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

Friday, 21 February 2014

Monkey Magic!

If you are English and of a certain age, you will remember a television series by the name of Monkey. Although based on the Chinese novel Journey to the West, the television series was in fact Japanese and would be dubbed into English as Monkey. It was broadcast by the BBC in the early evening on BBC2 beginning in 1979 and would become a cult favourite, telling as it did of the adventures of the upstart Monkey King, who after having been released from Heaven-imposed imprisonment by Tripitaka, a Buddhist monk, must accompany by the monk on a pilgrimage to India. They are joined by Sandy and Pigsy, ex-angels who were expelled from Heaven for failing to prevent the irrepressible Monkey’s misdemeanours and turned into ‘monsters’. The series ran for two seasons and was noted for its over the top wuxia action; its ‘Oriental’ accents; and its boundless optimism.

Irrepressible! is the RPG based on Monkey.  Published by Postmortem Studios via Chronicle City, it is a diceless RPG of mythic moral adventure in a China of fable and legend. The players take not the roles of Tripitaka or Monkey, Sandy or Pigsy—though the stats for all four are included in the rulebook—but Pilgrims like them. Heroes, monsters, monks, and other who have been cast out of Heaven for transgressing its many laws, or even the undead or demons, they are all pilgrims trying to get back into Heaven. In order to do that, they must redeem themselves and society at large, which Buddha says has lost its way and fallen prey to earthquakes and floods, famine and fire, banditry and warfare, corruption and immorality. By exposing the corruption and immorality and saving the peoples of the Earth, the Pilgrims can bring enlightenment to society and achieve redemption.

Each Pilgrim is defined by a Weakness, a fatal flaw that he cannot overcome; a Curse, whatever punishment Heaven has opposed upon him; four Traits, powerful skills, abilities, or powers such as Monkey’s ‘Cloud Flying’; and six Virtues. Each Virtue has a yin/yang value, essentially a Virtue/Demon pairing. The six are ‘Charity/Selfishness’, ‘Uprightness/Wickedness’, ‘Forbearance/Impatience’, ‘Dispassion/Passion’, ‘Dauntless/Cowardice’, and ‘Contemplation/Impetuosity’. Each pairing has a mid-point, representing perfect balance, and can go five points either way. Virtues represent a Pilgrim moving towards Enlightenment and grant him Karma, whilst Demons are easier to call upon and more effective when undertaking actions. 

A player chooses his character’s Weakness and Curse, Traits, and assigns fifteen points to his Virtues and Demons. Of each pairing, a player can only assign these points to one side of a pairing, thus to ‘Uprightness’ or ‘Wickedness’, but not both. Lastly, he adds up all of the points assigned to Virtues. This is his Enlightenment. When it reaches twenty-five, the Pilgrim can ascend to Heaven—and so becomes an NPC.

Our sample Pilgim is Shi Yusheng, was once the darling of the court, mannered, pretty, charming, and talented. Yet such a situation could not last and she found her position at the court slipping as it became enamoured of one young ingénue after another. She knew that she had to find a way to reclaim her beauty, her search involving ever stranger methods, finally settling upon alchemy as a means to gain her looks and keep it. It took years, but eventually she managed it, but upon attaining both, she was punished for her transgression against the Mandate of Heaven. She has been cursed to be eternally ugly except for a single hour per day when she as beautiful as she once did—during the rest of the time, she usually wears a veil.

Name: Shi Yusheng
Weakness: I can never look less than my best
Curse: Immortally ugly
Trait: Alchemist
Trait: My clothes are my weapons
Trait: A lady of the court
Trait: I am old and wise

Virtues & Demons
Charity OOOOO/O/XXXOO Selfishness
Uprightness OOOOO/O/XXOOO Wickedness
Forbearance OOOXX/O/OOOOO Impatience
Dispassion OOOOO/O/XXXOO Passion
Dauntless OOXXX/O/OOOOO Cowardice
Contemplation OOOXX/O/OOOOO Impetuosity


Doing anything in Irrepressible! involves drawing from the Six Demon Bag. It contains not just the potential universe, but its luck and karma—the latter represented by beads. It contains five white beads for each Pilgrim, plus white beads equal to the value of each Pilgrim’s Virtues. So for example, Shi Yusheng would contribute just seven white beads to the Six Demon Bag as well as the standard five white beads. In addition, the Six Demon Bag contains a single black bead—this represents the negative karma.

The base difficulty of an action determines the number of beads to be drawn to succeed at it, the difficulty modified by the appropriate Virtue or Demon and by the Pilgrim’s Weakness or Curse if appropriate. If all of the beads drawn are white, then the Pilgrim succeeds, if one is black, then he suffers a setback, or even a disaster. If a Pilgrim wants to succeed spectacularly, then he can draw yet more beads. All of the beads drawn are kept in front of the players and only go back into the Six Demon Bag when the black bead is drawn. Essentially the Pilgrims are pushing their luck whenever they draw from the Six Demon Bag and the more actions they attempt, the more likelihood that one of their number will suffer a setback or disaster. This adds a degree of dramatic tension to the play of Irrepressible! It is possible to add beads back into the Six Demon Bag during play and to increase the number of beads by doing something heroic and gaining the notice of Heaven in doing so, or by a Pilgrim improving one of his Virtues.

Scenarios are described in terms of ‘Scrolls’, mini-campaigns in terms of ‘Books of Scrolls’, and whole campaigns of ‘Books’ in terms of ‘Sagas’, the latter representing a whole pilgrimage. Each Scroll is bookended by a proverb at its beginning and a lesson discussing what happens if the proverb is fulfilled or what happens if it is not at Scroll’s end, just as was heard at the beginning and end of each episode of Monkey. Solving the intervening adventure involves making one or more moral choices, which ultimately should fulfil—or not—the proverb that inspired the adventure. Irrepressible! includes a lengthy list of Chinese proverbs. It also includes a sample scroll, ‘The Blood Village Scroll’, a short, ready-to-play scenario that serves as a solid example of a Scroll. 

Unfortunately, as much fun as Irrepressible! might well be, the rulebook is anything but that. It opens poorly. Once the engaging introduction is out of the way, the rulebook jumps straight into a fifteen-page description of Heaven and its various inhabitants, from the Jade Emperor down to all of the lesser gods. None of this information is irrelevant to the game or its setting, but it takes twenty pages—one third of Irrepressible!—before an explanation is given as to what the players and their characters do in the game. It takes another fifteen pages—now over a half of Irrepressible!—before the author gets round to explaining what the GM and his players need in order to play Irrepressible!; vitally important because the game is diceless. Thus there is no mention of the Six Demon Bag, let alone the fact that Irrepressible! requires beads to play. Despite containing fifteen pages devoted to Heaven, Irrepressible! contains nothing describing where the adventures take place—Earth. Except that is, in the included Scroll. A bibliography would have been nice too.

Ultimately Irrepressible! is let down by self-editing and underdevelopment. It deserves to be better organised and better presented—perhaps in a second edition? Nevertheless, although just like Monkey, Pigsy, and Sandy, Irrepressible! has its problems, it rises above them to present a simple narrative driven game of redemption, moral choices, and Monkey magic!

Friday, 14 February 2014

Courtly Missives

Turn the clock back thirty years and the ‘Microgame’ was a small board game packaged complete in a small box. Typically they were a type of wargame printed on paper stock and heavily themed. The first was Ogre*, published in 1977 by Metagaming Concepts, but over the course of the next decade, it would be joined by titles from notable publishers such as Steve Jackson Games, Task Force Games, and TSR, Inc. In modern gaming parlance, a Microgame is a little game, a game that can be played in fifteen minutes or less. The other change to the Microgame concept is that they are no longer wargames, but are instead mini-euro style games that emphasise competition rather than combat.

*The irony is of course that the most recent version of Ogre, published by Steve Jackson Games weighs close to 30 lbs. Some microgame…

Love Letter is typical of this new style of Microgame, although untypically, it is not a European game. Originally published in Japan, Love Letter has since been published in several English language editions by Alderac Entertainment Group, better known for the games Smash Up! and the Legend of the Five Rings RPG and the Collectible Card Game (CCG) it is based upon. The first is Love Letter – Tempest Edition, which is set in the City-State of Tempest and comes in a cute velvet bag; the second is Love Letter – Kanai Factory Limited Edition, which uses the art from the original Japanese version of the game; and Love Letter – Legend of the Five Rings Edition, which is set in Rokugan, the same setting as that of the RPG and the Collectible Card Game. It is this version of the game that is being reviewed today, suitably on St. Valentine’s Day.

The Imperial princess, Iweko Miaka, the youngest of Empress Iweko’s children is eligible for marriage. Her betrothal is set to be a great contest between the seven samurai clans of the Emerald Empire—for in winning her hand in marriage a samurai will bring great standing and glory to his clan. Of course, such an important marriage will be entirely political, but surely the only daughter of the Empress has her mother’s ear and so will have some say as to the man who will marry her? Thus what better way to influence the decision than by winning the heart of the princess herself? Unfortunately, Iweko Miaka is a shy young creature, one who hardly speaks at court and interacts rarely with the visiting courtiers. Thus she cannot be approached directly and another means of contacting her must be found—that of the courtly letter. Her suitors are thus trying to get a letter to the princess via one of her inner circle, from her guards and her courtiers to her hatamoto and her sensei, all the whilst fending off the suits of rival samurai.

Designed for between two and four players aged ten and up, Love Letter – Legend of the Five Rings Edition is card game that consists of just sixteen game cards, four reference cards, and thirteen Tokens of Affection as well as a tiny, thirty-two page rules booklet. The game altogether comes in an attractive velvet bag, this time green rather than the red of Love Letter – Tempest Edition. (Unlike the Love Letter – Kanai Factory Limited Edition, the Love Letter – Legend of the Five Rings Edition does not include any promotional cards). The game is played over a series of rounds in which the players attempt to press their suit. Their aim is have the card with the highest value at the end of each round—if they do, then that player is awarded a Token of Affection. Garner enough Tokens of Affection, the number depending on the number of players, then their suit has been successful and Princess Miaka’s hand has been won.

Each of the cards has a value of between one and eight, ranging from one for Seppun Tasuke, the Guard to the eight of the Princess herself, Iweko Miaka. Each card also has an ability that is triggered once it is discarded. Seppun Tasuke, the Guard, can select a player and ask him if he has that card, forcing him out of the round if he does. The Courtier, Shosuro Yamazaki, can examine another player’s cards, as can the Diplomat, Kaiu Akemi, but when the Diplomat does so, the two cards are compared and the suitor with the lower value hand must retire from the round. When discarded, the Shugenja, Isawa Tenkawa, prevents a suitor from being targeted for a whole turn while Matsu Misato, the Hatamoto, forces another player to discard his hand and draw a new hand. The Manipulator, Doji Takato, forces another player to trade hands with the suitor, while Togashi Gozato, the Sensei must be discarded if a player has either the Manipulator or the Hatamoto in his hand. Lastly, if the Princess is discarded, she has received the suitor’s letter and thrown onto the fire. That suitor—or player—is out of the round.

At the start of the game, the sixteen card deck is shuffled and one card discarded face down. This acts as a random element so that the players do not know ‘exactly’ what is in the deck. Then each player receives one card—this is his hand. On his turn, he draws another card and must discard one of the two cards he has. Each discarded card has an effect as described above, but is discarded face up so that every player can see what cards have been played. There only being fifteen cards in the deck, the players have some idea as what cards have been discarded and what still remains in play—essentially, Love Letter – Legend of the Five Rings Edition encourages the counting of cards—as do the other versions of the game! Play continues until the last card is drawn and its player discards one of his cards. Then each player reveals the single card he has in his hand and the player who has the card with the highest value has successfully pressed his suit and earns a Token of Affection from Princess Miaka.

Love Letter – Legend of the Five Rings Edition is a game of deduction and risk, one in which what a player can do on his turn is limited to just one of two actions. These will often force a player to do something to his disadvantage because it is the better of his two options. For example, Louise holds Princess Miaka in her hand. It has a value of eight and if she can hold it until the end of the round, then Louise will have managed to get her letter directly into the hands of the Princess and thus won a Token of Affection. On her turn she draws the Manipulator, Doji Takato. Her choice is to discard the Princess, but this would force her out of the round, or Doji Takato, which means that she has to trade hands with another player. She opts for the latter, trading hands with Dave, gaining Seppun Tasuke, the Guard. While the Guard only has a value of eight at the end of the round, it can be used to name another card and if successful, force a player out of the round. Louise has gained valuable information—she knows what card Dave has. Dave also knows this, but likewise cannot discard the Princess. Fortunately, on his turn Dave draws the Shugenja, Isawa Tenkawa, and goes to pray with him, preventing his being targeted until his next turn. Thus Louise cannot use her Guard to name the Princess—yet!

So is Love Letter – Legend of the Five Rings Edition a fitting Legends of the Five Rings game? Thematically, it is perfect fit. Not least in the fact that the bag it comes in has the symbols for Rukogan’s five elements—air, earth, fire, water, and void—embroidered on the back, and that the art used to illustrate the game is drawn from the publisher’s extensive back catalogue used to illustrate both the CCG and the RPG. The art also specifically illustrates characters within the setting of the Emerald Empire. Further, within the Emerald Empire, the sending of letters is a courtly art. In addition, the functions of the cards have been mapped onto particular figures. For example, the most common card type in Love Letter is the Guard, but here the same function is performed by Seppun Tasuke, a member of the imperial family tasked with protecting the Empress. Similarly, the ability of the Clown in Love Letter to examine another player’s hand is adopted by the Courtier Shosuro Yamazaki from the Scorpion Clan and the ability of the General in Love Letter to trade hands with another player has been given to Doji Takato of the Crane Clan who is described as a Manipulator.

The setting of the imperial court of the Emerald Empire is supported by the rulebook. It runs to thirty-two pages, much of which is devoted to detailing the characters on the cards, which if the players want, adds depth and feel to the game. Fans of Legend of the Five Rings, whether of the CCG or the RPG will appreciate this aspect of the game. Certainly there is enough background here that knowledgeable players could bring a degree of roleplaying to the game as they play.

With a playing time of some thirty minutes, Love Letter – Legend of the Five Rings Edition is perhaps a bit too long to really qualify as a Microgame. Although it is possible to play with two suitors, it is not as enjoyable a game to play—simply it plays better with three or four players. (It is disappointing that the game does not accommodate more players, but that should not be held against Love Letter). With three or four players then, it is a solidly designed filler game, one that combines the need for careful deduction and a little guess work with a fitting theme. Managing to be both charming and quick, Love Letter – Legend of the Five Rings Edition is a lovely game that fits nicely into any games collection.

Finding Romeo

Where art thou Romeo? is not even a ‘Microgame’, it is something smaller. Indeed, the game’s full title, Where art thou Romeo? A Nano game set in the World of the Council of Verona, gives substance to its tiny size. Released as a near ‘Pay What You Want’ project on Kickstarter, Where art thou Romeo? is a card game inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet and published by Crash Games that can be played in as little as five minutes. It consists of five cards, plus the rules, and is quick to learn as it is to play. It is a ‘role’ game in which players takes turn being Juliet who is looking for her beloved, Romeo. Depending upon their roles, the players will score points if Romeo is found or if he is not found.

The five cards are all role cards. The first is Juliet. The other four each have two roles on them, so for example, Romeo and Count Paris are one card, whilst Mercutio and Benvolio are on another. At the beginning of each round, one player will be Juliet whilst the other players are each given one card. Each of these other players will choose one of the two roles on their card. So for example, a player receives the Nurse/Tybalt card and must choose to be either Tybalt or the Nurse for that round. Whatever role these players choose, they must keep it a secret until Juliet asks everyone to reveal their roles.

As the players are choosing their roles, a lobbying period of roughly thirty seconds ensues. During this period, Juliet essentially asks the question, “Where art thou Romeo?” and the players have to convince her of the fact whether or not they are Romeo. By the end of the period the players must have selected their role and then Juliet gets to choose which player she thinks is Romeo.

The aim of the game is to score as many points over the course of its several rounds. The numbers gained each round depends who Juliet chooses. She scores the most points if she chooses Romeo, as does Romeo, the Nurse, and Friar Laurence. Mercutio also scores the most points if Romeo is chosen, but will reduce the points gained by both Romeo and Juliet. Benvolio, Tybalt, and Prince Escalus all score a point if Romeo is not chosen or Juliet cannot decide.

The players are free to tell Julia whatever they like during the lobbying period, bar revealing their identity. It is clearly in the interests of several of the roles for Julia to identify Romeo—certainly Romeo, the Nurse, and Friar Laurence have no reason to lie when it comes to stating whether or not they are Romeo. Likewise, Mercutio certainly wants Romeo found, though for different reasons and thus will not lie about his not being Romeo. Benvolio, Tybalt, and Prince Escalus, as well as Count Paris, all have an interest in Romeo not being found and so are likely to lie. This may change as one person gets ahead in terms of points, but in a ‘Nano game’, it should be no surprise that the tactics are ‘Nano’ too.

Physically, the game’s five cards are sturdy and presented in black and white on a sage background. Currently and disappointingly, Crash Games has no plans to develop further titles as ‘Pay What You Want’ projects on Kickstarter—for reasons that are explained here. That said, Tasty Minstrel Games has picked up this baton with titles such as This Town Aint Big Enough for the 2-4 of Us! PWYW, Burgoo - A PAY-WHAT-YOU-WANT game of community stews, Templar Intrigue - A Werewolf type game by @tastyminstre, and Coin Age - A PAY-WHAT-YOU-WANT area control microgame.

There are numerous hidden role games available at the moment, from The Resistance and Coup to Battlestar Galactica – The Board Game and Love Letter. In comparison to those titles, Where art thou Romeo? is likely to get a little lost, but then its slight scope and playing time combined with the fact that it reached only a limited audience, this is hardly surprising. Yet this should not be held against the game. After all, Where art thou Romeo? is a five minute, $5 game that is understandably light and undemanding.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Wilderland Tales

With two parts of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy down – one being available on DVD and the other having recently been released in the cinema, it seems like the perfect time to return to the roleplaying that serves as the trilogy’s sequel. Published in 2011 to much acclaim before the release of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Cubicle Seven Entertainment’s The One Ring: Adventures over the Edge of the Wild is set entirely after the events of the film trilogy, but before The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Not only is the time frame of the RPG, from the year 2946 of the Third Age, exactly five years after the Battle of the Five Armies limited, but so is its scope. It is essentially limited to an area bound by Rivendell and the Misty Mountains to the West, the Lonely Mountain to the North, the Iron Hills to the East, and the haunt of the Necromancer, Dol Guldur to the South. The region between these points, an area known as the ‘Wilderland’ that is dominated by the deep and dark woods of Mirkwood.

It is over this wide area, one that is yet to escape the gloom of centuries past that emanated from Dol Guldur, but into which the light of hope and freedom have begun to seep, that the heroes of The One Ring will tramp, time and time again. Their adventures will involve much travel, by foot and by boat, being often beset by the weather which prevents safe travel, let alone adventure for months on end. This is modelled in the RPG, which employs Adventuring and Fellowship phases, there being one of each per year, with typically only time for a single adventure each year. This is the model for Tales from Wilderland, the first supplement for The One Ring. It presents seven ready-to-play aventures that can each be played as single affairs or as a campaign that spans several years.

Set after the year 2946 of the Third Age, Tales from Wilderland opens with ‘Don’t Leave the Path’ and the fellowship of adventurers coming to the aid of young boy whose father is in trouble. Coming to his aid sees them hired by him as caravan guards and their travelling from near the remains of Lake Town across Mirkwood to the Elven King’s halls and beyond. This is a simple, fairly straight forward adventure, one that introduces the heroes to one of the core aspects of the setting of The One Ring – travel and its dangers. A second aspect is introduced in ‘Of Leaves & Stewed Hobbit’, that of hope and the chance to restore a sense of civilisation after years of darkness and despair. Finding refuge at The Easterly Inn, an establishment newly opened by Hobbits inspired by Bilbo Baggins’ adventures, the fellowship is asked by the proprietor to find his brother who is long overdue with a caravan of essentials brought over the Misty Mountains from the Shire. The fellowship’s search takes it up the High Pass where the adventurers find evidence that the lost Hobbit has been waylaid. In order to get him back the adventurers will need to delve deep and come up with a solution to a culinary challenge! This adventure is markedly more inventive than the first and the challenge itself has a certain Tolkienesque sense of fun to it.

Unfortunately, the third adventure is slightly disappointing. It is not that it is poorly written or feels ill-suited to the setting of The One Ring, but it lacks a certain originality. The plot of ‘Kinstrife & Dark Tidings’ has the adventurers make a gruesome discovery on the banks of the river Anduin and then have to take some unwelcome news to Beorn himself! He charges the player characters to track down a fugitive, in the process of which they should uncover his crimes and bring him to justice. The next adventure, ‘Those Who Tarry No Longer’ pleasingly touches upon the grand sweep of Middle Earth’s history when the adventurers are asked to escort an Elven lady of an ancient and noble lineage. Although the journey is not far, it proves to be a harrowing challenge, one that needs to be faced rather than denied… ‘A Darkness in the Marshes’ is best played as a sequel to ‘Those Who Tarry No Longer’. Summoned to Rhosgobel where they invited to tea by Radagast the Brown – his portrayal here understandably much more constrained than that of Sylvester McCoy’s in The Hobbit trilogy – who asks them to follow up on the threat that beset them in ‘Those Who Tarry No Longer’. Doing so takes them up to the isolated Mountain Hall of the Woodmen where they learn of an evil to the south. Investigating this gives the adventurers the chance to encounter the threat that has been harrying them for the past two or three years.

The final two adventures in Tales from Wilderland both take place after ‘A Darkness in the Marshes’ and like the adventures before it, give an opportunity for the fellowship to meet one or two of the great figures of the Third Age. In the first of these, ‘The Crossings of Celduin’, the adventurers join the thronging crowds to celebrate the anniversary of the Battle of the Five Armies in the city of Dale. They have the chance to participate in the tournaments and enjoy the feast, but when a calamity strikes the celebration, the adventurers are the only ones who can fly south quick enough to meet the vanguard of dark host. Unlike the previous five adventures which take the Fellowship west of Mirkwood, this adventure takes them east. The challenge in ‘The Crossings of Celduin’ is daunting enough, that in ‘The Watch on the Heath’ is truly fearsome. All but inspired by the events of The Hobbit itself, it sends the adventurers north of the Lonely Mountain to deal with a danger that will truly test their mettle...

Tales from Wilderland both is very nicely presented, in keeping with the style and look of The One Ring: Adventures over the Edge of the Wild. Its dour shades make for a pleasing change over the more vibrant shades to be found in other RPG titles. The book is well-written, decently illustrated, and its cartography has an engagingly rough quality. The seven scenarios share the same format that makes them easy to read and run. That said, breaking the index down by scenario reads a little odd. Where Tales from Wilderland slightly disappoints is in the lack of advice for the Loremaster with regard to the degree of experience required by the player characters from one adventure to the next. Further, the set-up does feel similar from one scenario to the next, although what this proves again and again is the fellowship needs to make a good impression upon the Free Folk of the North.

What Tales from Wilderland does impress upon Loremaster and players alike is that The One Ring is not an RPG where the adventurers possess dubious moral characters. The RPG and the scenarios in this collection do not really support anything other than heroic play or effort. Similarly, like the RPG, the scenarios in Tales from Wilderland are truly not about the acquisition of either gold or gems; nor is there the opportunity to gain ‘magical items’. These adventures are about building hope and pushing back the darkness that was scattered at the Battle of the Five Armies. Tales from Wilderland is a solid set of adventures for The One Ring; its campaign the perfect start to a game of The One Ring; and if successful, a great way for a fellowship to bring hope to the Wilderland.