time. It was a bloodbath, to say the least, and in the end, only four characters survived and most of the battleground was littered with half-recovered supply crates and bodies.

The one thing that I'd caution prospective players on is that this is not Heroscape. It's not a simple, cut-and-dry skirmish game by any standard, and for a group that plays many skirmish games it was quite accessible and easy to play, for someone unfamiliar with deeper skirmish games it will take a few games to really get their head wrapped around it, so to speak. There are a great many charts and tables in this game, although much of it is more tuned for the RPG referee/DM/narrator, but there are complexities in the game that makes it special, and I'd argue that it's worth the slight amount of extra time to learn them. One example is that weapons and equipment have a quality rating that represents the level of maintenance done to it. A cheap, homemade rifle is not going to be as resilient or accurate as a factory, out of the box assault rifle, for instance. There's also weapons malfunctions, morale checks, and other factors that come into play which all add up to it being a very good simulation of a skirmish. 

If there's one truly egregious failing of this game, it's that while there's random scavenging rules, there's not really any random campaign or scenario rules. I know this is asking a lot, and I begged them to include something, but as it rests, you can't sit with a group and roll some dice to figure out what you're going to play that session, using their crew to drop into the scenario. This very thing is what set Wastelands 3 apart from the pack, and the fact that there's 244 pages in the book, but very few that would allow players to just sit and play a random scenario, is an oversight in my opinion. One redeeming feature is that If you want to get your feet wet with an entry-level scenario that you can just sit down and play, you can download the quick start rules (once they've revised them...right now it's a 404 error), download the character cards, and throw whatever models you have lying around onto the table to have a go at it. 

Now, this company will likely not make much money on the books, because there's not much money to be had in it unless your initials are "GW". What they hope to make money on is on their line of models, which are incredible. They've contracted sculptors such Tom Mason, Michael Jenkins, Pierre Francois Jacquet, and Sylvain Quirion to create their models, and I shit you not, they are amazing. I've purchased three of the box sets and several blisters myself, and while I've only painted a few, I can't wait to get the rest of these done. Thus far, I've been playing with the now-defunct Mega Miniatures models I bought during the last days of their reign, as well as some "Nova Corps" Reaper models from Kickstarter

While they originally sold packages of models ranging from $40-$50 for 5-9 white metal models made up of a faction per box set, they're in the middle of changing their box format to "scenario packs" which contain several figures from one faction and then several more from another. Each box will contain a scenario or campaign, the cards for the models, and a set of quickstart rules. On top of that, they're going to be selling a package deal with the softcover rules packed with a starter set of models, although I'm not privy to the price at this point. All I can tell you is that you're not going to find a collection of metal, post-apocalyptic models that are this nice anywhere, except maybe from Lead Adventure's "Last Project" line, and even they are far too "GW cartoony" for my tastes, although I appreciate that they're very nice models.

They also have a bunch of terrain and scenery, which will be packaged into some of these packs, not the least of which are their resin crates and vendor carts, which are very, very nice. In fact, one of the owners just announced today that they'll be launching at some never-before seen terrain at Adepticon, this week in Chicago, and from the look of them they're easily on par with Armorcast and others as far as quality of the models.  

The long and short is that this game is nearly flawless, in my mind, and if you're interested in a great skirmish game that has depth and accessibility, this may be the one. The models are fantastic, the art in the book is mostly very good, and we all really enjoy playing it. Unlike so many reviews where after we've undergone the process we're ready for a break from the game, we'll probably be playing this next weekend or the weekend after. That's pretty telling, since it's a pain in the ass to get my game room rearranged to allow our big six by three table out to play these kinds of games. 

Why I'd Stick Around After The Exodus:
- The models are outstanding, and most of the art is wonderful
- Of 244 pages, maybe 40 constitute skirmish rules, and it's easy to learn and play
- The use of sidebar stories to explain mechanics is genius
- Built-in scenarios and "quick start rules" make this easy to get to the table often

Why Wreck Age Might Be A Train Wreck:
The lack of randomized campaigns and tons of scenarios really chaps my ass
- Where the artwork isn't outstanding, it's dodgy as fuck, and doesn't fit in well
- Of 244 pages, maybe 40 constitute skirmish rules, and the rest are fluff and RPG content
- The lack of randomized campaigns and tons of scenarios really chaps my ass (**)

I can't recommend this enough to fans of the post-apocalyptic genre, or really, any miniatures gamers who prefer narrative games over Warhammer 40K-style mass army deployments. Although I know absolutely fuck all about what a modern RPG should look like, from the standpoint of a richly detailed skirmish game, I can't recommend it enough. I put my money where my mouth is, and all of the Circus folks really enjoy it. Hell, Dave Roswell from Fortress: Ameritrash liked it, and he's a hard sell on anything. 

4/5 Stars

Check Hyacinth Games out here...

...and be sure to check back regularly (after 2 weeks) because a lot of changes will be made to their web store, their product line, and the whole shebang. Also keep an eye out for the PDF on BitTorrent, because it will eventually be seeded there by Hyacinth Games in order to get people into the game. 

(*)While I receive absolutely no money for it, I did some writing for the Hyacinth Games guys. I've been following this game and its development for over a year, having found it by sheer accident while looking for an heir to my previous favorite post-apoc game. I got to preview the rules in a closed Beta, or something resembling one, and it was a fucking train wreck for the most part, but the good parts were so good I wanted to get involved. The fact is that these guys were frustrated and spent, and if someone didn't help them soon, the game would never be "released", and I would be denied my new favorite shiny, so fuck that shit. I volunteered because I wanted to see the game for sale at some point in my lifetime. The "rules guy" had great ideas and a great game, but he seemed to lack the skill set to effectively communicate them in writing, which is what I do for a living, and so I stepped in as an editor/writer to help them, on a pro bono basis. Turns out that I'll never do that shit again, as long as I live, because it's thankless, tedious, demanding work.

After almost a month or so of working 8 hours a night on it, going back and forth via Skype text messages, I sent it over to them and was utterly shit on by the guy who did the original rules, primarily because I re-wrote and formatted them in their entirety. The original was what amounts to a poorly-devised flowchart that he was actually going to clean up, then publish as-is, which would've looked like all kinds of ass and been totally fucking unplayable unless he was there, explaining it to you as you played. Anyhow, it was a total blow-up with cursing, and yelling, and nastygrams, and so I walked away from the gig at that point. To reiterate, I just re-wrote the existing rules up and moved sections around to be better organized and more understandable, and I rewrote some of the other content so it made sense, or sounded better.

As it turns out, all the fussing was for naught, because the final version contains almost all of my edits and most of the writing changes I made (and fixes to my text where I got rules horribly wrong, to be fair), so I am a little biased, to say the least, despite the writing/editing/dealing with the Hyacinth guy being one of the most painful, frustrating experiences I've ever had in this life or lives past, and one that should've totally soured me on this game and had me plot to destroy them wholly and utterly, forever. I explained the experience to my wife like this: It's like giving a kid a car for his 16th birthday and having him tell you he hates it, subsequently pouring gas all over it and burning it on your lawn. Then, the next day, that same son steals your wallet, buys the EXACT SAME CAR, but with a different color and some different options, and parks it next to the smoking ruins of your gift. Just fucking ugly all around, but it worked out OK, and many months later we're friends. They're good guys, but they were just under a LOT of stress. Shit, they still are, but now at least they have a bad ass game to play with their bad ass miniatures.

Because of my involvement, I have recused myself from the scoring of this game and as an added insulation, I didn't divulge to the Circus that I had been a party to the writing; I simply told them that Wreck Age was finally out, and I wanted to try out the new rules with them. Now, they knew I was working on ~something~ but I was working on 3 different games at the time, one of them for a well-known publisher, and I don't share the details on what I'm doing until it's ready for play-testing. So, when taking this review into consideration, please remember that while I was a party to the editing and formatting, and only then in the rules sections, this review is unbiased from the scoring perspective given by the rest of the Circus group. As I said, I received no money for this endeavor, and I have not received anything from Hyacinth Games that other reviewers have been offered. In fact, they are going to be seeding the PDF, for free, on BitTorrent to get more people into the game. Finally, I did put my money where my mouth is, spending almost all of my GenCon budget last year buying Wreck Age models, scenery, and markers. So far, I've spent around $230.00 on their product. If I had been able to vote in the scoring sessions, though, this would be a 4.5-4.75, with the real bitch being the lack of randomized campaign rules. I'm currently trying to integrate the Wastelands 3 campaign rules into the Wreck Age world, solely because they are simply the most extensive, awesome set of rules I've ever seen.

(**) This is NOT a typo. This fucks me off so much that I had to list it twice.