Tabletop Games Archive

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Game Review: The Witcher Adventure Game

“There’s never a Witcher around when you need one,” I said as I watched my friend – and occasional podcast co-host – Matt easily deal with a Drowner in Cintra. I didn’t care that his quest required him to take Geralt to the border of the Nilfgaardian Empire. I had Dandelion stuck in Vengerberg as a Striga prowled the lands. Alas, that’s life in the Northern Kingdoms. Nobles and monarchs plot and scheme, even as their cities are besieged by monsters, plagues, and foreign armies. Witchers, mutated humans who act as professional monster slayers, are as scorned as they are needed. It’s a grim and harsh world, and The Witcher Adventure Game perfectly captures its dangers and wonders.

Developed by CD Projekt Red and Can Explode, The Witcher Adventure Game is one half of a two-pronged effort to bring Geralt of Rivia into the realm of tabletop gaming. The other part is a physical game published by Fantasy Flight Games. While I can’t speak about the latter, the former took all of half an hour to win me over.

The Witcher Adventure Game, is a semi-cooperative, quest-based, light-RPG along the lines of Arkham Horror. Players assume the role of one of four characters from Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher novels: Geralt of Rivia (the eponymous Witcher), Triss Merigold, Dandelion the Bard, or Yarpen Zigrin. Each character draws quests based on their dominant trait – fighting, diplomacy, or magic – and then sets about the Northern Kingdoms to collect clues, fight monsters, and ultimately complete the requirements of their quests. Completed tasks within a quest become victory points, and the player with the most VP wins the game.

There’s no direct PvP element to the game, but as my friends and I learned during our play tests, the co-operative mechanics of the game can get very cut throat. The person playing as Geralt might choose to leave powerful monsters in an area to impede the progress of another player. Something as seemingly benign as helping another player with the “support” element of their quest gives the supporter a greater bonus of VP than the supported player. Many a cry of, “get away from me, I don’t want your help,” were uttered over Skype.

Much like the books and other video games, The Witcher Adventure Game renders the Northern Kingdoms as a brutal place where telling men from monsters is not always an easy thing. If a player isn’t fighting a monster, then they are dealing with “foul fate” cards, which are replete with all manner of pestilence, cruelty, and suffering. Drawing from the investigation deck offers at least a chance of a positive outcome, but it too is filled with enough misfortunes to make a player feel like the world is out to get them. Make no mistake, this is not a design flaw. It is a conscious attempt to convey the fact that the world of The Witcher is not a kind place.

For all the grim tones to the game’s design, its visual aesthetic belies the harsh nature of its setting. The game board, which appears to be set on a table from one of The Witcher’s many taverns, is beautifully drawn. Zooming in reveals subtle animations unique to each of the game’s regions. Brokilon is green and verdant. Kaer Morhen is wrapped in a blanket of snow with a Frightener lurking at its gate. Smoke rises over Vizima (uniquely spelled by its Polish name, Wyzima, even though Dandelion isn’t called Jaskier). Each character has their own uniquely coloured and styled set of dice for combat. Even the music decidedly up-tempo, dare I say cheerful, despite the monsters waiting to savage an unwitting adventurer.

I’ll also take a moment to praise the game’s combat and “experience” system. Though Geralt is the game’s monster killing expert, all of the characters will eventually have to square off against a monster. The inherent power imbalance between characters like Geralt and Dandelion required a leveling system that didn’t hinge upon killing things to get experience and level up, lest Geralt always have a clear advantage. As a result, each of the characters has an option to “develop” during their turn. Developing gives each character access a bank of unique skills e.g. signs and potions for Geralt, spells for Triss, weapons for Yarpen, and hired goons for Dandelion. Though dice gods can still be cruel, the development system ensures that even a bard like Dandelion will be able to engage in some meaningful combat.

The only downside to this game is it vastly underestimates the time it takes to play. Like many other Fantasy Flight games The Witcher Adventure Game is a long game. A first-to-complete-three-quests game took me about two hours to play with Matt. While I have nothing against long games, they do necessitate an in-game save option, if only to protect against disconnects during a multi-player session.

My only other semi-grouse is that Yennefer of Vengerberg isn’t available as a playable character. However, I suspect either Yennefer or Ciri of Cintra (or both) will show up in an expansion for the game – an expansion which will likely be timed with the release of The Wild Hunt. I’m on to you, CPR.

Overall, The Witcher Adventure Game is everything that I would expect from a digital version of a tabletop game. The game mechanics are easy to learn. Quest decks are deep enough to ensure a good level of variety from one game to the next. In-game events and encounters shine as a monument to the mythos of The Witcher. In fact, the entire experience feels like a love letter to fans of both the novels and the games. I can easily recommend The Witcher Adventure Game for tabletop aficionados and Witcher fans, alike.


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Tabletop Review: Warhammer 40000: Relic

A game like Relic tends to challenge me as a critic and connoisseur of quality tabletop games. Fantasy Flight Games’ decision to publish a Warhammer 40K title built on the Talisman game system is, without a doubt, a “shut up and take my money” situation for me. Bearing that in mind, I knew I needed to test play the game with people who could be a little more objective than yours truly. Having done so, I can easily say that Relic is both a tremendously fun game and an improvement on its source material.

Similar to Talisman, Relic is a dice/quest driven RPG where players assume the role of a champion from the Warhammer 40K universe. While the game’s specific goal will vary depending on which of the five main quests players choose, the game generally follows a pattern of completing smaller quests – which often involve fighting enemies or completing actions at various locations on the board – leveling up a character, and then racing fellow players to the center of the board.

In executing the above, Relic is very much an iteration upon Talisman’s formula, not simply a re-skin with a gothic science fiction motif. As all the characters in the core game are part of Warhammer 40K’s Imperium of Man, the game’s PvP elements are minimal (though the first expansion introduces some particularly aggressive PvP elements). A revised Talisman combat system removes the mid to late-game ability to auto-kill aliens and heretics. Talisman veterans will no doubt recall how easy it was to exploit this exercise in munchkining for cheap experience points.

Rolling a six on a combat throw now allows for successive combat rolls so long as the player keeps hitting a six. This means that when a Space Marine with a base strength of 10 and a +2 storm bolter rolls 1D6 against a Chaos Cultist with a strength of 3, there is still a chance that the Cultist will land two successive sixes and actually defeat the Space Marine in combat. Pair that with the fact that most weapons, like the aforementioned storm bolter, have limited ammunition and Relic presents itself as a game where tension is at the forefront of combat.

True to its roots, Relic generally binds a player’s fate to the dice. However, the game further distances itself from Talisman in that it allows for much more freedom of movement, independent of the dice. Players can use power cards in lieu of movement rolls to have considerably more control over their destination on the board. Similarly, war gear and allies can augment a player’s movement. The primary benefit of these changes is that where Talisman could drag in the mid and late-game, Relic manages to keep a steady pace from start to finish.

Though strategy game purists will no doubt complain about Relic’s dependence on random chance, the game is designed well enough that bad luck rarely lasts forever. In the event that players have a truly terrible streak with their draws and rolls, character death – except for in the end-game – is not permanent and does not affect a player’s level or stats. But as any citizen of the Imperium knows, there are worse things than death in the 41st millennium.

The ever present forces of Chaos can corrupt any servant of the Immortal Emperor. Acquiring a corruption card is usually the result of event cards that present a player with a choice: embrace Chaos and receive a bonus, but at the risk of activating the card’s permanent negative effects. Occasionally, an encounter with an enemy will force a player to take a corruption card, regardless of their desire to stay pure to the Emperor. If such a circumstance sees a player drawing up to their corruption limit, their character is lost to Chaos, and the player may only continue in the game with a new level one character. This, more than death, is a fate to be avoided, especially in the mid and late-game.

But enough about the gameplay, let’s talk about the game’s physical components. Relic replaces Talisman’s plastic power cones with a slick dial system that tracks a character’s level and vital stats. Compared to Talisman’s cones, the dials save a lot of time when calculating combat and skill check rolls.

I am a little disappointed that the player tokens are only busts rather than full figures – rumour has it that there was some pushback from Games Workshop on Fantasy Flight making WH40K miniatures. However, the detail that’s gone into these busts is absolutely first rate. The potential downside is that these busts are true to WH40K form and absent any colour. Part of me wishes that they would have come out of the box in a finished state, as this is a tabletop game first and a WH40K game second. At the same time, I suppose a person has to know what they are getting into when the double-headed eagle of the Imperium appears on a box.

Relic’s board is adorned with gorgeous art that absolutely captures the somber and grimy mood of the 41st millennium. It’s also made out of a very heavy card stock that could probably stop a shot from a Leman Russ tank. My only complaint there is that the lines separating one space from another are little light. This slowed the game on a few occasions as we had to double check the number of spaces a player was moving on their turn.

All in all, Relic presents itself as a something to be enjoyed by Talisman devotees, Warhammer 40K disciples, and any other gamer who enjoys a RPG in a box. Though a four-player game will require 3 to 4 hours to complete, improvements on the Talisman game system ensure that all players are in the game for those hours. Relic is complex, without being overly complicated, and rich in WH40K mythos while still being inviting for newcomers. Truly, Relic is worthy of the Emperor’s blessing.


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The Essential RPG Etiquette

Photo By: Brandi Miller Art - http://brandimillerart.com/

If you read Wednesday’s post, you’ll know that I supported the kickstarter for Storium, an online RPG/communal story-telling game. On Thursday evening I signed into the Storium beta in search of my first adventure.  It took me five minutes to find a cyberpunk story in the “looking for group” phase.

The story’s narrator offered a setup that was straight out of Shadowrun. A group of miscreants get together for a data “smash and grab” robbery but then stumble into something much larger. Stoirum’s cyberpunk module offered a handful of character archetypes, most of which were pretty standard fare for anybody who knows the genre. I opted for the “company man.”

Enter Hiraku Boone, a company man born of a company family. The company was always a part of Boone’s life. He wanted nothing more than to get a job with the company and join the ranks of its executive. Ten years after starting his internship with the company, Boone secured a job as a senior data analyst; whereupon he began to notice irregularities. Though he couldn’t prove it, Boone knew that the marketing and sales data coming into the company was wrong. Someone on the inside was cooking the data before it got to Boone’s desk for analysis. His juniors were too inexperienced to see it. His supervisors assured him that they would look into the problem. Even Boone’s father, a Senior VP with the company, would hear nothing of his alarmist warnings. Unwilling to let the company that gave him everything fall to internal subversion, Boone joined up with the party to discover the truth of the data manipulation.

From where I sat, Boone seemed like a fun character. He could get the party into places they couldn’t get to on their own, but his actions would always have to be checked against a sense of loyalty to his employer. He could bend the rules, but he would always be working for the greater good. This moral code could even turn him into something of an antagonist depending on how the story ebbed and flowed. Maybe he would use the party as a means to an end before selling them out. Maybe he would come to realize he was working on the wrong side of history all along. Who knows?

I was confident that my character would be approved in short order. Instead, Boone was rejected outright. The narrator offered me the following justification.

“I don’t want upper class characters in this story.”

Well how very petty. And yes, I’m aware that somebody could accuse me of being equally petty for taking to my blog to write about a random person on the internet rejecting my character for an RPG. Boo hoo for Adam. But here’s the thing, there’s an etiquette to being the dungeon master/host/narrator. Said etiquette is as follows: the story does not belong to the dungeon master; it belongs to the people playing it.

If a DM is presented with something unusual, their job is to integrate that into the story – so long as the unusual thing isn’t completely out of line with the RPG. For example, a DM is well within their rights to say no to a person splitting the atom in a fantasy RPG. The unique quality of communal story telling is that so long as people are holding to the spirit of the world in question, the unusual and unexpected are what give a story legs to go on for months at a time.

In the case of Boone, a good dungeon master should put aside their preconceived notions of what the story ought to be (e.g. no affluent characters) and instead see what the group does with it. Failing that, a good DM would ask for revisions to the character – perhaps making him a former company man fallen on hard times.

Then again, I wasn’t yet part of the story, so maybe the narrator was well within his rights to tell me to sod off. However, if this is the attitude that a majority of narrators bring into Storium – the idea that their preconceived notions are at the forefront of the experience – then there are going to be a lot of players who get a sour taste from the game.


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Tabletop Review: Dungeons and Dragons Fourth Edition Starter Set

It’s fair to say that I have come late in life to Dunegons and Dragons. When I discovered the game decades ago, overly paranoid parents thought it would turn me to demon worshipping and suicide cults. Since then, I’ve played through a few encounters here and there using second and third edition rules, but never with enough depth or frequency to say that I understood the mechanics of what I was doing. With my current gaming group evolved to the point where we are comfortable at the prospect of making our own fun, the time seemed right to dive headlong into the great grand-daddy of all RPGs. Yet in purchasing the Red Box starter set to Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition, I can only quote that oft-heard line from Arrested Development, “I made a huge mistake.”

Thus will I begin this review with a dramatic retelling of The Quest To Learn a New Game System.

Our story begins with a nameless hero admiring the clever pedagogy of the fabled Player’s Book of the Red Box. Taking the form of a single-player choose your own adventure story, this tome of knowledge has a Miyagi-like sensibility to its teachings. Narrative and exposition led to choices for our nameless hero. Choices led to the fates dicing with his future. Dicing led to math, and before our hero could say, “hobgoblin,” he had gone from sanding the floor to doing Karate.

Now named Aeryk Rassalon, a human wizard fluent in the common tongue and the deep speech of monsters, he stood triumphant over his foes. Rich in coin and experience points, Aeryk came to the final passage of the mystic Player’s Manual…

You’ve completed the solo adventure in this book, but your adventures in the Dungeons and Dragons world are just beginning! Gather some friends and have them create their own characters by reading through this adventure like you did.

Even with intelligence and wisdom of 18 and 14, respectively, Aeryk grew confused.

It took three turns of the hour glass for Aeryk to negotiate the layered tapestry of the Player’s Manual. Try as he might, he could not imagine making fellow adventurers endure the same process just to roll a character. Indeed, Aeryk recalled a time long since past when his noble friend Jonathan did roll a character in the span of an elementary school lunch break. Should not the wise and all knowing Player’s Guide be a tome of straight forward knowledge, clearly indexed and measured as a means of catering to diverse learning styles? Moreover, where was the Arcana of the Sages which governed the spellcraft that the gods saw fit to bestow upon him? Though his command of Magic Missile was without question, Aeryk knew not how to invoke the Fountain of Flame, even with the help of the Red Box’s reference cards.

At the intersection of incredulity and anger, Aeryk’s character sheet became a play thing of cats and Adam re-emerged from his conceptual slumber.

“Surely the Dungeon Master’s Book will spell things out,” I said to the cat as he gleefully batted about Aeryk’s character sheet.

Though the DM book contains a starter campaign, guidelines on how to write and design original stories, and an ever-so-brief bestiary, it offers nothing on detailed spell instructions or, what I deem to be the most important part of starting an RPG, clear and linear instructions on how to roll a character. Taking my outrage online, I discovered that to make a character without jumping through the Player Manual’s hoops – not to mention its very limited classes and races – I would need to buy the full player’s manual.

Who knew it would only take three hours for me to hit the point of exponential growth in the D&D spending curve? After buying a bigger player’s manual, I would need a new DM manual. Once I was done with the DM manual, I’d probably need a monster manual to design a campaign. Here I thought D&D was supposed to orbit around communal story-telling, not me spending more money on books than I did during my final year of Undergraduate studies.

To reiterate, I knew that if my group and I got serious about D&D, we would need to buy some supplemental resources. But the bait and switch nature of the red box is nothing short of terrible. I compare this expereince to when I bought the Battletech 25th anniversary box set. That set gave players everything they needed, with no caveats or exceptions, to engage in the glorious robot on robot warfare that is Battletech.

If I wanted to build a custom lance of mechs, I could do that. If I wanted to know how a Large Laser meted out damage compared to an AC/5, there were reference tables. In the three hours it took to unbox and read the first Battletech rule book, I knew enough about the game’s mechanics to easily manage two, six-hour combat sessions, up to and including when my opponent wanted to know if he could “Death From Above” one of his mechs on to one of mine. The problem with the D&D starter set is that no matter how many times I read the given rules, I can only play the game in the exact way it wants to be played. Creativity, even something as rudimentary as creating a character, requires doubling down on the expense of the initial box and buying more materials. That, in my humble estimation, is poor design and lousy product roll-out. A game developer shouldn’t resort to trickery to get people to invest in their IP. Ideally, the IP should be good enough that I, as a gamer and customer, want to spend more of my money.

Thanks but no thanks, Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition. I’ll be returning you for a refund and giving either Pathfinder or Apocalypse World a try.


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First Impressions: Firefly the Game

Do I cut through Alliance space, or play it safe on the raggedy edge? Should I fight the Reavers, or burn additional fuel to get away from them, knowing that I might run out of gas before getting back to Persephone? Who among my crew can I afford to fire after this job is done so I don’t have to pay them their cut?

Joss Whedon’s Firefly was about a man who wanted the freedom to make his own way in the world. Ten years later, Firefly the Game offers that same freedom to be the captain of a Firefly class transport ship. After my first play through I can say it was worth the wait to put on a brown coat and make like Malcolm Reynolds.

Published by Gale Force 9, whose other big claim to fame is the tabletop adaptation of Starz’ Spartacus, Firefly is a middle-weight adventure/RPG. Up to four players, with a five player expansion slated for December, take command of competing Firefly-class cargo transports. Would-be captains have to find a crew, get work, establish a reputation for themselves, and make enough money to keep their ship flying while meeting the objectives of a given game scenario. Depending on a group’s rate of play, each scenario should take about two hours to get through. For the purposes of this piece, I played the Awful Lonely in the Big Black solo story.

A few technical notes before I delve into the game itself.

Firefly is a fully licensed game based on the Firefly TV series. So yes, you can play as Malcolm Reynolds, captain of Serenity. My first crew was Mal, Inara, Crow, and a couple nobodies to keep the ship running.

Firefly’s manual is poorly structured. On a first read through, I wasn’t quite sure what I was getting into. I spent a lot of time flipping between pages for rule clarifications. Part of that is due to the sexy, but pointless, screen captures from the series which punctuate the rule book. Fortunately, Gale Force 9 has been very good with their post-release support. A FAQ on the game’s website clarifies a few of Firefly’s finer mechanics. As an additional mea culpa, GF9 produced an extra downloadable scenario card for first time captains.

On another fussy note, GF9 uses some very high quality card stock for Firefly. There are hundreds of cards in Firefly, not including the money, and all of them are both heavy and glossy enough to give them a nice look and texture. I know, it’s not a big deal, but these things are important to me.

Now let’s talk about my first game. Awful Lonely in the Black gave me twenty turns to complete one of three objectives aptly named, the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

The Good required getting a “solid” reputation with each of the game’s five employers. The Bad opened the door to a get rich or die trying quest to rack up $15,000. The Ugly was about shooting up the ‘verse. I chose The Bad.

Even though the cumbersome rulebook slowed down my first few turns, the game’s mechanics became largely self-explanatory after muddling through the core concepts for half an hour. In short, everything revolves around getting a job. Movement and trading easily come together as aspects of working a mission.

When visiting an employer, players get a choice of three jobs to accept or reject. Each job has an objective, pickup/drop-off locations, equipment and/or crew required to work the job, and most importantly, how much it pays. Some of the more interesting missions require drawing a series of “Aim to Misbehave” cards.  The trick to completing misbehave cards, and all of the game’s other skill checks, rests in building a balanced crew. Fill a ship with soldiers, and you will always win a gun fight, but you’ll fail even the most casual diplomacy tests. Similarly, a ship filled with companions and hucksters won’t be much good when the drive core explodes.

Were I playing against people, I may have taken a few less risks with my life of crime. Pitted against the solo game’s 20 turn limit, I had do foolish things like load up my ship with stolen goods and make a full burn through Alliance space, hoping against hope that I wouldn’t run afoul of a patrol. You wouldn’t expect that drawing against an encounter deck would be so stressful. However, the knowledge that each turn of a card on a full burn can lead to any number of natural or man-made disasters produces some genuine tension even when playing alone.

In the end, I won my test play by a hair’s breadth. If I botched the final job, a casino robbery, I was too far away from civilization to pick up another job before game’s end. Not to mention the fact that I would have earned a warrant against my ship and that’s never a good thing in Alliance space. To that end, working on the margins of the Firefly universe perfectly captures the mood of the series. Between finding work, buying supplies, and paying the crew (which is totally optional), I always felt like my back was always against the wall. Throw in random encounters with Reavers, the Alliance, and mutinous crew members and it’s no wonder that Malcolm Reynolds felt like the universe was out to get him. True to the Reynolds philosophy, a good captain can’t leave things to luck. One must plan a course in advance, try to line up multiple jobs, and hope that everything goes to plan. And when all else fails, make sure you have a big gun.

Though I’ve yet to play against other people, Firefly certainly offers enough complexity to appeal to the RPG/Deck building game crowd. At the same, time it channels the essential subtext of freedom on the frontier found in the source material. At a $45 price point, Firefly should prove a solid long-term investment.