Posts categorized “Games”.

Board Games via Skype

Hmm, that’s an interesting challenge. I’m sure I could search Google and find some board games that are routinely played via Skype, but let me ruminate on the problem a bit first.

How could this be done? I’ll think this through using Monopoly as an example.  One party (A) would set up the board and position the camera such that the other party (B) could see it; Party A would also be in charge of moving the pieces and placing houses/hotels onto the board.  Party B would roll their own dice, take deeds from their own set when purchasing property, and use their own bank.  When money was transferred from a player in one party to a player in the other, the debtor would return the sum to their bank and the creditor would take an equivalent amount from theirs.  When a player in Party B landed on a Chance or Community Chest space, a player in Party A would draw the card on his behalf and read it aloud.

As near as I can tell, Monopoly would work without requiring any modification to the game rules.  So would Carcassonne, if someone in Party A revealed tiles on behalf of the players in Party B and placed them (along with the associated meeples) in accordance with the wishes of the active players.  Viewing the board might be a pain for players in Party B, but it’s doable.

Here are a few others that use a central board, and would require parties to coordinate their moves/components, but could hypothetically be played via Skype:

The common denominator in the games above is the lack of hidden information. The problem comes when players draw items (such as cards) from a common pool (such as a deck), and these items are meant to be kept secret. Hence the exclusion of Settlers of Catan from the list above (development cards), and the main version of Agricola (Occupation and Minor Improvement cards).

To see why this is an issue let’s examine Scrabble, where each player has their own set of hidden tiles. Here again Party A could be in charge of the board, placing tiles onto the spaces dictated to them by the players in Party B.  But from where does a player in Party B draw to refill his hand?  If each party the tiles in their copy of the game, it messes up the distribution: you have twice as many Z’s etc., and you’ll have to play twice as long before you run out of tiles. If you only use one pool, and there are at least two players in each party, I can’t think of an easy way for a player in Party A to draw tiles on behalf of someone in Party B and communicate that information to them whilst keeping in secret from himself and others.

(If Party B was composed of only one person this could be done, though. Party A sets up a rack right in front of and facing the camera; replacement tiles are placed onto the rack without the drawing player looking at them. When the player on Party B plays, he indicates which tiles he’s using and where they should be placed, e.g. “the second, third, fifth, and sixth tiles from the left to spell ‘carbine’, intersecting ‘trundle’ at the ‘n’.”)

Given all this, the ideal game for playing over Skype would seem to be one without a central board, or common pool from which hidden items are taken. Dice games leap to mind, such as Roll Through the AgesDungeon Roll, and King of Tokyo (the superfluous board of which could be replaced by simply putting the in-Tokyo monsters in front of the camera).

Another category would be games in which each person plays from his own deck of cards. Dominion almost works (but when a player in one party bought a card, the other party would have to trash an identical card), as does Sentinels of the Multiverse (although the Villain and Environment decks are a “central board” of sorts).

Sentinels is also cooperative, which simplifies some aspects of playing over Skype. Other co-ops that should work well include Forbidden Island and Forbidden Desert, Flash Point: Fire Rescue, and Elder Sign.

What am I forgetting?

P.s. After posting I allowed myself to Google this topic, and there are fewer suggestions out there than I had anticipated. Most recommend playing via V.A.S.S.E.L. or similar service that mediates the game, with Skype there to facilitate the social aspect.

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Upcoming Gamenight / Tweetup

Based on the success of the first one, the Seattle Gamenight / Tweetup has officially become A Thing, and will henceforth be held on the last Friday of each month.

For the next, February 28, I have reserved a room at Cafe Mox, Seattle’s premiere game parlour. The space only holds 10, so please RSVP via Twitter or email if you intend to join; if we get > 10, we will relocate.

On March 28 we are back at The Elysian, for a gamenight featuring Special Guest Star @ansate. Yay!

And a week later, Saturday April 5th, it is International Tabletop Day. I have no plans as of yet, but will cook up something in observation of the event. Stay tuned.

Google Calendar addresses:    :

 

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Seattle Gamenight / Tweetup

Come join me, royalbacon, hellbox and more on Thursday, January 30th at the Elysian on Capitol Hill for an impromptu gamenight / tweetup. The festivities will begin around 6 PM, and I will come armed with:

Plus: The Resistance, Love Letter, King of Tokyo, and your requests.

Come to play, or just say hello.

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The 2013 Good Gift Games Guide

The 2013 Good Gift Games guide appears in The Morning News today. Kind of a strange list this year, populated almost exclusively with card games. The only games with traditional boards are VivaJava and Eight-Minute Empire (albeit one the size of a large index card). There also no games exclusively for two-players. I was originally going to include Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small (see below), but ultimately omitted it from the main list for the crime of Excessive Dryness.

Here are the ten games featured:

Game Rules Purchase
Sushi Go! PDF AmazonFunagain
Rise of Augustus PDF AmazonFunagain
Hanabi PDF AmazonFunagain
Pathfinder Adventure Card Game PDF AmazonFunagain
Dungeon Roll Download page AmazonFunagain
Coup Can’t find AmazonFunagain
Forbidden Desert Download page AmazonFunagain
VivaJava PDF Amazon
The Little Prince: Make Me a Planet PDF Amazon
Eight-Minute Empire PDF Appears to be out of stock everywhere, but the sequel, Eight-Minute Empire: Legends, will be released on 12/09 according to Amazon and Funagain.

See also: the Good Gift Games Greatest Hits (although I need to update it with King of TokyoCards Against HumanityLove Letter, and Lords of Waterdeep).

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My Other Favorite Games of the Year

The Good Gift Games guide focuses on games that are “easy to learn and teach, fun and engrossing to play, and that can be completed in 90 minutes or less”. I like games that meet these criteria of course, but also enjoy the meatier stuff. Here are five of my favorite mid- to advanced-strategy games of last year or so.

  • Android: Netrunner (Fantasy Flight Games, 2 players, 45 minutes): I’m late to the party on this one (it was released in 2012, and is based on a game from the 90s), but holy smokes, Android: Netrunner presses all of my buttons.  I’m a sucker for the setting — hackers vs. corporations in a dystopian cyberpunk future — and every element of the game reinforces the theme, from the mechanics to the art to the terminology (the corporation’s draw deck is called “R&D”, for instance). It’s a “living card game”, which means that there are endless expansions to buy, but there is plenty of game in the base set alone. [Boardgame Geek | Amazon | Funagain]
Android: Netrunner
  • Sentinels of the Multiverse (Greater Than Games, 3-5, 45 minutes): As long as I am confessing to late-adopterism, I should also point out that, after years of being urged to play Sentinels of the Multiverse, I finally did so a few months ago. And yes, everyone was right: it’s right up my alley.  Each player has their own, custom deck in this cooperative superhero card game, which pits players against a supervillain and his minions. What elevates the game beyond the basic “play a card, do what it says” filler is the fascinating way in which the good guys, bad guys, environments, and assorted powers interact, providing lots of emergent gameplay to explore. [Boardgame Geek | Amazon | Funagain]
  • Terra Mystica (Z-Man Games, 2-5 players, 120 minutes)Terra Mystica is very much a euro despite its fantasy theme, a worker placement game that emphasizes resource management and long-term strategy.  I’ve had my fill of “point salad” games, but the various races in Mystica set it apart from its brethren: in my three games I’ve played the halflings, the giants, and the nomads, and each has required a completely different approach.  There’s a steep learning curve on this one, and you’ll be perpetually checking the rulebook for clarifications, but so far it’s paid hefty dividends on the investment.  [Boardgame Geek | Amazon | Funagain]
  • Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar (Rio Grande Games, 2-4  players, 90 minutes hours): My other favorite euro of the year, Tzolk’in has one of the best board game gimmicks in recent memory: a set of interlocking gears that completely regulate the gameplay.  You can read my full review at Playtest.  [Boardgame Geek | Amazon Funagain]
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Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar 
  • Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small (Z-Man games, 2 players, 30 minutes):  Agricola is a huge, sprawling, complex game, in which 2-5 players have to manage seven types of resources while trying to eke out an existence on a 17th century farm; Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small, on the other hand, is its adorable little nephew, allowing two players to just focus on the fun part of farming: chilling with the livestock. To that end the players take turns building fences, constructing stables, and raising sheep, pigs, cows, and horses. And what happens if you have two animals of the same kind at the end of the round? Yay, babies! [Boardgame Geek | Amazon | Funagain]
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Other Opinions

Don’t trust the yeti? Here are the highlights of some other “2013 best game of the year” lists. German Game of the Year:

Deutscher Spiele Preis (the “other” German Game of the Year award):

International Gamers Awards:

GAMES Magazine Awards:

  • Abstract Strategy GameKulami
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Where to Buy

I dunno about your hometown, but board game stores have recently been cropping up in Seattle like toadstools after a rain. Plug “games” into Google Maps and see what you get. As for online, Amazon now carries just about everything I recommend. Funagain Games is one of the oldest board game retailers and remains one of the best. Others that I’d recommend include:

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Need additional info, or want a more specific recommendation? Don’t hesitate to drop me a line.

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Animal Upon Animal

What is your son’s favorite game.

I am a fan of board games, so folks often wonder what I play with my son. He doesn’t get the social aspects of play (competition, cooperation, trading, and so forth), nor the narrative arc of games like Max, but he enjoys the pattern-matching of picture dominoes and The Kids of Carcassonne, even if we don’t keep score.

His favorite game, however, is the simple but engaging Animal Upon Animal.

Animal Upon Animal comes with 29 chunky wood animals: a single crocodile, which starts the game in the center of the table, and four sets of seven different animals. Each animal has a distinct shape, with smooth curves (snakes), bumpy backs (sheep), pointy ridges (hedgehogs), and flat feet (penguins).

On a turn you roll the six sided die, and perform the action indicated.  In most cases this will involve taking one or more animals from your personal stash and placing them onto the ever-growing pyramid in the center of the table, but some of the die faces allow you to instead enlarge the base of the pile, or even give one of your animals to an opponent. Any animals that topple to the table during your placement go back into your reserve, and the first player to get rid of all of his animals wins.

The game is pure dexterity, and therefore perfectly suited for my son. Even better, his nimble little fingers make him a better player than I, and he has a knack for spotting clever placements, where the edge of one animal fits neatly into the groove of another. His only fatal flaw, in regards to strategy, is his preference for the snakes, even when another animal might be easier to place. But I have to admit the snakes are the cutest, and it is very satisfying to sneak one onto the top of a tall and precarious stack.

I recommend Animal Upon Animal to all parents, not just those of children with autism. It’s one of of the few kid’s games that’s as fun for adults as it is for the intended audience. Just make sure all the pieces go back in the box after you are done — step on a hedgehog in the middle of the night and you will swear off board games, or children, forever.

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Games: Dungeon Roll

playtested:

Let’s get this out of the way: Dungeon Roll is a solitaire game … But as solitaire game, it shines.

I’m friends with Chris Darden, the designer of Dungeon Roll, so declined to review it myself for Playtest. This instead comes from Sandor Weisz, a.k.a. The Puzzler.

When Sandy describes Dungeon Roll as a “solitaire game”, it’s not criticism in the same way that “multi-player solitaire” often is when applied to euro. He’s not pointing out a flaw, he’s stating a fact.  Yes, you can play DR with 2 or 3 or 4 (or 30), but you are all playing in parallel, and the only interaction comes in comparing scores afterward. 

Here’s the thing, though: it’s a really fun solitaire game. I’ve gotten into the habit of playing a game or two each night before hitting the sack, striving to beat my own previous best score. 

I haven’t played with three or four, but two players is fine as well.  Yes, when it’s not your turn you simply act as “dice rolling robot”, but I unlike Sandy I think this role (so to speak) is fun enough. Even though it’s all random, you find yourself willing the worst on your opponent, and cackling evilly when the dragon appears. What’s not to love?

And it’s worth noting that DR is a near perfect bar game: portable, fast, and enticing to even the hardened non-gamers in your circle. For that alone I’m glad it’s in my collection.

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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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Games: Tzolk’in

This review is a cross-post from Playtest. Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar is available through Amazon and Funagain Games.

♪ For every season, turn, turn, turn … ♫

As with any form of art, boardgame design is subject to trends. “Worker placement games”, for example, were all the rage in the years following the release of Agricola. Most games of the genre had similar hallmarks:  players used their turns to assign “workers” to spaces on the board; each space conferred to the player some benefit or reward, such as free resources, the ability to build improvements, or even the opportunity to recruit yet more workers to his cause; and each space could only hold a single worker, so occupying them (thereby denying them from your opponents) was the main form of player interaction.

The market eventually became saturated with worker placement games, and fell by the wayside when Dominion ushered in the era of Deck Building games. These days a worker placement game must be exceptionally well designed or feature a compelling twist to merit consideration. Lords of Waterdeep is a good example of the former, a game that adds little to the genre, but is so well designed that I frequently recommend it. Trajan, on the other hand, exemplifies the latter, a worker placement game (sort of) with a very clever mechanic, but one that dominates rather than supplements play.

Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar, meanwhile, meets both criteria, boasting an remarkable design and one hell of a hook. And the gimmick in this case is not only mechanical, but physical: six interlocking gears which sit in the middle of the game board. Each of the smaller gears represents a site of importance in Mayan culture  Palenque, Yaxchilan, Tikal, Uxmal, and Chichen Itza  while the large, central gear plays the role of the Mayan calendar. When the calendar gear is advanced between rounds, the site gears move in tandem. It’s a system that’s not only practical (it saves the players a great deal of bookkeeping), but cleverly reinforces the premise of the game: the inexorable march of time over the course of a year in the Mayan empire.

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Finally, a game with some teeth.

Each site has Action Spaces positions around the perimeter of its gear, and these spaces grant unique benefits to the workers who resides there. But unlike most worker placement games  where a player plunks his pawn into a space, uses the effect, and then retrieves all of his pieces at the end of a round  Tzolk’in employs a novel system of distribution. First, a player must either place workers or retrieve workers on his turn, but cannot do both. Second, the effect of an Action Space takes place when the worker is removed from the board. Third, and most ingeniously, the workers are not placed onto the Action Spaces directly, but rather into depressions within the gears. As time passes, and the central calendar cog turns, the site gears rotate as well, moving the placed workers up toward the more powerful spaces. Thus, the longer a worker sits on a gear, the better the reward it earns when he is finally returned to the owning player’s pool.

The Action Spaces for a site are loosely bound to the overall theme of the location: Palenque focuses on forestry and farming, Yaxchilan provides resources, Tikal permits construction, Uxmal allows you to purchase various goods and effects, and Chichen Itza is where players can make offerings to the gods in return for points and favor. This specialization is one of several thematic touches in what could have been a largely abstract game.

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The gods work in clearly explained ways.

There’s considerably more to Tzolk’in — resource management, buildings and temples, technology tracks, and three different gods to appease — but the gears and the worker placement are the heart of the game, and what really make it shine.

I was profoundly skeptical that the game could rise above its “gimmick”, but after four plays I firmly believe that Tzolk’in would remain as highly regarded if the gears were removed entirely. The game would no doubt be accused of “fiddlyness”, as players would be required to manually advance all the workers between every round, but that just proves my point: the cogs facilitate the excellent gameplay, rather than replace it.

And another good sign in regards to the game’s depth is that it is becoming more interesting with repeated play. The first two times I played I had no idea what to focus on (corn? resources? buildings? temples?) and came in last place. The third time I won, without consciously knowing how I did so. I won the fourth time as well, and this time even had an inkling as to why. Like the best strategy games, Tzolk’in requires study and persistence to play well, and rewards those who makes the investment.

Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar has become a staple at my Wednesday gamenight, and is my favorite 3-4 player game at the moment. It’s not a something I would recommend to novices, as it has a fairly steep learning curve. But if you are a fan of worker placement games who thought the genre was played out, or are just looking for something to challenge your group, Tzolk’in is an excellent choice, one you’ll want to play often. One good turn deserves another.

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Trail of Cthulhu

This post is part of the H. P. Lovefest. TL;DR: I have rapidly become a fan of the Trail of Cthulhu roleplaying game, a modern, player-facing alternative to Call of Cthulhu that highlights the investigative aspect of Lovecraftian adventuring.

I’ve always loved all kinds of games, but the frequency at which I played RPGs was, until recently, about once a decade: a handful of D&D sessions as a kid, an afternoon of Top Secret in high school, a GURPS session in college, and a taste of Call of Cthulhu in my early 30s. Of the many systems I’ve learned (and the number I’ve learned is an order of magnitude greater than the number I’ve played, alas), Call of Cthulhu (CoC) was by far my favorite. Not only am I a sucker for the horror genre in general, and H. P. Lovecraft in particular, but I also appreciated the game for putting the narrative front in center, with the dice relegated to a supporting role.

A few years ago I picked up a copy of Trail of Cthulhu (ToC), knowing full well that, like dozens of other RPGs I have purchased over the years, it would be read but likely never played. But the system appealed to me to such a degree that I decided to actually try it out. And so, on Halloween of 2011, I gathered several of my friends and subjected them to the eldritch horrors that the game has to offer. The evening was so successful that I have run the game several times since, for a variety of friends and acquaintances. It’s with thanks to ToC that I can, at long last, add the title of “roleplayer” to my gaming resume without resorting to exaggeration or wishful thinking.


Even the cover of Trail of Cthulhu emphasizes the investigative nature of the game

GUMSHOE

Why did I enter the world of roleplaying with Trail of Cthulhu, rather than in the company of its much lauded forefather? Because ToC emphasizes the investigative aspect of the game, which I find to be the most fun. In fact GUMSHOE, the engine thrumming within ToC, is specifically tailored for mystery-oriented RPGs, and the exploration of Lovecraft’s horrors is but one of its many application.

GUMSHOE is built around a simple proposition, albeit one viewed as heretical by many Call of Cthulhu fans: characters in an investigative game should be given the clues for free. In other words, players need not “Spot Hidden” to find the essential manuscript, pass a “Listen” check to hear the scratching behind a secret door, or miss out on a key piece of information because they failed to interrogate a wino four scenes back. If an Investigator is in a location containing a clue, and has a skill appropriate for finding it, the Keeper forks it over. No dice rolls, no chance of failure, no games derailed for want of a well-hidden journal.

GUMSHOE accomplishes this by dividing an Investigators skills into two broad classes: Investigative and General. Investigative Abilities, such as Occult and Flattery are those that enable players to learn things, and work automatically. If a character in the story has information and is susceptible to flattery, for instance, a player need only declare that they are laying on the charm to get the goods. General Abilities like Firearms and Fleeing, on the other hand, are those that enable players to do things. Unlike Investigative Abilities, General Abilities require a dice roll, and can result in failure. So while finding the combination to the safe is a given, sneaking past a rogue shoggoth is not without risk.

Some Call of Cthulhu players find this to be even more blasphemous than the creatures they face. Finding clues is the entire point of a mystery they argue, and removing that element neuters the game. The creators of GUMSHOE beg to differ, and cite as evidence for their position the traditional police procedural, where the finding of the clues is a given, be it Sherlock Holmes spotting mud on a suspect’s shoe or the CSI team sweeping a motel room for DNA. The interesting part of the story, they posit, is in the interpretation and synthesis of the clues, as the detectives move from scene to scene drawing ever closer to their quarry. GUMSHOE works by deprecating the drudgery of evidence collection and highlighting the fun of piecing together the Horrible Truth.


What could go wrong?

On the Trail

With Trail of Cthulhu, Kenneth Hite takes the GUMSHOE system and plunks it into the world of H. P. Lovecraft. Hite has an impressive resume in both RPG creation (he is credited with GURPS Horror) and the Mythos (on which he has written several books), and his considerable experience is obvious in the design.

The first 80 pages of the book are essentially Hite’s conversion of Call of Cthulhu to the GUMSHOE system. Yes ToC is its own game, but there is no way (nor need) to deny CoC’s omnipresent influence. PCs are called “Investigators” and the GM is the “Keeper”; many of CoC’s signature skills (e.g., Credit Rating and Psychoanalysis) have been carried over; and yes, characters have a Sanity rating, which will erode over the course of several games.

Hite augments all this with a number of innovations. Stability, for instance, is a measure of an Investigator’s short-term mental well-being, and can be refreshed by completing adventures, finding safe haven, via the application of Psychoanalysis, and so forth. (As in CoC, however, Sanity tends to be a one-way street toward madness.) Investigators also have built in motivators, including Drives (Curiosity, Ennui, and other explanations as to why they investigate the Mythos) and Pillars of Sanity (core beliefs, such as “Science trumps superstition”).

The latter two-thirds of Trail of Cthulhu contains a wealth of material, from an overview of the 1930’s (the default era for ToC adventures), tips for Keepers, an Introductory adventure, and a repository of campaign ideas. Of particular note is the chapter on the Mythos, where Hite provides detailed descriptions of the creatures, tomes, spells, and entities that inhabit the Lovecraftian universe. He even provides multiple possibilities for each of the Great Old Ones, allowing Keepers to choose the form of the Destructor they wish to unleash on their hapless players. Here, for instance, are three of Hite’s six interpretations of Ithaqua:

  • The Great Old One Ithaqua, the Wind-Walker, dwells in the Arctic wastes. It abducts lone travelers or those who have attracted its unfavorable attention, carrying them off into the auroral skies. They are found weeks or months later, frozen solid in positions of great agony, missing random body parts, and partly buried in the ground as if dropped from a terrific height.
  • Ithaqua resembles a gigantic (even miles-tall, although this may be a cold-induced hallucination) humanoid with ragged stumps at the end of its trailing legs. Its eyes glow a lambent red. This appearance matches the descriptions of the Wendigo, the legendary man-eating monster of the Chippewa, who inspires cannibalism in those who encounter him. Ithaqua, likewise, sometimes transforms its victims into its own semblance, leaving them insensible to cold.
  • Ithaqua is an Outer God embodying the inevitability of thermodynamic decay. As time increases, molecules get colder and more isolated – the Arctic north is the coldest, most isolated part of the human world, a preview of the “heat death” coming for us all. Ithaqua causes, or is, or is created by, that immovable truth.

Chock full of ideas like the above, the Trail of Cthulhu book will be of interest to anyone fascinated by the Mythos — even those who have no intention of ever playing the game.


They’re saving you a cell

My Impressions

I’ve run several Trail of Cthulhu sessions since discovering the game, and all have been a blast. These are some of the features of the system that I most appreciate:

  • Dice rolls are rare but meaningful: As I mentioned above, Investigators need only roleplay the use of their Investigative Abilities to receive the clues necessary to proceed. Dice rolls are required when a character invokes a General Ability, such as Firearms or Fleeing, and failure usually results in a significant setback or injury. Furthermore, all rolls are made using six-sided dice, and the results are dead simple to interpret.
  • Sessions are concise: A session of ToC tends to be briefer than it would have been if played using the CoC ruleset, as dead ends are eliminated, clue hunts are minimized, and the action isn’t continually interrupted by dice rolls. I have played some ToC adventures in a single evening that surely would have required two or three sessions using CoC.
  • The game is player-facing: I’d never heard the term “player-facing” prior to ToC, but the term perfectly encapsulates much of what I like about the game. In most old school RPGs, the GM “runs” the game and the players deal with whatever is thrown at them. In ToC, however, the players are active agents, and one duty of the Keeper is to react to their choices, weaving the elements introduced by the players into the narrative.

    For instance, each Investigator has points that can be used on investigative “benefits” (e.g., an additional clue, or a contact in the city that can aid the team). The players not only chooses when to spend these points, but can suggest the nature of the benefit received. The Keeper is the final arbiter of course, but this gives the players much more say in how the story unfolds.

  • Floating Clues: ToC encourages Keepers to have a stash of extra clues on hand. If the Investigators decide to do something that is not in the script — search the lighthouse that was only meant as scenery, say — the Keeper can reward their initiative by giving them something for their trouble. It’s another manifestation of the player-facing nature of the game, rewarding Investigators who stray from where they are “supposed” to go.
  • Purist Mode: Most CoC adventures are pulp in nature, allowing players to confront and even defeat gods. ToC allows for this style of play as well, but also introduces Purist rules that remain true to the spirit of H. P. Lovecraft stories. If you like your adventures lethal and your outcomes bleak, this is the mode for you.

In case you’re curious, the four Trail of Cthulhu adventures I have run thus far are Dimension Y and Devourers In the Mist (from Stunning Eldritch Tales collection), The Dying of St. Margaret’s, and Not So Quiet. I would highly recommend any of these, especially Devourers as an introduction to the system. (I ran a customized version of the printed Devourers; Keepers who are interested in my revisions can read about them here.)


My favorite session to run was “The Dying of St. Maragaret’s”, a purist adventure true to the style of H. P. Lovecraft

Verdict

I’m a fan of Trail of Cthulhu, and unsurprised that it’s the game that finally turned me into a roleplayer.

The system not perfect, and there are aspects that I find odd or unworkable. The point-spend mechanism is a marvelous idea as it ensures that all players get their moment in the spotlight, but often feels clumsy and disruptive in play. The game can careen from diceless to dicefest when group combat erupts. And the soft- and hard-driver rules, where a player can be punished for not roleplaying an Investigator the way the GM feels it ought to be played, as so counter to the spirit of the game that I’ve simply chosen to ignore them.

Some critics question why ToC exists at all, since Call of Cthulhu Keepers who prefer player-facing games have long used floating clues and the other “innovations” championed by the system. That is undoubtedly true, but by codifying these mechanics Trail is a boon for novice Keepers who might otherwise struggle with these elements. And while you could play any ToC adventure using the CoC ruleset (and vice versa), the systems lend themselves to different styles of play.

Take the Call of Cthulhu game I participated in last Saturday, a “haunted house” scenario in which the players were confined to a mansion and bad things happened to them over the weekend. Although our party was ultimately successful, we missed several clues because we’d neglected to search some key locations. That wouldn’t have happened with ToC, as Investigators always get all the core information. But ToC also favors stories in which the players travel from scene to scene, following clues toward a destination (hence the “Trail”). It is also ill-suited to adventures in which the players are not actively trying to solve the mystery; without the investigation, Trail flounders. So while there is a great deal of overlap between CoC and ToC, neither is obviated by the other.

If you are currently enjoying CoC I see no reason for you to switch. But if you are interested in a new approach, or new to Lovecraftian roleplaying and wondering which system to adopt, give Trail of Cthulhu a read and see if it models the sort of play you prefer. It certainly does for me.

You can learn more about Trail of Cthulhu at its Official Homepage, RPGGeek, and on the Yog-Sothoth forums.

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Games: Love Letter

This review is a cross-post from Playtest. Love Letter is available through Amazon and Funagain Games.

Love Letter falls into two unusual categories, the first of which is Games That You Are Convinced Won’t Work Until You Play Them. Often these are games that are so complicated that you can’t visualize how all the disparate systems could possibly come together into an organic whole, but sometimes you come across a game so simple that you can’t imagine how playing it would be any more intriguing than flipping a coin.

The second unusual class into which Love Letter falls is what I call Two-Minute Games — not because they can be played in two minutes, but because they feature such an economy of rules that they can be taught to others in that limited time frame. Love Letter is so simple, in fact, that I bet I can explain the core rules in 25 words or less. “Draw a card on your turn, then discard one from your hand. The discarded card takes effect. Have the highest ranked card at round’s end.” Done.

Were I actually teaching you the game, of course, I would open with the premise. Each of the 16 cards in the deck depicts a member of the royal household, which is composed of the Princess, the Countess, the King, two princes, two handmaidens, two barons, two priests, and five guards. In an attempt to woo the Princess, you have entrusted a love letter to one of these people, who has agreed to pass the missive along. Ideally your letter will be in the hands of the Princess herself by the end of the round; barring that, you just want your letter to be as “close” to the object of your affection as possible. Each member of the household has a rank from 8 (the Princess) to 1 (the guards), and you win by holding the highest ranked card at the end of the round.

Everyone receives a single, random card before play begins. On a turn, a player draws a second card and then discards one of the two from his hand. The discarded card has an effect, depending on the person shown. A Guard, for instance, allows you to name a player and a card; if the target holds the card you specified, he is out of the round. The Priest allows you to look at the held card of an opponent. And the Princess, the optimal card to own when a round ends, comes with a liability: you are eliminated if you discard her for any reason.

There are only eight abilities, one per role, and yet the interaction between them make for a tense game of bluff and deduction. Take the three roles described in the paragraph above, for instance. Discarding the Priest, a player could look at the hand of an opponent, and perhaps discover the Princess; if he holds (or draws) a Guard on his next turn, he could then single out the same player, “guess” the Princess, and force him to discard it (thus knocking him out of the round). But the other player will first have a turn to react, and may discard the Handmaid, thereby becoming immune to all attacks until his next turn, or the King, which would allow him to trade his hand with any other player, handing them the Princess (and possibly the victory) whilst weaseling out of the crosshairs.

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Love Letter does not contain an abundance of game; play a round or two and you’ve pretty much seen the gamut. But that won’t prevent you playing compulsively, and enjoying every game. The design strikes a deft balance between subtlety and brainlessness, allowing you to play even while mentally fatigued from earlier, weightier games, or a bit hazy after that second margarita. Indeed, with its simple rules, compact size, and quick playing time, Love Letter is a near perfect bar game, so long as you don’t mind the stares of the other patrons as you howl with laughter at the reversals of fortune, and rage against the perfidy of your erstwhile “friends”.

Like a hapless suitor, pouring his heart into a billet doux, you will likely become quite enchanted with Love Letter. The infatuation may not endure, but you’ll be hopelessly smitten while it lasts.

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