PAX Impressions

Some brief thoughts on the games I learned at PAX.

Alien Frontiers: I’ve heard a few raves about this worker-placement game, and jumped at the chance to give it a whirl during PAX. It is one of a number of newer worker-placement games that use dice as the workers, with the values determining what can be done with them. Along with the dice, Alien Frontiers adds another distinctly non-Euro element: “Take That!ism”. Some actions and cards allow a player to directly target opponents, allowing them to steal deresources or otherwise complicate their plans. I have no objection to this when it’s done well; Lords of Waterdeep, for instance, also has this element, and I quite enjoy that game. But in Alien Frontiers, it seems like it’s a little too easy to dogpile on the leader, such that all the players wind up within one point of victory and the winner is he who gets slapped down the least. Wondering if our one play was an anomaly, I checked out the comments by several reviewers I trust on boardgamgeek, and saw my concerns echoed: “seem to always come down to everyone just about winning”, “too much kingmaking”, “endgame is weak & incredibly swing-y”. Suspicions: confirmed! If I want dice-as-workers, I’ll stick with Troyes; if I want a little politics in my Euro, Waterdeep remains the one to beat.

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Dungeon World: I’m a sucker for both dungeon crawls and modern roleplaying games that put the emphasis on storytelling, so it’ll come as no surprise that I loved my first session of Dungeon World.  The system, based on Apocalypse World, boasts several innovations, foremost among them the fact that the DM never rolls the dice.  Instead, she sets up the situation (“the ogre swings his club at you”), and it is incumbent upon the player to drive the action forward, by taking “moves” (“I will attempt to Defy Danger by dodging out of the way”) and rolling two six-sided dice to determine the outcome. A 10+ means they accomplished whatever they set out to do; a 6 or less means they failed.  But the fun of the game comes when a move roll results in a 7, 8, or 9,  at which point the DM gets to decide what “partial success” looks like (“you can either: take the blow and full damage, or block with your sword arm, taking less damage overall but losing the use of your arm for the rest of the fight”).  No doubt my favorable impression of the game was due in part to Brendan Adkins, our excellent DM, but I really think the game works well as a rules-light D&Dish RPG, perfect for those who prefer storytelling to min-maxing.

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Space Cadets: Dice Duel: Apparently this game hasn’t been released, but there was a copy available for play in the PAX library. Players separate into two teams, each of which works to maneuver their ship around a gridded board, collecting crystals, using tractor beams to move things around, and firing torpedoes at their opponent in the hopes of taking them down. To accomplish this, teams roll dice and then assign them to various stations: the helm for movement, the weapons systems, the shields, and so forth. The gimmick is that all of this is done simultaneously, and in real time. In other words, a team will be frantically rolling dice and allocating them to the various systems as quickly as possible, hoping to get an edge over their opponents through efficient play and fortuitous rolls. In this respect, the game is like a much more convoluted Escape: The Curse of the Temple, which also has players rolling dice in real time and frenetically using the results to accomplish tasks. I am unconvinced, however, that the added complexity is an improvement. Escape is simple, but players are able to follow the action even while rolling dice as quickly as possible; In Dice Duel, however, no one player can track everything that is going on, which is kind of fun, but also a bit anticlimactic when you abruptly win or lose without having any idea what preceded the outcome. I may enjoy Dice Duel, but I’m definitely going to need a few more plays to make that determinatio

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Pathfinder: The Adventure Card Game: This was the belle of the ball at Gen Con, and it’s easy to see way: hugely popular RPG theme (dungeon crawl) + hugely possible RPG license (Pathfinder) – the need for a DM. Like the roleplaying game on which it is based, P:TACG has a party of adventurers cooperating to explore, fight monsters, acquire loot, and ultimately confront a villain of some sort. Normally one player would have to run all this, but here everything is automated, and the players work collaboratively to beat the system itself.

A scenario has a number of location, each with it’s own draw deck. On a turn a player picks one of these locations and explores it, revealing and encountering the top card from its deck. Some of the encounters are Boons that a player can acquire, such as weapons, items, allies, and blessings; others, like monsters, are Banes, and the player must overcome them. In either case, the player rolls against one of his skills to determine success. When a deck is exhausted, the corresponding location is “closed”, and the adventurers move on to another of the sites. The overarching goal is to to flush out and defeat the scenario’s Big Bad.

Some of this is standard deck-builder fare, but P:TACG offers several novel twists on the formula (including a hand-size mechanic that is downright elegant). The biggest draw of the game, however, is that state persists from game to game; that is, if you acquire a sword or an ally or an item in one game, you can start the next game already owning it. Your characters also level up as they would in a RPG, so you slowly become more powerful and better equipped over the course of several sessions. You can play one-shots of course, but the game is really designed for a dedicated group, with players using the same characters for each session, and working their way through the Scenarios that compose the Adventures that compose the Adventure Paths.

A member of my game group picked up a copy of P:TACG, and we are in the process of setting up a monthly Pathfinder night dedicated to playing it. That probably tells you all you need to know about the game’s allure and potential.

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Sentinels of the Multiverse:  Last year a reader wrote me of the blue to recommend Sentinels of the Multiverse, which he described as “a cooperative superhero card game in which up to 5 players work to defeat a supervillain”. “Superheroes” and “cooperative” piqued my interested, but upon further investigation I came to the (erroneous) conclusion that the game was a deck-builder, a genre for which I have little enthusiasm. Even that wouldn’t have stopped me from buying it though, as I will act on pretty much any recommendation, but I also couldn’t find the game for purchase anywhere. It appeared to have been a Kickstarter project that was not generally available.

Since then the buzz around Sentinels has grown (it has been suggested to me several times in the last six months), so I picked up a copy at PAX, and am very pleased to have done so. The core game is fairly simple, with the players attempting to reduce the Villain’s Hit Points to 0 before he knocks out all of the Heroes, or before time runs out. To that end, cards are played that deal damage, or heal damage, or have a variety of other effects. The cooperative element of Sentinels elevates it above standard “Take That!” fare though, and many cards amplify or modify the effects of others. On my turn, for instance, I might play a card that reduces the Villain’s Hit Points by 3, or I might choose to instead play a card that adds 1 to the damage dealt by every other player until my next turn. Some cards remain in play and have lasting effect, such that, as the game goes on, the options available to players grow, as do the opportunities to clever, synergistic plays. Much of the fun of the game comes from working with the other players to find and exploit powerful, cascading chains of effects that will wreak havoc on the Villain’s plans.

Sentinels is often likened to Magic: The Gathering, not only because cards interact with one another in interesting and powerful ways, but also because each player has a unique deck with an overarching “theme”. Some of the heroes deal large amounts of damage but can do little else; others specialize in weakening or undermining the the Villain rather than hurting him outright. The hero I played in my first game was Legacy, a quintessential team player, who could redirect damage meant for others to himself, and often chose to assist his fellow heroes rather than bask in the spotlight. With 10 different Heroes and 4 Villains (each of which also have their own decks and specialties), there are lots of combinations to explore as you play through a comic book series of your own making.

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