Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Ogre Cave Christmas List 2012

Come the end of the year and as has been vaguely traditional for the past decade that in December, OgreCave.com runs a series lists suggesting not necessarily the best board and roleplaying games of the preceding year, but the titles that you might like to receive and give. Continuing the break with tradition – in that the following is just the one list and in that for reasons beyond our control, this list is not appearing at OgreCave.com – Reviews from R’lyeh would like present its own list. Further, as is also traditional, Reviews from R’lyeh has not devolved into the need to cast about “Baleful Blandishments” to all concerned or otherwise based upon the arbitrary organisation of days.

Nevertheless, Happy Gaming and enjoy the suggestions. Consider them perfect for purchase for yourself. If the world is to end in 2012 – and the denizens of Reviews from R’lyeh doubt that the stars have come right as yet – then at least enjoy a few last rolls of the dice with a favourite new game…

Lords of Waterdeep
(Wizards of the Coast), $49.99/£39.99
One of the best and most accessible board games of the year came from the most unexpected publisher, Wizards of the Coast. Lords of Waterdeep combines the classic Dungeons & Dragons theme with tried and tested Eurogame-style “worker placement” mechanics. For between two and five players, the game casts the players as masked lords vying for control of Waterdeep, the City of Splendors, the most resplendent jewel in the Forgotten Realms. They send out their Agents to acquire Buildings and access to better resources; gain Gold to make the many purchases necessary to ensure their rise to power; the means to Intrigue with their fellow Lords; and hire Adventurers whom they can send out on missions or Quests that once completed will spread their influence and gain them true power. The game scales nicely, being as challenging to play with two players as it is with five, plays easily in an hour, and forces a player to make difficult decisions when presented with numerous options! (Read the review here).

Midgard Campaign Setting 
(Open Design) $49.99/£29.99
The bad news is that in 2012, we lost Kobold Quarterly, the only Dungeons & Dragons compatible magazine to be available on the shelves at your local friendly gaming store. The good news is that we finally got to see an introduction to Midgard, Wolfgang Baur’s home campaign previously best seen in the Zobeck Gazetteer and the numerous articles that appeared in Kobold Quarterly’s twenty-three issue run. Now with the release of the Midgard Campaign Setting, we no longer have glimpses, but a full introduction to a dark fantasy world that at its heart is steeped in a mittel-european sensibility, whilst still leaving room for fantastical, even weird elements. Designed for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, an appendix also includes rules for the adventure game engine, allowing players to use Green Ronin Publishing’s Dragon Age RPG to visit a very different and a very original take on the fantasy setting.

Glory to Rome Card Game: Black Box Edition (Cambridge Games Factory), $35.00/£25.00
AD 64 and Rome has been burned to the ground. Answer Emperor Nero’s call and bring Glory to Rome as you compete to rebuild the heart of the ancient world’s most powerful empire. This is a strategic card of city building and resource management in which every card can act as a building, a patron, a raw material, or a valuable resource. This clever mechanic combined with the fact that the card a player gets to play is often dictated by his rivals, gives the game a pleasing elegance and forces difficult choices on a player. Redesigned from the original edition with new art reminiscent of the 1980 classic board game, Civilisation and mechanics reminiscent of more modern games like Puerto Rico, San Juan, and Race for the Galaxy, this is a great game that should be on every gamer’s shelf.

Night’s Black Agents (Pelgrane Press), $44.95/£29.95
You are an ex-secret agent. You just discovered that your former employers are controlled by vampires. So quite possibly is your government, your bank, and that NGO you always felt great about donating money to… This is the set-up for Ken Hite’s Night’s Black Agents, the Vampire Spy Thriller RPG he describes as “The Bourne Identity meets Dracula.” It brings 007-esque high action to the clue driven GUMSHOE System, but when it comes down to it, Night’s Black Agents is not Ken Hite’s game, but yours. It gives the means and tools for the GM to create any style of espionage RPG, from James Bond to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and lets him it slam it up against the vampires and the vampire conspiracy of his design. As a genre mash-up, Night’s Black Agents is a combination that sells itself, but as a toolkit, Night’s Black Agents is your Schweizer Offiziersmesser. Just add dice. 

(Read the review here).

Cthulhu Fluxx (Looney Labs), $16.00/£12.99
An award-wining, classic, quick playing card game for over a decade now, Fluxx is all about chaos and winning means adapting to that chaos as the game and the rules change through play. Now Looney Labs has upped the ante and introduced the forces of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos and an almost primordial unstoppable force to the chaos of Fluxx. In Cthulhu Fluxx, you are not just up against your rivals, some of whom might be in the thrall of one of the Great Old Ones, but also the Great Old Ones too! You can win Cthulhu Fluxx, but sometimes the influence of the Mythos is just too insidious meaning that Cthulhu himself wins!
(Read the review here).

Rise of the Runelords Anniversary Edition 
(Paizo Publishing) $59.99/ £39.99
Five years ago, Paizo Publishing launched its Adventure Path series, each a campaign for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game in six parts. To celebrate that anniversary, Paizo Publishing has collected the very first Adventure Path series, Rise of the Runelords, in hardback and in the process taking advantage of five years of player feedback and the chance to revise, and add to, a campaign that will take the adventurers from first to eighteenth level. Beginning in the sleepy coastal town of Sandpoint, in course of defending against an attack by crazed goblins, the adventurers learn of a greater evil. If they to prevent it coming to Sandpoint, they must track a cult of serial killers, fight backwoods ogres, stop an advancing army of stone giants, delve into ancient dungeons, and finally face off against a wizard-king in his ancient mountaintop city.

Snowdonia (Surprised Stare Games) £31.99
The year is 1894, and the Snowdon Mountain Tramroad and Hotels Company Limited has been formed to build a branch line from Llanberis to the summit of Snowdon. Each player controls a work gang providing the labour for the construction of the Snowdon Mountain Railway, each trying to outdo the other in excavating the railway line, laying the track, constructing stations on the way up, and fulfilling Contracts that will score them those all important Victory Points. This a well-appointed worker placement game in which the game itself demands that the gangs of labourers get busy building the line up the mountain or the game will do it all by itself and deny you Victory Points. All this and having to deal with the fog and the rain on the mountain that only slows your labourers down!

Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Basic Game 
(Margaret Weis Productions, Ltd.) $19.99
What happens when the inmates from The Raft, the island prison facility in New York City for psychopathic superhuman criminals, escape? You already found out how in early issues of Marvel Comics’ New Avengers series, but with Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Basic Game, you can team up as Captain America, Cyclops, the Human Torch, Iron Man, Spider-Man, Wolverine, and more, in order to return the escapees to prison. Or alternatively, create heroes of your own with this dice driven narrative RPG of super heroic action. Comes with the datafiles for twenty three heroes, numerous villains, powers, action, and more in a rulebook that could easily be mistaken for a Marvel graphic novel!

Escape – The Curse of the Temple (Queen Games) $59.99/£39.99
There are games about exploring ancient temples and avoiding their dangers, but Escape …from the Curse of the Temple is truly a different game. You and your fellow adventurers have been trapped – trapped in a cursed temple, and the only way to get out is by working together. IN REAL TIME. You have just ten minutes (a timer soundtrack comes with the game) to explore the temple, activate the magic gems in the temple chambers in order to banish the curse, and then escape! All this done by rolling dice as quickly and as continuously as you can in order to get the right combination of symbols that activate the gems, move from room to room, lift you from under the spell of the Black Mask (which stops you rolling dice), and more. Get the right combinations? Use them up and then starting rolling for the next. Ten minutes though, otherwise you and your fellow adventurers will find yourselves crushed inside the collapsing temple. Everyone gets out, or nobody does in this frantic game.

(Cubicle Seven Entertainment) $39.99/£26.99
Anomalies are appearing and opening everywhere, allowing us to step through doorways into the past and into the future. As amazing as they are, the anomalies are also a danger as they let others from the past and the future into our present – including dinosaurs! A mammoth on the motorway? Velociraptors in the velodrome? These threats and more have to be dealt with before the public are placed in danger or learn too much. As part of the government run Anomaly Research Centre, the characters will track dinosaurs, research the anomalies, and more to keep not just the country safe, but the timeline too. Based on the TV series of the same name, the Primeval RPG uses the same mechanics as the Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space RPG, and thus emphasises talking and thinking first before combat. This still leaves plenty of room for action and scares in facing down not just the dinosaurs, but those that would use the anomalies for their own ends.

Leagues of Adventure 
(Triple Ace Games) $39.99/£24.99
In Leagues of Adventure the world of the Victorian Age is as fantastic as you would imagine – H.G. Wells’ Martians invaded England, Professor Challenger has found the Lost World, Phileas Fogg made it around the world in eighty days, and Sherlock Holmes has solved untold numbers of crimes and mysteries. The player characters follow in their stead, the members of various “Leagues of Adventure,” travelling the world, unravelling mysteries, righting wrongs, and all in the name of Her Majesty. Using the Ubiquity mechanics previously seen in Hollow Earth Expedition and All For One: Régime Diabolique, this is a pulp action RPG of derring-do and honour that adds in the Steampunk and the fantastic of the era too.

RuneQuest 6e 
(The Design Mechanism) $62.00/£40.00
RuneQuest is back and in one volume! The new sixth edition updates and presents a set of rules that has been a classic for over thirty years in a single book that provides GM and players alike with everything necessary to create and build a campaign of heroic, gritty, fantasy. Characters – Barbarian, Civilised, Nomadic, and Primitive, are all covered; as well as five types of magic, ranging from the classic Runes to Theism; belonging to a Cult; and both monsters and playable character races are all covered in this thick softback book. It feels complete, and best of all, it feels loved again.

Friday, 14 December 2012

Swim for your Limbs!

Get Bit! has been around for a while, but this “robot-swimming and robot-chomping-shark” game has been just a little difficult to get hold off as it went in and out of print. Now it is back in print – but for how long? – and available outside of the USA, I finally got to play it thanks to my friend Dave, and now, thanks to my friend Dave, to review it too.

Designed by Dave Chalker and published by Mayday Games, Get Bit! is a fast playing filler game for four to six players, aged eight and over, that can played through in about twenty minutes. It is light enough to be played by non-gamers, whilst just about everyone will enjoy both its theme and its components. The game’s idea is that you and your fellow “buoyant” robots are out for a leisurely swim when you are attacked by a robot-eating shark. Fortunately, most of the robots can swim hard enough to stay ahead of the shark. Unfortunately, this means that the shark will have a chomp at the limbs of the slowest robot swimmer – and the shark does love his robot limbs. As long as a robot has a limb, he can keep swimming and even keep swimming ahead of his fellow robots. It is all a matter of effort. Yet if he loses all of his limbs, a robot can no longer try and outswim either his fellow robots or that hungry, hungry shark!

The game consists of six Dismembermen robots, each in a different colour; a set of seven cards for each colour, for a total of forty-two cards; the rules leaflet; and the hungry, hungry shark with its jaw already to open and then clamp down on the slowest robot! The rulebook is plain, but it is an easy read and it explains the game well. The game’s physical components are terrific though, being high quality and durable. The humanoid robots are identical, bar their different colours, and are easily handled and posed, and of course, their arms and legs come off. The shark both charms and menaces simultaneously. Each of the sets of card is identical apart from matching the colour of one of the robots. Each set is numbered one through seven and is illustrated by an image of the robot swimming closer and closer towards the viewer. So the “1” card has the robot in difficulty and far away, whilst the “7” card is closer and making headway…

Get Bit! is an easy game to play. Each player receives a Dismemberman robot and a matching set of cards. All of the robots are laid out in a line, one after the other, with the shark at the rear. Each round of play consists of three phases: Choose Cards, Move Robots, and Get Bit. In the Choose Cards phase, each player selects one of his cards and places it face down on the table. Once everyone has chosen a card, they are revealed simultaneously and the Move Robot phase begins. If any of the cards played have the same number, then their players do not move their robots, whereas the player who played the lowest untied card gets to move his robot to the front of the line, furthest away from the shark. Then the player who played the next the lowest untied card gets to move his robot to the front of the line, and so on, until all of the robots that can move have done so.

Once all of the robots have moved, or not moved if there were tied cards, the robot last in line is subject to the Get Bit phase and loses a limb to the shark. He also moves his injured robot to the front of the line and gets to pick up all of his cards on the table and return them to his hand. A player also picks up his cards and returns then to his hand if he only has the one card to play. Then the next round begins. The Get Bit phase does not occur at the end of the first round, but do so after that. Play continues with any robot losing all four of its limbs being eliminated until there are only two robots left. When this happens, the shark eats the robot at the back and the one at the front gets away to swim another day.

Unsurprisingly, game tactics are as simple as the game play. This is a game of counting what cards that your rivals have played in order to try and work what the best card that they have their hand is. If you can play a card higher than that and it is not tied with any other player’s card, then you just might find yourself at the front of the “not losing a limb” queue. Included in the game are rules for four variants that allow two or three participants rather than the minimum of four; for a longer game; and a memory aspect to be added to the game. Expansions are available that allow for a seventh player and let a player control the shark!

Personally, Get Bit! is too light for continued play for my tastes. I would not want to play more than twice before it loses all of its limbs as far as I am concerned. Nevertheless, it is an enjoyable game, a fun game, an easy to teach game, and a good looking, very tactile game. Plus everything fits into the game’s very nice box.

Friday, 30 November 2012

Kiss Kiss Fang Fang

Imagine if you were a former spy or intelligence officer or intelligence analyst, and you discovered a fundamental truth about the world. A truth that revealed just who was in charge of the world and might just have been in charge of the world for centuries or more… Not just mere humans of the New World Order or the Prieuré de Sion, but vampires! What if these vampires were really in charge of your former agency? Or the government? Or an international bank? Or all three? What would you do? This is the set up for Night’s Black Agents, the latest RPG to be written by Ken Hite using the GUMSHOE System, an RPG that the author pitches as “The Bourne Identity meets Dracula” or a “Vampire Spy Thriller.”

Published by Pelgrane Press, Night’s Black Agents, brings together the genres of espionage and horror in the post-Cold War period of the here and now, not in a singular blend, but as an assortment of ingredients from which the Game Master or Director, creates two dishes, tempering or sharpening them with certain flavours before intentionally colliding the two together. In other words, Night’s Black Agents is essentially a pair of toolkits, one to create the desired type of espionage, the other the desired type of vampire, backed up with the means to run the two against each other. The default setting is the “vampire spy thriller,” one of horror and shadows combined with bursts of action interspersed with the methodical processes of the espionage story. The toolkit allows the GM to model his campaign so that he can emphasise the psychological impact of being a spy, such as in Alias or Callan; the gritty, almost mundane feel of espionage as in Rubicon or The Sandbaggers; the genre’s “wilderness of mirrors” world of shifting allegiances and hidden agendas as exemplified by the best of John Le Carré’s fiction; and the high stakes patriotism of the novels of both Tom Clancy and Ian Fleming. Each of these models is a Mode, respectively Burn, Dust, Mirror, and (High) Stakes Mode, and there are indicators throughout the pages of Night’s Black Agents that point out where one rule works for one Mode and not for another.

So for example, in a Mirror Mode game, there is the possibility that one Contact per session will be flipped and work for the other side; players can choose to keep their agents’ Drives secret from each other; the Director can implement the mechanics for Trust between the player character agents; and an agent’s funding and equipment is likely to come from clandestine sources. Whereas, for a game in the Dust Mode, the players have fewer General Abilities (these being the more physical aspects and skills of an agent); no Military Occupational Speciality or MOS; cannot miraculously find high-resolution images within blurry video or pictures when using the Data Recovery Interpersonal Skill; when falling, it is not possible for a player to use either his Athletics or Hand-to-Hand ratings (if they are high enough) to ease a fall by bouncing between walls; and of course, gun fights can be lethal. These are not the only options to help a Director run a Night’s Black Agents campaign in either the Mirror or Dust Modes, but for the most part, the options and suggestions given throughout the book are all about “dialling down” the rules from its default of the “vampire spy thriller.”

Character creation adheres to the GUMSHOE System rules, with players assigning two pools of points to two types of Abilities. The smaller number of points is assigned to an agent’s Investigative Abilities, which are used to gather clues; the larger number to his General Abilities, which represent his physical skills. Apart from in Dust Mode, which does not use them, what an agent prior did to going solo or private, is represented by his MOS, his area of expertise. Several are listed, from Analyst and Asset Handler to Wheel Artist and Wire Rat. Primarily each MOS lists the minimum Investigative and General Abilities required to have carried it out as a job, but it also gives the possible positions with various agencies. So for example, an agent with the “Bang-and-Burner” MOS could have been an IRA bomb builder or a Special Branch bomb disposal expert whereas an agent with the Wheel Artist MOS could have been a Union Corse car thief, a DGSE “Action Division” driver, a Deutsche Bank-provided chauffer, and so on.  Besides assigning points to his character’s Abilities and choosing his MOS, a player needs to define more of his character’s Background, his Sources of Stability (these help keep an agent grounded when he is under stress or threatened, but can be undermined or subverted), and how he fits into the team that the player agents will form.

The sample player character agent is an ex-Stasi surveillance officer, an expert watcher turned investigator who has been unable to quite find a place in the world following the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the unification of Germany. Initially he worked as a contractor for governments in the old Eastern Bloc and the Caribbean, and then for corporations in the old Eastern Bloc, but he prefers to work for the government agencies rather than corporations. Conversely, he prefers to work for corporations in the West as their motives are purer. He is a grey haired bespectacled man who has the appearance of a bureaucrat who is perhaps a little worn down. (The agent has been designed for a Mirror Mode game with twenty-two points to be assigned to his Investigative Abilities for a four-player agent team.) 

Anton Wendell
Age: 53
Nationality: German
Agency: Ministry for State Security (Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, MfS); Stasi
MOS: Investigator/Watcher
Sources of Stability: Wife’s confirmation medal (Symbol); his mentor, Hans Urner (Solace); the island of Rügen (Safety)
Drive: Nowhere else to go. 

Investigative Abilities
Academic: Architecture 1, Art History 1, Human Terrain 1, Languages 2, Law 1
Interpersonal: Bullshit Detector 1, Bureaucracy 1, Cop Talk 1, Flattery 1, Interrogation 1, Negotiation 1, Streetwise 1, Tradecraft 2
Technical: Electronic Surveillance 3, Notice 3, Photography 2, Urban Survival 1
General Abilities 
Athletics 3, Cover 10, Digital Intrusion 3, Disguise 4, Driving 4, Hand-to-Hand 6, Health 8, Infiltration 8, Network 15, Piloting 1, Sense Trouble 8, Shooting 2, Shrink 2, Stability 8, Surveillance 12
Languages: German (native); English, Russian, lip reading, ASL, Spanish

Mechanically, Night’s Black Agents uses the GUMSHOE System and therefore deviates little from the previous titles that Pelgrane Press has published – Trail of Cthulhu, Esoterrorists, Fear Itself, and so on. This has the ratings in Investigative Abilities being spent to gain extra clues during the course of an adventure or investigation – if an agent has a rating in any one Investigative Ability, then he can always gain the base clues related to that Ability, whereas the ratings from General Abilities are spent to modify dice rolls. The focus of the rules is of course on espionage and so cover chases, combat, the dangers of the espionage world (plus the dangers of an espionage world in which there are vampires), heat (that is, gaining too much attention), and spytech. Night’s Black Agents being a “Vampire Spy Thriller,” it turns up the chase and combat mechanics with the Thriller Chase and Thriller Combat rules, the former being accompanied lists of locations and potential obstacles to overcome and make the player agents look cool, whilst the latter cover just about every form of cinematic gun-fu short of the modern Wuxia genre.

One new aspect of the GUMSHOE System in Night’s Black Agents is specifically aimed at the Thriller aspect of the game – “Cherries.” If an agent has a General Ability with a rating of eight or more, he is regarded as being skilled enough to gain a special benefit. In the case of Thriller Combat, it allows an agent to conduct extra attacks, sniping attacks, purchase Special Weapons Training, and so on. Every General Ability comes with a Cherry, the benefits varying from an extra skill rating, such as the bonus from Digital Intrusion granting a point in the Cryptography Investigative Ability, to simple cool things that an agent can do, such as the “Open Sesame” aspect of the Infiltration Ability that enables an agent to bypass simple locks. Perhaps one of the coolest Cherries is the “Technothriller Monologue” for the Shooting Ability, which grants an agent a refresh to his Shooting Ability if he can narrate how he uses his guns in true Clancy-esque style. Rounding the espionage-themed first half of Night’s Black Agents is a pair of sections, one on advice for agents and the other on advice for players, covering tactical skill use and essentially how to play the game. Whilst both sections are excellent, the second shorter section is pleasingly upfront in suggesting how to play in order to get the most out of the game.

The remaining half of Night’s Black Agents is for the Director’s eyes only, presenting a set of toolkits with which to build the game’s inhuman threats, their conspiracies, their territories, and the stories that will be told through play. The first of the toolkits is all about building the required type of vampire. Instead of campaign Modes, the Director builds his vampires around one of four Parameters – Alien, Damned, Mutant, or Supernatural. Beginning with their origins and means of spreading, the Director decides everything about his vampires – their numbers, their source of food, the cure to their vampirism, their powers, and their weaknesses. If a Director does not want to design a vampire for his campaign, he can choose any one of the off-the-shelf designs included, such as the “Linea Dracula Vampire,” descended from Vlad the Impaler, or the non-Euclidean silicon-based aliens that have imprinted on human DNA. Besides these, the author draws from various real world mythologies to extend the book’s vampiric menagerie, from the Adzeh, the insect-demon of Ghana to the humble zombie. Suggestions are given so that the Director can customise these threats so that they can be reused or tweaked enough to be unrecognisable to the players. Of course, just as there is nothing to stop a Director from creating his own original vampire threat, there is nothing to stop a Director from adapting a vampire from another source, whether that is from a film (the obvious joke here being, “No sparkles”), a book, or another RPG.

The focus of play in Night’s Black Agents is bringing down the conspiracy that the vampires have constructed around themselves. To help the Director construct this conspiracy, he builds into a pyramid structure called a “Conspyramid,” its base containing the outer edges of the conspiracy with the very heart of it – the vampire leaders of the conspiracy – sitting atop both the structure and the organisation. The resulting “Conspyramid” contains a number of nodes, each a part of the conspiracy and serving as a certain function within it, with the bulk of the nodes at its base or outer limits. Between the nodes the Director builds connections and lays clues, in the process constructing a story map for the campaign. As a structure, this story map remains open enough that the Director can improvise and revise the nodes and their connections as the player agents begin to dismantle the “Conspyramid” and make deductions of their own. (The Director also has a corresponding “Vampyramid,” which details and tracks the possible response of the conspiracy against the agents’ actions.)

Night’s Black Agents’ focus on constructing and bringing down the conspiracy needs a stage and it provides a means to create this with a relative minimum amount of preparation. The game being one of post-Cold War espionage, naturally this setting is Europe and spies invariably having natural home in the urban environment, the setting is actually the cities of Europe. The means to create what will become the backdrop for the Director’s campaign can be as complex or as simple as the Director wants, but the author suggests a quick and dirty method involving a little research combined with determining the aims and activities of the conspiracy within the city before coming up with three hooks to pull the player agents in. The alternative “Low and Slow” method results in a more detailed city better suited to extended play and exploration. Sample cities created by both means are included, and like the sample “Vampyramid,” can easily be used as part of a campaign.

Besides a top secret appendix full of useful forms, the Director receives a scenario with which to kick off a campaign and some excellent advice. The scenario, “(S)entries,” can also be run as part of an on-going campaign, but either way, it requires some preparation upon the Director’s part. The advice for the Director is much more straightforward and concise, helpfully guiding him through the possibilities and perils of running a Night’s Black Agents campaign – the potential for an investigation to become a railroad, be prepared for the players to really use the Preparedness General Ability a lot, constructing the typical Thriller spine for an operation, letting the players contribute to keeping the campaign “cool,” and so on.

Physically, Night’s Black Agents is a well-designed book. The contents are not only well organised, but also colour-coded so as give each section its own identity. Done in full colour throughout, the artwork is never less than atmospheric. The writing is taut and never less than informed with the author’s appreciation of both genres constantly on show. A nice touch is that he even goes so far as to provide his own DVD-style commentary on various aspects of the game and the genres it is emulating and combining, allowing his voice to come to the fore.

There is so much in Night’s Black Agents that can be pulled out and used elsewhere. The Conspyramid structure can be used in any RPG with a conspiracy game, both to map out its conspiracy and thus its story structure; its city preparation guidelines to create interesting locales for any urban set RPG; and of course, the espionage rules with almost any GUMSHOE System RPG. Indeed, Night’s Black Agents already suggests how the latter can be done – presenting alternative ways of using its material. Most obviously as a straight espionage RPG sans the horror, but in gaming terms even more obviously by combining it with the source material from Trail of Cthulhu to do something along the lines of Charles Stross’ Laundry Files novels. Of course, the Laundry Files RPG already does this, but this suggestion continues to use the GUMSHOE System mechanics. The other suggestion pushes Night’s Black Agents in the direction of Brian Lumley’s Necrosope novels. Similarly, the GUMSHOE System has horror source material aplenty if the Director wants his agents to come up against foes other than vampires.

Of course, there is nothing to stop a Director from taking the more off-the-shelf elements of Night’s Black Agents – stick with the default “Vampire Spy Thriller” setting and its high octane rules, pick one of the sample vampires as his campaign’s antagonists, use the sample cities as his campaign backdrop, and start play using the included scenario. He essentially everything necessary to play, and that would be just fine. Yet in doing so, the Director would be ignoring the one thing that would really make Night’s Black Agents his game, and that is its toolkit aspect and the ability to tinker with just about every element of the game, the rules, the setting, and the campaign. Above all, this toolkit aspect means that not only is no Director’s game is going to be the same as that of any other Director, it also means that every Director has the capacity to make Night’s Black Agents the game that both he and his players want…

As good as the toolkits that Night’s Black Agents provides are, the rules and advice deliver on the game and genre that they promise. Whether it is blood pumping action or heart stopping shocks, Night’s Black Agents is probably best shaken, and definitely has the “Vampire Spy Thriller” staked.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Dungeons & Dragons Minus?

Dungeon! is almost as old as Dungeons & Dragons, and with the publication of Dungeon! Fantasy Board Game by Wizards of the Coast in 2012, it has as many editions as Dungeons & Dragons. Originally published in 1975, it would be reprinted in 1981, redesigned and republished in 1989 as The New Dungeon!, and then again in 1992 as The Classic Dungeon! Now it is back twenty years since the last version, and whilst its arrival on the shelves at your local friendly games store might appear odd, it actually continues two trends with Wizards of the Coast. The first is the wave of nostalgia products that Wizards of the Coast is releasing in addition to continuing support for Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition, which has seen it release new versions of the core rules for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition and Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition, and will see it release new versions of the core rules for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Second Edition as well as hardback collections of Against the Slave Lords: "A" Series Classic Adventure Compilation and Dungeons of Dread: "S" Series Classic Adventure Compilation. The question of just how much nostalgia the hobby can take is a question for another day… The second trend is the move into boardgames, begun with Castle Ravenloft and evolving into the well-received Lords of Waterdeep. The publication of Dungeon! combines the two, but is it a winning combination?

Designed for play by between two and eight players, aged eight and up, Dungeon! has heroes delving deep into a dungeon where they will encounter monsters and traps, and with more than a bit of luck will return with a trove or two of treasure. The amount of treasure needed to win varies according to the hero that a player selects at game start. Halfing Rogues and Dwarf Clerics just need to bring back 10,000 gp, whilst Human Fighters need to bring back 20,000 gp and Elf Wizards a total of 30,000 gp. Play is relatively simple and straightforward and involves mostly dice rolls and plenty of luck.

The game consists of the rulebook, the game board, eight Hero standees, one hundred-and sixty-five cards (sixty-one Monster cards, eighty Treasure cards, and twenty-four Spell cards), one hundred-and thirty-nine tokens (twelve Number tokens, eleven Lose a Turn tokens, Cleared tokens, five Magic Sword tokens), and two six-sided dice. The twenty by twenty-seven inch board shows the corridors, rooms, and chambers that radiate out from the central Great Hall, spread out over six colour-coded levels, from first down to sixth level. The eight Hero standees are colour coded according to Class and are little card board standees rather than sturdy plastic. The Monster and the Treasure cards are divided according to their Level, with tougher monsters and better treasure to be found on the lower level. The Spell cards – Fireball, Lightning, and Teleport spells – can only be used by Wizard heroes. The Number tokens are used to indicate the location of Monsters on the board who have not been yet defeated; the Cleared tokens are used to indicate rooms and chambers that have been wholly cleared of Monsters; and the Magic Sword tokens to indicate possession of weapons that give bonuses in combat. The rulebook folds out to five, double-sided pages. It is easy to read and like the rest of the game is done in full colour.

 The game starts with each player picking a Hero. The primary influence on that choice is the objective for each class; that is how much he has to bring back. The secondary influence on that choice is what the class can do. The Rogue is better at opening Secret Doors, the Fighter is an excellent combatant, and the Wizard can cast spells. The Wizard begins with a handful of spells – Fireball and Lightning spells that he can fling at the Monsters, and Teleport spells to move between chambers across the board. Which leaves the Cleric class, which is a kind of balanced class in that it is a slightly better combatant that needs to garner a lower amount of treasure than the Fighter and Wizard classes. Without any kind of special ability, the Cleric is to be honest, bland. It has no healing ability; it has no ability to deal with the undead. For a game that carries the Dungeons & Dragons branding with its iconic character types, this is disappointing omission.

Once this is decided, play begins. Each turn a player conducts up to four steps in order – Move, Encounter, Combat, and Loot. To move, a Hero can be moved up to five spaces, through any doors or secret doors (if he can open them), but must stop as soon as he enters a room or a chamber that still contains a Monster or has not been cleared yet. An Encounter then ensues that sees the Hero fight the Monster. Monsters are represented by Monster cards that divided according to the level where it is encountered on the board. So level one Monsters are encountered only on level one, and so on, with Monster’s treasure being drawn from the corresponding Treasure deck. Each Monster card comes with its name and illustration, plus a set of numbers that are the target numbers that a player must roll against and equal or exceed if his Hero is to beat the Monster in combat. There are six numbers, one each for the Cleric, Fighter, Rogue, and Wizard classes, plus one each for the Wizard’s Fireball and Lightning Bolt spells. For example, the numbers to beat on the level one Dire Rat are five for the Rogue, four for the Cleric, three for the Fighter, six for the Wizard, and two and seven respectively for the Wizard’s Fireball and Lightning Bolt spells. These targets get higher the lower the level a Hero is adventuring on. There are also some Monsters that a particular class cannot attack, such as a Rogue’s inability to attack a Black Pudding.

If a Hero defeats a Monster in room, he gets to draw a Treasure equal to the level he is on. A Cleared Token is then placed in the room. A Hero does not get to draw a Treasure card for defeating a Monster in a chamber, but he does get to place a Cleared Token. A room is cleared and no more Monsters will be encountered there once a single Cleared Token is placed there, whilst it takes three Cleared Tokens to completely empty a chamber of its Monsters.

Should a Hero fail to defeat a Monster, then the Monster strikes back. This simply involves rolling on the given table (which is pleasingly reprinted on the edge of the board) and checking the results. These start with a simple miss and rise through forcing a Hero to drop a Treasure card to forcing a Hero back to the start in the Great Hall with half of his Treasure cards to his being killed and being forced to start again with a new Hero, the old Hero’s Treasure cards left for others to pick up where he died!

Some Monsters are not creatures, but Traps! Cage Traps force a Hero to lose a turn, whilst Slide Traps send a Hero down to a lower level. Some Treasures possess a use beyond mere money value. Magic Swords give a bonus to attack, while the Secret Door card allows a Hero to move through any secret door without the need to search for them, whilst the ESP Medallion and Crystal Ball Treasure cards let a Hero detect the type of Monster to be found in the room ahead. 
Once a Hero has acquired the necessary value of Treasure cards needed to win the game, he only has to be the first to get back to the Great Hall with that Treasure to win the game.

Essentially that is Dungeon! Whilst an appendix provides some extra rules to allow for solo play, Dungeon! is not a game of any great depth. Despite the redesign of the game’s look to something more in line with the current Dungeons & Dragons trade dress– the board is very nicely done – Dungeon! is several things and not several others. It is an older game and it shows in the design; it is a classic piece of Ameritrash, in that it has a highly developed theme combined with a high level of luck; and it is a game for younger players over older gamers for two reasons. First, because it relies on luck rather than making choices and second, because there is no player interaction. In fact, there is almost no significant decision making involved beyond selecting a player’s Hero at game start, whilst it actually goes so far as to enforce the latter by recommending that the Hero classes explore particular levels rather than dive for level six straight off.

What Dungeon! is not, is a good example of Ameritrash because it does not sufficiently individualise the Hero abilities. Nor is it a good introduction to Dungeons & Dragons because it does not individualise the Hero abilities enough. In many ways the Castle Ravenloft board game is the better introduction to the game for that, even if arguably, it is an introduction to the wrong Dungeons & Dragons. Above all, Dungeon! is not really a dungeon crawl at all. There is no strategy involved, or indeed decision making, co-operation, planning, or any of the type of play that goes into playing a “dungeon crawl” which is what such games, whether board games or RPGs demand. If not a dungeon crawl then, what is Dungeon!?

Dungeon! Fantasy Board Game is a race game with a dungeon theme.

As much as that seems like a conclusion, there are a number of issues that need to be addressed with regard to Dungeon! First it is really a children’s game, the clue being given in its suggested starting age of eight and over, although Wizards of the Coast could have better advertised it as such rather than simply making it part of the Dungeons & Dragons family of games. Second, its production values are perhaps a bit too variable in quality, the Hero pieces and all of the cards are a bit too flimsy, whilst the board itself is nicely done. Third, it has potential, if not for a redesign, then for expansions in terms of rules and play. Besides fixing the Cleric class, it could have rules for player versus player combat; for ways to improve a Hero beyond the random drawing of Treasure cards; for team play; and so on. Fourth, the game is very reasonably priced.

Playing Dungeon! need not be unenjoyable despite its lack of depth. Further, despite its reasonable cost, how much satisfaction it will offer to the gamer who is buying it out of a sense of nostalgia is debatable.  So probably not quite as fun as they might remember, but as a race game with a dungeon theme, Dungeon! Fantasy Board Game is really one for the kids (though older players might like the diversion it offers too).

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Sign For This Please...

As its title suggests, Laundry Files: Agent’s Handbook, the first supplement to be published for the Laundry Files, Cubicle Seven Entertainment’s RPG of esoteric espionage based on the Laundry Files series of novels by Charles Stross, is not just for the GM, but for his players too. As what is essentially a companion volume to the core rule book, it also contains plenty of information that a player will find useful. Within its pages can be found discussions of subjects as mundane as bureaucracy, car chases, and chases, and as outré as Deep Hybrids and Gorgons, along with advice on running Laundry Files campaigns outside of the good offices of Capital Laundry Services and also within, but during other time frames. Like any good companion for an RPG, the Agent’s Handbook brings together a diverse range of articles, in this case all with either a bureaucracy, espionage, or horror theme; or a combination of all three. It begins in purely espionage territory with solid introduction to the arts of Tradecraft and Fieldcraft. It covers everything from sources of information, running agents, and codes to tailing, surveillance, and electronic surveillance. Whilst all of the information presented here could easily be found elsewhere, having it in one place is useful and it does provide enough detail for the Games Master without the need for further research. Of course, this being a companion for an outré espionage RPG, the occult aspects of both arts are also discussed, including occult stenography (hidden writing) and occult tailing. This switching back and forth between the ordinary and the outré continues with the next two chapters, “Bell, Book, and Candle” and “Firearms.” These two chapters come chock full of toys in a manner that is almost as much fun as the old Q Manual for the James Bond 007 RPG, which is somehow fitting that all of the Laundry’s technical knowhow is provided by Q Division. Although the first chapter covers items as ordinary as forensic kits and night vision goggles, it also details devices seen in the novels, such as Display Glasses and the OCCULUS wagon. Rules are also provided for vehicles and chases; for designated premises – essentially rules for creating Laundry agents’ homes; and for handling experimental devices, the type of contraption that the players get to have fun with before its goes “fffizzzt” and the Games Master gets to have fun with all of the side effects. Rounding out the chapter is a couple of sample safehouses created using the given guidelines.

For the most part, the handguns, submachine guns, rifles, and shotguns described in the Agent’s Handbook are all ordinary enough, for the most part intended to arm the opposition rather than the player characters. This expands upon the armoury included in the core rules and helps add verisimilitude to what is both an espionage game and a modern set game. The chapter does not wholly ignore the outré, adding a selection of occult shotgun shells to the specialised ammunition already detailed.

Of course, the player character agents are going to want to get to play with the new toys presented in the previous chapters and “Black Budget, Red Tape” discusses how this is done. Its focus is on the use of the Bureaucracy and Status skills, both of which are necessary if the player character agents are to navigate the sometimes labyrinthine organisation chart that makes up the Laundry’s administration. The need for this can be both skills it to manipulate the budget for its current mission, to search the Laundry’s records, to requisition items from Q Division, or in effect to even besmirch or befuddle enemies and rivals within the Laundry. The Games Master can involve the player characters in an audit, performance reviews, informal manager meetings, and so on. All of this should been done sparingly, but just as it plays a role in the novels, it should play role in the Game Master’s campaign.

If the Laundry has to be ISO 9001 compliant, then so does its agents and thus, so do the player characters. This means not only the filling out of forms and reports, but also training courses, and as part of the civil service of the United Kingdom, the Laundry offers lots of courses, from the mundane Achieving More with Less and Managing Change to the unconventional Exorcism 101 and Briefing the Uninitiated: Rapid Esoteric Induction Workshop. Most obviously courses are a means by which a player character can be improved, but they also work as roleplaying hooks, rewards, and sometimes punishments. There are courses here to suit all aptitudes and ambitions.

Player characters fall under the spotlight with a set of ready-to-play, bar customisation, investigator templates; new professions, including one for an Assassin; and two sets of new rules for character generation. The first of these sets allows a player to create his character in five year blocks, enabling the creation of an agent with a broader skill base, whilst the second set provides a means to veteran Laundry agents. All of these options are joined by perhaps the most outré concept in the supplement – outré that this for the Laundry Files RPG as opposed to any other RPG. This is the idea that the players can take the role of non- or near-humans. This includes Deep One Hybrids, Ghosts, Gorgons, Parallel Reality Refugees, and Residual Human Entities (or zombies), the latter being the eventual status for Laundry agents killed in the Line of Duty whose corpses are not too heavily damaged. Although such creatures are encountered in the fiction, most notably Ramona Random of the novel The Jennifer Morgue, the inclusion of these non- or near-humans as a player option feels at odds with the fiction – more so during character creation, rather than something to transition into, as with the Ghosts and Residual Human Entities. Perhaps the least radical of the near-humans given is Parallel Reality Refugee, but for the most part the inclusion of these “races” works better as a means for the Games Master to create NPCs.

Lastly, the Agent’s Handbook explores campaign concepts within the universe of the Laundry Files, both away from the offices of Capital Laundry Services and inside them, but in different time periods. Campaigns away from the Laundry take the Laundry Files more into traditional Call of Cthulhu territory, though the authorities – or at least some of the authorities – are possibly aware of the Mythos, and in the case of the Laundry, are if not monitoring the investigators’ activities, then watching for something that will trigger their intervention. Most notably, the supplement discusses the possibility of playing cultists and thus allowing the players to take the role of the winners! (After all, the Stars will come Right for someone if not something!). This is of course a daunting prospect as sorcery and thus Mythos knowledge is difficult to acquire and they face the possibility of ending up as sacrifices as much as they face being arrested and incarcerated, if not inducted into the Laundry. Also discussed are the possibilities of playing a campaign based around another agency, such as the USA’s much feared Black Chamber (though this is covered in more detail in the supplement, God GAME Black). Equally as interesting is the possibility of running a historical game of the Laundry Files, perhaps during the 1930s and World War II, during the Cold War, and so on. The first of these of course, lends itself to a crossover with Modiphius Press’ Achtung! Cthulhu line, but to be honest, as good as any of these ideas are, and there is no denying the potential in any one of them, they do all suffer from brevity. They could all do with much more information being devoted to them, indeed, the authors of the Agent’s Handbook could take the contents of the sections to running alternate campaigns and turn it into a whole book. There are campaign ideas here that are worth chapters themselves rather than little more than a mere page each…

Physically, the Agent’s Handbook is well written and tidily presented with the occasional piece of good art. It is somewhat drily written, though the geeky wit of Stross’ novels is allowed to shine through in the footnotes. A nice addition comes in the “form” of “Official Forms” that if used by the Games Master will add verisimilitude to his game.

Laundry Files: Agent’s Handbook continues the high standards for the game line’s supplements set by Black Bag Jobs. Where that anthology provided a sextet of excellent scenarios, the Agent’s Handbook provides exactly what it should, and that is, supplementary useful. All of it is useful, all of it is well written (though in places there could be more of it), and all of it will only add depth and detail to a Laundry Files game.

Kitten Killing Kuriousity

You have a kitten. You leave the room. The kitten follows you because you are not in the same room. You come back into the room and close the door behind you. The kitten miaows because you shut it out and not because it was kurious. You open a kupboard. The kitten climbs in because it can. You shut the kupboard. The kitten miaows to be let out because you shut it in the kupboard and not because it was kurious. You take a bath. The kitten jumps up on the side of the bath and almost falls in. The kitten looks at you because it is your fault and not because it was kurious.

As the saying goes, “Kuriousity Killed the Kitten.”

The Kitten Killing Kuriousity is the subject of the possibly tastelessly titled kard game, Kittens in a Blender. Published by Red Shift Games, it is a light, silly, simple kard game designed for two to four players aged eight and over. Both the title and the theme of the kard game are both its selling point and its downfall. After all, would you play a kard game in which you try to send your rivals’ kittens to the blender whilst trying to save your own from the whirring blades that can only give you a fur-fang feline smoothie. The problem is the kuriousity of kittens – they will klamber onto anything and that includes the kitchen work surfaces where there are innumerable dangerous appliances, one of them a lidless blender into which the kurious kittens will inevitably klimb. All that it takes is one kurious kitten to lay a fluffy paw upon the switch and MIAO-whirr!-SCRUNCH!!

Which sounds like a hideously tasteless theme for a kard game.

Then again, this is just a kard game and Kittens in a Blender is a great title.

The game consists of one-hundred-and-ten full-kolour kards, two large full-kolour kards, the rules sheet and both the lid and tray of the box that Kittens in a Blender comes in. One of the large kards is The Blender and is placed in the lid of the game box, whilst the other large kard is The Box, which is placed in the tray that the game came in. The rest of the kards konsist of four sets of Kitten kards, each set a different kolour. Each set konsists of sixteen kitten kards and each kitten is given a name, and looks ever so, ever so kute. The remaining kards konsist of the following: 
  • “Kitties on the Move,” which allow a player to move between one and three kittens.
  • “Blend,” which turns The Blender on, blending all kittens in The Blender, but saving all kittens in The Box and sending all kittens on The Kounter to The Blender (though not blending them… yet!).
  • “Blend/Pulse” works like “Blend,” but can also be used to stop another player using a “Blend” card.
  • “Dog’s in the Kitchen” forces players to swap hands.
  • “Kittens in the Blender” moves all kittens in The Box and in The Kounter into The Blender.
  • “These Kittens in the Blender” works like “Kittens in the Blender,” but only affects kittens of one kolour.
  • “Kittens on the Kounter” moves all kittens in The Blender and in The Box onto The Kounter.
  • “Kittens in the Box” moves all kittens in The Blender and on The Kounter into The Box.

The game starts with The Blender and The Box being placed on the table with a gap between them known as The Kounter. Each player picks a kolour of kittens, his aim being to get as many of that set into The Box and safety as he can whilst sending his rival’s kittens into The Blender. If there are less than four players, then the sets of kittens not in play are removed from the deck. Every player then receives a hand of six kards.

On a turn, a player plays two of his kards, in any order, follows any instructions on them and then draws back up to six. Any player can play any kard, including kitten kards belong to his rivals – these kittens are destined for The Blender. Play continues until all sixteen of the “Blend” and “Blend/Pulse” kards have been played. Then all of the surviving kittens for each player are counted and skored two points apiece. Similarly all of the kittens that were blended – how exactly you can tell one blended kitten from another is not explained – and a point is deducted from a player’s skore for each of his kittens that got blended. The player with the highest skore is the winner.

Objectives and tactics are twofold. Get your kittens into The Box, either from your hand, The Kounter, or The Blender. Get their kittens into The Blender, either from your hand, The Kounter, or The Box. Once there are enough of your kittens in The Box and their kittens in The Blender, play a “Blend” or “Blend/Pulse” kard – your kittens will be safe and go towards your end game skore, whilst theirs just need ice to be a feline frappé and deduct from their skores at the end of the game.

Physically, Kittens in a Blender is an attractive kard game. The kards are bright, breezy, and every one of the kittens on the sixty-four kitten kards is kute. Really kute. The rules are simple and easy to pick up. It could do with another set of kittens and kards to bring up to a maximum of six players, but then we are still waiting for a six-player full game of Ticket to Ride, so there is the possibility.

All right, so the idea behind Kittens in a Blender is a bit tasteless. Ket over it. Ket over yourself. It is just a game and no kittens are actually hurt during play. There is no “Live Action” version of this game. Seriously.

Konsole yourself with the fact that Kittens in a Blender is a not a kreat game. It is too light, too silly, too throwaway. It is though, a fun and silly well done filler of a game, one that can be fitted in between more serious games with kreater depth. We all need a filler game if not a klowder of them. Kittens in a Blender is a kute addition to your filler game klowder.

Plus Kittens in a Blender is a really kreat title.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Wicked. Witty. Wrong.

Cards Against Humanity is probably the least politically correct card game I have ever played.

Cards Against Humanity is probably the funniest card game I have ever played.

Cards Against Humanity is probably the vilest card game I have ever played.

Cards Against Humanity: A party game for horrible people is an incredibly simple game of answering innocent questions with horridly hilarious and impishly inappropriate answers. It is easy to learn, plays for anywhere between thirty and ninety minutes, and can be played by between five and twenty players. In playing you will probably either overawe or offend your friends, if not both with the obscene nature of your answers.

Published by Cards Against Humanity, LLC, Cards Against Humanity comes in a chunky little black and white box inside of which can be found a simple rules pamphlet and approximately six hundred cards. Some ninety or so of these are Black Cards, each of which contains a question or statement such as “What did I bring back from Mexico?” or “Alternative medicine is now embracing the curative powers of _____________.” Some Black Cards have two blank spaces, such as “That’s right, I killed _____________. How, you ask? _____________.”. The remaining cards are White Cards, each of which contains a word or phrase, such as “The Chinese gymnastics team,” “Guys who don’t call,” and “Binging and purging.” The White Cards are used to answer the question or fill in the blank, or blanks if the Black Card has more than one, presented on the Black Cards.

Game play is very simple. At game start, each player is dealt a hand of ten White Cards. One person starts the game as “Card Czar” and draws a Black Card and reads out question or phrase on the card aloud. Every other player selects a White Card from his hand which he thinks is the most suitable – the wittiest, funniest, most offensive, or will be appreciated the most by the Card Czar – and passes it to the Card Czar face down. The Card Czar shuffles the White Cards that he has been given and then reads out the question or phrase on his Black Card, each time answering the question or filling in the blank in the phrase with a word or phrase from the White Cards. Once all of the White Cards have been read out, the Card Czar chooses his favourite answer from the White Cards. Whomever played the winning White Card receives the Black Card as an Awesome Point. Then the next player becomes the Card Czar, everyone draws back up to ten White Cards, and a new round begins.
So for example, as Card Czar, Michelle draws a Black Card and reads it aloud: “Life for American Indians was forever changed when the White Man introduced them to _____________.” Going round the table, Dave plays “Unfathomable Stupidity.”, Anthony plays “Cheating in the Special Olympics.”, Hugh plays “A Gypsy curse.”, and I play “Britney at 55.” Michele takes these White Cards and after shuffling them, reads them out as follows:
  • “Life for American Indians was forever changed when the White Man introduced them to ‘Cheating in the Special Olympics.’”
  • “Life for American Indians was forever changed when the White Man introduced them to ‘Unfathomable Stupidity.’”
  • “Life for American Indians was forever changed when the White Man introduced them to ‘Britney at 55.’”
  • “Life for American Indians was forever changed when the White Man introduced them to ‘A Gypsy curse.’”
Michelle looks the White Cards over and after a moment or two’s deliberation chooses “Britney at 55.” as the most appropriate answer. I get to keep the Black Card as an Awesome Point.
Play progresses in this fashion until the game ends. This can either be when all of the Black Cards in the game have been played, in which case the player with the most Awesome Points win; or when a player gains enough Awesome Points to reach a previously agreed upon total and thus win the game.

Physically, Cards Against Humanity is very simply presented. The cards are all two tone, black and white. None of them are illustrated. The text on each one is easy to read and the rules are similarly as easy to read.

Cards Against Humanity is huge fun to play, even if the examples given above do not wholly capture how much fun it is. Part of the issue with that is the fact that were I to include some of the answers given on the White Cards, I would attract undue attention from search engines. They can often be of an adult nature and that does not fall within the remit of Reviews from R’lyeh. That issue though is more to do with this site rather the game itself.

The most obvious fact about Cards Against Humanity is that it plays in a very similar fashion to Apples to Apples in that each turn one player has to match answers from each of the other player's hand to a given question. Which is something of a problem. Apples to Apples includes hundreds of questions and thousands of answers, so it offers plenty of replay value. Even then I tend to find its game play a little too light and unsatisfying if played too often. Cards Against Humanity contains fewer cards so suffers from the same problem, though probably to a greater degree, and playing it too often will spoil its crass charms. That said, in addition to the simple rules provided, the rule pamphlet gives rules for upping the stakes each round as well as eight house rules that can be added for variety.

One obvious problem with Cards Against Humanity is that it is an American game – then again, so was Apples to Apples originally, although it has since received versions in other languages and specifically for other nations. Some of the answers on the White Cards are specifically American such as “Dental dams.”, “Aaron Burr.”, and “Shaquille O’Neal’s acting career.” There is no way around this, bar creating your own cards, which is perfectly possible given that Cards Against Humanity can actually be downloaded from the publisher’s website and printed out for free. In the meantime, we will only have to wait for nation specific cards.

Further, its very American nature is not helped by its lack of availability. The game sells out very quickly it is true, but it is only available in the USA or in Canada. Where it is available internationally, the prices can be exorbitant. Nor is it available internationally via Amazon.com, which would have been the easiest of solutions to the problem. (In case you were wondering, I did buy it via Amazon.com and then had it shipped from the USA by a friend).

The biggest problem though with Cards Against Humanity is its humour. Putting the answers on the White Cards together with the Black Cards can give results that make you wince at their tastelessness and whoop with laughter at the same time. Many of the answers refer to sexual acts – hence the game having a minimum playing age of seventeen years – and other adult references. This is not a game for anyone of a “conservative with a small ‘c’” persuasion as Cards Against Humanity will easily offend them. Nor is it for anyone of a “Conservative with a big ‘C’” persuasion as Cards Against Humanity does have a Left Wing bias. Or at least the designers just have a deep and abiding hatred of Glenn Beck. (In all likelihood, to balance this out in a rare case of political balance, it appears from the rules that the game’s designers have hired Former Vice President Dick Cheney to handle their complaints and legal department).

Once you have a copy of Cards Against Humanity, you will chortle, you will cry, and you will cringe. Not necessarily a game to play with your family, Cards Against Humanity needs likeminded people who share its humour to get the most out of it, but it should not be overplayed or it will lose its appeal. Although slightly heavy to carry around, it works well as a convention game and as a pick-up game, possibly at the bar or just with a drink to hand. Going where almost no card game has gone before, Cards Against Humanity is a sublimely sinful satire.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Cthulhu Chaos

First published 1996, Fluxx is both a card game and a state in which the card game exists. Published by Looney Labs, it is a game about matching conditional states which through the course of the game can flux and change. It is a chaotic game, one in which both the rules and the conditions to win can alter from one card play to the next. The play of Fluxx starts of simple. A player can Draw one card, Play one card. After that, cards can quickly alter the number of cards that a player can Draw, can Play, and even hold in his Hand. Each player’s aim is to get cards called Keepers down onto the table. If these Keepers match those on the Goal on the table, then the player wins. Of course, a player’s Keepers can change as easily as the Goal. Nothing is permanent in a Fluxx game, and that lack of permanency means that sometimes a player can win when it is not his turn because his Keepers meet the condition of the Goal.

 The state of the game is one of constant evolution, the current version of the base game being Fluxx 5.0, with there being another ten themed variants available, from Zombie Fluxx and Pirate Fluxx to Martian Fluxx and Monty Python Fluxx to the very latest variant, Cthulhu Fluxx. Designed by Keith Baker – who designed Atlas Games’ Origins Award winning Gloom and its variant Cthulhu GloomCthulhu Fluxx brings the Mythos of the writings of H.P. Lovecraft to cosmic state of Fluxx and infuses it with a dark chaos. In doing so, it brings the Creeper mechanic – first seen in Zombie Fluxx – to bear as never before and adds new mechanics to the game that simulate the madness and chaos that ensues when the forces of the Mythos grow stronger and threaten the insanities of those that attempt to thwart it. The effect of the Creepers and the new mechanics is that it is entirely possible for there not to be a winner. Purely in keeping with the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, the “forces” of the Mythos can triumph over mankind and doom us all to our inevitable fate… Perhaps though, the human spirit will prevail and stave off these revelations as to the true nature of the universe.

Cthulhu Fluxx is all about change and chaos and adapting to that change and chaos.

Standard Fluxx, is well, Fluxx. It is a game about change and to an extent, chaos. Unlike many of the other variants, Cthulhu Fluxx succeeds in exacerbating that chaos in a pleasingly fitting fashion. It brings a complexity and a theme that fits the game mechanics, and in doing so, brings it a depth and a seriousness – all relative, granted – that other Fluxx games lack. More demanding, more complex, more chaotic, more Cthulhu, Cthulhu Fluxx is not your fluffy Fluxx of old.

Much of the game’s flavour and theme shows in the choice of Keepers that the players are trying to match with the Goals and thus win Cthulhu Fluxx. The designer draws on innumerable Lovecraft tales as inspiration for the game’s cards. For example, Keepers include “The Dreamlands,” “The Poet,” “The Necronomicon,” “The Cat,” “Innsmouth,” and “The Reanimator” and more. Some Keepers have special abilities, like “The Reanimator” being able to steal “The Body” Creeper if it is in play. The Goals include “Pickman’s Model” which requires the “Ghoul” and “Artist” Keepers to win; “Herbert West: Reanimator!” will want “The Body” and “The Reanimator” to win; and “Penguin Therapy” needs the “Sanitorium” and “Penguins” Keepers to win. Already the inspirations for cards – Pickman’s Model, Herbert West: Reanimator!, and At the Mountains of Madness – should be obvious to most devote and part of the pleasure in playing the game lies in identifying the inspiration and to a certain extent playing along to the narrative of the particular inspiration.

 What stands in the way of both Keepers and Goals for each player is not just his rivals, but two other types of cards – the Creeper and the Ungoal. First seen in Zombie Fluxx, Creepers come out of a player’s hand as soon as he draws them to sit on the table and prevent him from winning. In Cthulhu Fluxx, Creepers are can be as much Mythos entities such as Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth as they can states like Madness and Metamorphosis. Whilst Creepers prevent you from winning, the Creepers that represent a state, actually inflict that state on a Keeper by attaching themselves to it and negating any special ability that the Keeper might have. So for example, “Nightmares” attaches itself to a Keeper that has an Investigator Icon on it like “The Reanimator,” negating its ability to steal “The Body” Creeper if it is in play. Creepers remain on the table until they can be got rid of, which is not easy. When a Creeper is attached to a Keeper, both cards stay together until both are discarded.

 Despite this, Creepers are not wholly negative. Some Goals have to be met by playing Creepers and Keepers. For example, the “Herbert West: Reanimator!” Goal requires the “The Reanimator” Keeper and “The Body” Creeper to be all in play to win for that Goal.

 Ungoals represent the forces of the Mythos – or in this case, Cthulhu Fluxx – beating the players and winning the game. For example, under the terms of “The Call of Cthulhu” Ungoal, Cthulhu Fluxx wins if there are six or more Doom Icons in play and the “Cthulhu” Creeper card is also in play. This of course is bad. It is of course, doubly bad because the “Cthulhu” Creeper card actually adds three Doom Icons all by itself!

 Cthulhu Fluxx also has two other types of card. Surprise cards can be played when it is not a player’s turn or when it is. For example, the “Secret Cultist” can win the game for a player or it can hinder him. When played during his turn, it reveals the player as a secret cultist and forces him to lose his next turn. If played when the conditions of an Ungoal are met and the game is ended and lost by the players, then it reveals the player as a secret cultist, who as a devotee of the Old Ones actually wins the game rather than Cthulhu Fluxx itself. The last card type is the Meta Rule, which is only added with everyone’s consent. There is only one included in Cthulhu Fluxx, “Cult Clash,” which adds a final winning condition if an Ungoal loses everyone the game. The player with the most Doom Icons actually wins, unless another player can play the “Secret Cultist” Surprise card and trump everyone in the “Who is the Most Evil” stakes.

 Like other Fluxx titles, Cthulhu Fluxx is all about meeting a certain condition if a player is to win. Of course, this is never easy, because not only can the conditions change from one turn to the next – and even within a turn, but so can the means of meeting them. As has been hinted at, Cthulhu Fluxx increases the array of conditions beyond the matching of Keeper and Creeper cards with a Goal card by adding Icons. These are the magnifying glass shaped Investigator Icons, the hour-glass shaped Doom Icons, and the hour-glass on its side, Anti-Doom Icons. Investigator Icons are found certain Keeper cards; Doom Icons on Creeper cards and Keeper cards; and Anti-Doom Icons on Keeper cards. Of course Doom and Anti-Doom Icons cancel each other out when determining the total number of Doom Icons are in play for purposes of meeting the conditions of an Ungoal.

 The need to play both Keepers and Creepers in order to meet a Goal card’s conditions has a further negative effect in that both can add Doom Icons to the game and increase the Doom count towards any possible Ungoal. For example, “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” requires the “Innsmouth” Keeper and either the “Federal Agents” Keeper or the “Metamorphosis” Creeper to win. Yet both the “Innsmouth” Keeper and the “Metamorphosis” Creeper cards add Doom Icons to the count.

 Mechanically, the play of Cthulhu Fluxx is simple. Every player receives three cards and when it is his turn he follows the Basic Rule card of drawing one card, playing one card. If he has any Creeper cards at any time, these must be played on the table, invariably increasing the Doom count. If a player draws and plays a Creeper card, he gets to draw a card again to his hand replacing the Creeper just played. New Rule cards will change the number of cards that can be drawn, played, or held, while Action cards give him extra things that a player can do immediately. Action, Keeper, Goal, and Ungoal cards are played in the hope that in doing so a player will get nearer to winning, although often, the current rules on the New Rule cards in play will force a player to play them despite the fact that he might want to save them for a later turn. Or they might force him to discard them.

 Fluxx is all about change and adapting to that change.

 Yet as player moves cards in and out of his hand, he needs to read those cards, more so than most Fluxx games. The number of possible conditions that can win a game in Cthulhu Fluxx is greater than normal Fluxx because of the need to track the Doom and Anti-Doom Icons, making this a more conditionally complex game. Compared to standard Fluxx, this is a much more complex game.

 Physically, as with all of the Fluxx games, Cthulhu Fluxx is well produced, the art is good – in fact it is better than many other Fluxx titles as their art can be cartoon-like – and the rules are solidly explained. Additionally the cards feel good in the hand and do stand up to being handled.