Big Weekend of Board Games – BSG

As mentioned, we had a pretty big weekend of board games just recently. After getting whooped in X-Wing we brought out the Battlestar Galactica board game. This is a fun damn game.

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So for set up we had:

Gaius Baltar – Scott (President)
Helo – Me (Admiral)
Chief – Ryan
Caprica Six – James (Cylon Leader)

What that meant, then, was we had 3 humans leading the fleet. One of us was a cylon – but which one? James playing as a Cylon Leader(CL) meant we didn’t need to use the sympathiser mechanic. You see, James had never played before, so what I have done here is give the new player the CL so that he is not directly involved in the humans-versus-cylon struggle. The CL mechanic is designed so that they should be varying which side they are helping from moment to moment, as suits their enigmatic agenda. Even if they don’t know the best strategies, it doesn’t really matter because it helps to obscure their agenda and they “fail to help” each side equally (due to newbie-ness.) It works pretty well, but the last time the humans – who already have a very hard time winning – got a bit blind-sided by a CL that decided to give up on his agenda and just work against the humans every turn. The next CL game had an experienced player with agenda that is pretty much 100% anti-human. Ouch.

This time, it worked well.

We use a house rule that everyone has to stare at their loyalty card for 10 seconds, regardless of what it says. This is to mitigate the problem of humans being able to glance at their loyalty card (which says nothing interesting) while the unrevealed cylon has to read his to find out his reveal ability. Unfortunately, Ryan didn’t follow through on this rule, and popped his loyalty card down at the 5-second mark. Especially since he was a new player, I knew there was no way he was a cylon. So we re-dealt the loyalty cards. On the second time, Ryan stuck to the 10-second rule… but squinted closely at his card.

Although I couldn’t guarantee he was a cylon from that, there was really only one reason he’d need to look at his card closely. I told Scott that Ryan had done something “very suss.” Scott offered to use his Cylon Detector ability right out of the gate and confirm for us. I agreed. For two reasons – I would prefer Baltar got rid of his ability before the sleeper phase – if I turned out to be a sleeper cylon, it’d be best if the humans didn’t have that ace in the hole. Secondly, if we catch Ryan out on the first turn, Scott and I (as the most experienced players) would have a really good shoot at winning.

So Scott looked at Ryan’s loyalty card and declared him cylon. Ryan groaned a little and that was that. Scott told me he had a Presidential Arrest Order in his hard, so Ryan was going to the brig, no question. I did, however, start to question Scott’s truthfulness. I had no solid reason to doubt him, but a few things ran through my mind… If Scott was a cylon, Ryan’s silly behaviour at the start gave him the perfect excuse to accuse Ryan and get my support. What Ryan did was very minor, so if Scott had the You Are A Cylon card, and a starting Arrest Order this would be the obvious cylon strategy to take – it’s certainly what I would do. The problem I had was that there had been exactly 1 turn so far – Scott’s – and that was all. Already suspicion was high, and accusations being thrown around. I just didn’t have enough information to go on. I know Ryan and Scott both pretty well, so I thought if I had more time I probably could have figured out the truth of the matter… but with just 1 turn’s behaviour to work on, it was an impossible choice. One thing everyone at the table knew, though. The traitor was either Ryan or Scott.

Either way, Ryan was going to brig, so there was nothing I could do there. Also, I figured, if he is the cylon he might get spooked and reveal on his turn (the usual cylon strategy is to not waste any time in the brig) to try and get over to the cylon fleet as quickly as possible. If he decided not to reveal straight away, I would only be in as bad a place as I already am. In he went, he didn’t reveal on his turn and I decided I needed to bide my time a bit to try and work out if we had the right guy in the brig. I kept my suspicions to myself, at first, so Scott couldn’t use them against me.

James was largely amused by all this – sitting by the sidelines and watching the dynamic play out. “All very interesting.” He said.

By the time it came around for my second turn, I started to doubt Scott more and more. It was the little things. The way Scott revealed the Arrest Order and made sure to call Ryan a “Cylon Bastard.” Ryan was very keen to help out as best he could from the brig. He gave me an Executive Order every turn and would go scrambling through his cards if there was a call for a Strategic Planning, or what have you (even though he had no way to have a Strategic Planning, ha!) A clever ruse, or helpful human?

Scott gave me no cause for suspicion. He played his part. But he gave me no solid evidence of his innocence either. Human who had no opportunities yet, or cylon that has gone to ground? At this stage I decide it would be better to have a cylon out and about, than a human in the brig, so I tried to get Ryan out. I realised we wouldn’t have the card strength for that, though, so I turned to my other option – brig Scott. We had the strength for that although we had to throw down hard for it.

So there I was. Running the Battlestar Galactica by myself while the rest of the crew was in the brig. I knew for sure I had the cylon brigged, at least, I just didn’t know which one it was.

I believed in Ryan more than Scott. Every turn that went by had me more convinced, though I still had nothing solid. Also, statistically, it was more likely to be Scott (because of Baltar’s negative ability that gives him two loyalty cards to start with.) So I was very up-front with telling Ryan I’m going to be helping him out of the brig. Even if Scott was the cylon, I expected him to stay in there. Obviously he’d protested his innocence on the way in, and fought to keep Ryan in there (because, you know, Ryan’s the cylon) but that didn’t really tell me anything. Even if I got Ryan out, if Scott was to stay in the brig (i.e. not reveal) I would really question my decision. Still, it was worth a shot. Scott might spook – like I’d hoped Ryan would earlier – and besides, I don’t think I could have won the game by myself!

We (well, James and I. In hindsight, I’m not sure if James was helping or hindering) failed to get Ryan out, but as it turns out, it didn’t matter. Scott revealed. He’d been dealt the perfect opening cylon hand, and played it just as I would have. He’d decided he’d done enough damage, and a big attack was presently underway and he wanted to get over and help it out.

We took some losses, but got away from the attack. (I also made a grevious error of accidentally choosing a distance 1 card, instead of distance 2. Seriously, if the cylon wasn’t already revealed I would have sent myself to the brig so fast.) The cylons are an ever-present danger though, so I had to get Ryan out of the brig. It took a number of turns to save up enough cards to be able to get him released, but once he was out we had a fairly quiet run. The skill checks were a challenge as we constantly juggled the number of cards we needed to spent on them, and our resources were dwindling – having started quite low due to Scott’s opening gambits. I was Pres-Admiral, due to Scott’s defection, and we smashed the hell out of the Quorom deck. Pegasus really adds some pretty nice ones. Helo’s ELO ability is nice for those Quorom cards that require a dice roll too, so he makes a good Pres-Admiral.

It came down to James’ agenda. We were barely hanging on, and what his ultimate goal was could make or break us. By this stage of the game, he seemed to have a pretty good grasp of the mechanics so I think his behaviour started to change a bit as he worked out what it was he needed to do to achieve his goals.

This was not good for us, as it turns out. We’d had a stack of cylon attack cards in the opening jump cycle (but as I mentioned, got away… just.) And at distance 6 another clump of them popped out. I think we had 2 attack cards in the space of 3 or 4 draws, and then both James and Scott used attack Super Crisis cards on us. We literally had every single cylon ship on the board, except 1 raider, we were down to 1 working viper and we had only 3 of every resource.

We held on as long as we could, but that was only a few more turns. Eventually we lost our last population and the cylons won. James’ agenda was “Cylons win and Galactica has 3 or fewer damage tokens.” This is exactly the agenda I was talking about earlier. It is a pretty imbalanced one that essentially makes the cylon leader an extra kill-all-humans cylon. It requires almost no effort (especially with Pegasus) to kill the humans without damaging Galactica too much. If James hadn’t been a complete newbie at the start, I think we would have died much sooner.

So the final result:

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The pic at the top of this post is the same situation from another angle

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Big Weekend of Board Games – X-WING

 

My brother, cousin and a friend came around over the weekend and we cracked out the X-Wing miniatures game, and the Battlestar Galactica board game. It took a few hours, but it was time well spent.

My brother (Scott) and I had played X-Wing plenty of times before, but my cousin (Ryan) and his friend James had not. So we decided to have a game of 2 on 2. Scott and James vs Me and Ryan. Scott and I built the sides, since we knew what we were doing, and then randomly assigned who took which force. We found we didn’t have enough miniatures to make a 200-point force on the imperial side, so we made it 150 points each.

For the Rebels we had Chewie in the Millenium Falcon, Biggs in the Y-wing, Luke and Wedge in X-Wings. Scott controlled Biggs and Luke. James had Chewie and Wedge.

On the Imperial we had Kath Scarlet in the Firespray, Soontir Fel and Turr Phennir in TIE Inteceptors, Night Beast and Mauler Mithril in TIE Fighters. Ryan controlled Kath and Night Beast, while I took Soontir Fel, Turr Phennir and Mauler Mithril.

Ryan and I decided that our tactic would be for the firespray to lead the charge, while the TIEs flew in formation behind. Deciding the asteroid field presented too much of an obstacle in the middle of the field, we’d fly on the left, and try and focus on the Y-Wing first. Its 360-degree ion turret is very annoying, and although a tough ship, it should wither under the combined firepower of all our ships. The Falcon also has a 360-degree turret, but it’s just too tough to focus fire first.

Things started well enough, with a nice smooth opening move, however from there it went poorly. Ryan flew Night Beast into an asteroid, where he remained mired for 3 turns (!) I made a great barrel-roll move with Soontir Fel to get a clear shot on Wedge, while avoiding his fire. Unfortunately, I forgot the order of play and after I fired, I used Daredevil to barrel roll back into his path. I thought he’d already fired, and the barrel roll would have set me up for a better run through the asteroids.

Proton torpedeos and general focus fire hurt Kath badly. Perhaps I should reconsider not focusing the big ships. They are simple to get within a firing arc, and they are pretty brutal unattended.

From there, things just slipped out of hand. Ryan couldn’t get Kath to use her lock for many turns, as we chased the Y-Wing. It had remained at the back  and even manoeuvred in such a way as to stay out of danger for several turns. Soontir Fel was able to slip through the field, and Wedge and Luke, but ultimately fell prey to the Y-Wing’s Ion turret (damn 360-degree arcs!!)

Kath didn’t last much longer, and Night Beast – having just escaped the asteroid field – promptly crashed into a friendly. All in all he had 5 turns, 3 in an asteroid field, 1 crashed into a friendly, and 1 with a stress token. It was not a good day.

At the end, there was only Mauler Mithril left, and not a single Rebel ship was down. Sticking to the original plan, I was able to dispatch the Y-Wing and one turn later, the Falcon finally removed the pest.

Well, after all that we set up Battlestar Galactica. 4 players isn’t the best balance, because we need a sympathiser or something similiar. So next post – BSG with Pegasus expansion and a Cylon Leader. Tune in to hear the scandal of Detector-Gate.

The Battlestar Galactica Board Game and its Expansions

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The Battlestar Galactica board game is probably my favourite of all time. Not only does it have exceedingly clever mechanics and nearly endless replayability, but it also captures the theme (one that I didn’t even like that much before the board game) perfectly in nearly every way.

So let’s pretend that my two sentences convinces you of this fact. Or, perhaps, you are already part of the choir. I’d like to talk a little about the expansions.

There are 3 (well 2, with a 3rd coming later this year):

1. Pegasus, covering events in the second season and the season opener of the third.
2. Exodus, covering events of the rest of the third season.
3. Daybreak, which looks to cover the rest of the series (season 4, essentially.)

Pegasus

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The thing about Pegasus is that it was the first expansion and afterwards I believe the game designers decided to take a more modular approach. Pegasus, therefore, does not benefit from this. It is often considered a “rules patch.” For this reason I have heard many dismiss it as “not worth the money” but I personally think this is terribly unfair.

It is true that the Pegasus box is the same size as the base box, but far lighter. It is also true to say there are a lot more bits and pieces in Exodus. For my money, though, I think Pegasus is a far more important expansion.

It tries to achieve two main goals.

First it attempts to rebalance the “sympathiser” mechanic. It is a very unpopular mechanic and many people feel that it is both too “gamey” and also prone to wild balance swings between the two teams. The expansion provides several options for alternatives that generally centre around a enigmatic Cylon Leader. They’re almost a third faction that wins with one of the teams, but only after a series of criteria are met. They’re designed as a balancing factor hindering or helping both sides at different times, depending on their secret agenda.

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Secondly it tries to tidy up a few core game mechanics that didn’t work so well. It achieves this through a number of rule tweaks, but mostly through a new “Cylon Location Overlay.” This changes the way several of the cylon locations work fairly dramatically. For example, cylons can wait in the resurrection ship after revealing and draw more super crisis cards. They cannot, however, go back in to the resurrection after they leave it. It also introduces the Pegasus board. 4 new powerful locations for the humans to help fight raiders and basestars.

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The expansion does also add in some new content – new characters and a new skill deck, for example. These are nice, but don’t impact the play all that much and feel more like bonus material rather than important additions.

Our group found it incredibly difficult for the humans to win with the base game. Our human win to cylon win ratio was probably on the order of 1:10. However, since introducing Pegasus things have evened out considerably. Cylons still win more often than not, but we find the games go down to the wire far more often.

I had originally shied away from Pegasus because of the new Pegasus board taking some of the space-combat limelight away from the pilots. This is certainly true, but we have found it’s not really as bad as we expected. The pilots do still see a bit of action, and everyone is still needed to pull through. I was also deathly afraid of the addition of Admiral Cain. Her once-per-game ability to “blind jump” seemed so strong as to make her a “must pick” character. While she is certainly a powerful character, in practice I don’t find her quite as game breaking as I expected.

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Lastly, I’ll quickly mention the occupation on New Caprica. This is an alternative ending condition for the game where a mini-game is basically played that the humans need to try and survive. Things are very different to the rest of the game, so it was not received very well. We typically don’t play with it, as it is optional, but like other additions with the expansion it can add a bit of extra flavour.

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All-in-all, I think Pegasus is a “must-have” expansion.

Exodus

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I actually picked Exodus up as my first expansion on the recommendation of several people on BSG forums I frequent. They told me how it makes it so that those that pick pilots were not always so bored, and it balances the game better, and makes Cylon attacks less random.

I was a little surprised by some of the comments, since pilot roles were very popular picks in our groups and they were always extremely busy. I couldn’t imagine why they would be described as “boring.” Cylon attacks were certainly brutal, but I really enjoyed them nonetheless. If Exodus improved on that, then all the better.

Exodus went for a far more modular approach than Pegasus which I think most players appreciated. There was not much in Exodus that was absolutely required, instead it shipped rules broken into 3 totally independent sections that could be added to the game. So you could play with 1, 2, or 3 of the Exodus components, or even just add in the new Exodus cards and characters (and the couple rule clarifications) and play with none of the new components.

Although there was a little bit of tweaking to the rules (for example, some adjustments to Pegasus additions – such as execution – that had a few flaws) most of Exodus was designed to shake up well-established strategies and tactics the community had developed. It tried to provide more ways for people to behave seemingly contrary to the human’s goal, but in actual fact are keeping the toaster threat at bay. In this way cylons could more easily sabotage the fleet without being immediately outed. Suspicious, sure, but this whole game is about sowing suspicion.

By far and away the biggest addition in the Exodus expansion is the “Cylon Fleet Board.” It removes cylon attack cards from the crisis deck entirely relying instead on having a cylon fleet build up on a secondary board. When this fleet catches up to the human fleet, you transfer the accumulated pieces on to the main board. Thus the attacks are more like a gradual build-up, followed by a large attack, rather than a fairly random collection of small attacks that may add up to large ones.

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I didn’t realise that pilots were less utilised at the time because of the Pegasus expansion, and I’m not entirely convinced that Exodus fixes anything. We found our pilots spent all of their time “escorting civilians” off the board, rather than shooting at toasters.

I personally find the whole process very silly. The problem is in the details, which I won’t get in to, but here’s an example:

It is often times good for the humans to have a basestar attack. Due to the way the rules are written, if a basestar attacks there is almost no chance of the rest of the cylon fleet showing up. The idea is that the whole massive fleet shows up at once, but various conditions can make a lone basestar show up. A lone basestar is really not much threat, so it is definitely the humans preference to let it show up and they make no effort to kill it, knowing that it effectively gimps the rest of the cylon fleet.

Don’t get me wrong, there is still a lot of strategy involved with the board – on both the human and cylon side. There are a lot of choices to what might be the best action to take… but they often don’t make much sense, such as the above basestar tactic.

I also don’t like that removing the attack cards reduces the strength of abilities such as scouting, or Roslin’s Religious Visions since attacks can no longer be avoided through those abilities.

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The other additions brought by Exodus are interesting, but not necessary. They’re also simply problems for the humans to overcome – they bring very little positive power to the humans. As a result, they just make the game harder (and when you’re looking at 1:10 lose:win ratio, that’s a tough pill to swallow!) It doesn’t make it that much harder, but anything that sows suspicion – by making it dangerous to look at each other’s loyalty cards for example – makes it harder on the humans even if only by a little.

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Finally the ending condition is mixed up once again. It’s mostly fluff – as opposed to New Caprica which can be difficult and game changing – but that suits fine. It’s a fun way to mix up the game as it winds towards a close finish, without greatly changing things.

As far as I’m concerned, Exodus is good but not necessary. I think you’ll probably have the best time with both Pegasus and Exodus, but if you HAVE to pick one, go with Pegasus as it is better suited to improving the base game. Exodus is mostly fluff and loses some of its re-balance without Pegasus.

Daybreak

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Daybreak is not out yet, but from what we’ve seen so far it looks quite good. They’ve had another go at rebalancing the sympathiser mechanic. Now it is replaced by a new title. Between the original “President”, “Admiral”, and Exodus’s “CAG” most players had a title already. Now there is an interesting new one called “Mutineer.” The idea here is that the everyone gets powers that are presidential-like but you can only hold one of these “mutiny” cards at a time. If something forces you to pick up a second, you are immediately brigged as a mutineer. Therefore, it is probably wise to play this card – unfortunately most cards are both good and bad at the same time. Usually helping in some significant way, but also hurting the human cause in another way. It is probable that sometimes you can afford to lose one resource to gain some benefit… but other times it is not a good idea at all. So – are people trying to stay out of the brig, trying to help, or actively harming the human cause? Who knows!

The mutineer, meanwhile, can hold more of these cards than normal. This means they hold a special role of being able to utilise these special cards more effectively… or to greater devastation. It all sounds very interesting and fun.

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A further reveal of Daybreak shows the new destination and the new ship (The Demetrius.) This ship gives the humans even more decisions – they can now run “missions” from there which are like higher-stakes crisis cards. If the humans are feeling confident they can use The Demetrius to try and squeeze out some extra juice… or alternatively a hidden cylon player may drop an unrequested mission on the humans that they have no hope of passing. The effects of these missions cards tend to be really good or really bad. I’m not sure yet whether this addition will be nice to have, but not necessary; mostly ignored among all the other options the humans have (with so few turns!); or a great must-have addition to the game. One quite siginificant addition is a new Rebel Basestar board. Presumably this is somewhat like Pegasus in that it grants quite a lot of firepower – the catch is… it could join either the humans OR the cylons.

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All in all Daybreak sounds like it’ll be a lot of fun. I don’t know if it will be a “must have” but since I already have the other expansions I’m not about to stop now. I have a feeling that Pegasus will still be necessary, but after that Exodus or Daybreak will be either-or options.

A Final Note

I’m wondering if I can run 4 sessions in a row one long weekend. I’ll start one game with the base game, then work through each expansion with some rules to allow people to “carry over” to the next expansion. I have a few ideas floating around for that… but I don’t know if I’ll convince my friends to settle in for that much Battlestar Galactica!

Why the Game Of Thrones Board Game Disappointed Me.

My gaming group are all very pragmatic. I rather suspect this is the problem we face with the Game of Thrones board game.

I picked it up after many recommendations (such as the above one.)

The mechanics, I thought, would suit our group perfectly. We love to trick and fight each other, but it never hurts our friendship. We also like the nitty-gritty details and longer games are no problem. Lastly, we all love the Game of Thrones stories. All in all, the game sounded perfect.

So what went wrong?

Well, the first couple games were pretty fun. They took a lot longer than I expected, but they were our first games so I thought they’d pick up. They also contained a fair amount of wheeling and dealing but they all ended fairly flawed. In the first two we were all easily beaten by sneak attacks performed by a much more experienced player. Those sea attacks can be very hard to spot!

Ok. Fine. We’ll get better.

The first game where we all had equal experience saw one of the players(Baratheon) that were well on their way to victory with a game-long truce with a much weaker player (Tyrell.) So as the game wound down, Baratheon moved to the verge of victory. Everyone knew it, and all previous alliances were restructured into Us vs Baratheon… except… Tyrell didn’t break their truce. They ended the game by moving their pieces OUT of one of their strongholds to allow Baratheon to move in uncontested for the win. “Ha ha!” the Tyrell player crowed, “We win!” Um. No. The silver lining was that in hindsight it looked like we realised Baratheon had the game too late. We’re pretty sure we wouldn’t have been able to stop him any way. Well played, Baratheon.

Baratheon and Tyrell cementing their alliance

Baratheon and Tyrell cementing their alliance

Still, I started to suspect the game wasn’t what I was after. Even if Tyrell HAD switched sides (as logically he should have,) it wouldn’t have exactly been a Game of Thrones-esk betrayal, would it? It would just be a pragmatic attack to improve one’s odds (however slim) of ultimately winning.

Subseqent games pretty much played out the same way. Any discussion of non-aggression pacts, alliances, or truces were done on the understanding of: This is just to improve my chances of winning. That is, it may improve yours as well, but we all know I’m only suggesting we stop fighting because otherwise neither of us have a hope. Fine, fine. But if one of us turns this around and starts to win… it’s back on. Ok, that’s the point of the game, but the problem is that it’s not a betrayal, or surprise.

The above video reviewer mentions how not a game goes by where the Lannister player doesn’t get stabbed and, containing his rage the player will simply threaten: “A Lannister always repays their debts.”

Never have I seen a betrayal that would warrant this sort of fist-shaking. It’s just too risky. Occasionally I could see a chance to grab a “free” castle if I tell the guy sitting next to me, who I’ve had an unspoken agreement with since the start of the game, “Oh, that’s a power token. I have no intention of attacking your castle, I just don’t have the resources.” Then, “Surprise!” it’s a march order and I grab me a free castle. Occasionally. And then – is it worth it? Due to all the above issues, no-one is silly enough to leave a castle completely exposed to a so-called ally.

“Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal!”

The best scenario would be one where, in a series of cleverly orchestrated back-stabs you surprise everyone by suddenly getting 8 castles and instantly win the game. Never. That’s when that’ll happen. We can all count, you see. You have 6 castles? Well then, everyone is watching your armies like a hawk. Your allies, even if they decide it’s not time to go on the offensive surely aren’t going to leave a castle next your armies without sufficient defenses. Ser Loras is the only way such a move might be pulled off (“I can afford to lose this castle because there’s no way he can get a second.” Oops. That army that wasn’t adjacent to any castles has suddenly bounded up and taken 1 extra castle.)

So essentially, a Game of Thrones board game turns into a fairly lack-luster war game. One that hasn’t failed to take 8 hours, yet. Since betrayal on the board rarely amounts to anything, the vying for power becomes the most interesting part. Using the raven to look at the wildling deck, or the blind-auctioning for position on the influence tracks. Unfortunately, these make up a very small part of the game compared to moving armies around and my play-group has house-ruled a few small things that makes this part even less interesting.

I decided a while ago that it would be a good long while until I break out the Game of Thrones board game again. I broke that rule after a month or two, mostly because it was with an entirely different gaming group… and that 6-hour marathon convinced me that I will probably never break the game out again unless I get begged and begged. Things were no different. Everyone was practical and pragmatic. No alliances, no back stabbings, and the player with the best military strategy won. It was so. Freaking. Boring.

Why Co-Op Board Games Are The Devil

I have been having a discussion on Google+ today about why “Paul” doesn’t like co-op board games. I think one of his points is totally off-base, and his second point is totally understated.

Let’s start with the positives first.

Co-op board games are generally ingenious. Their mechanics are tight, and the balance (usually automatically scaling to the number of players) spot on. They’re the sort of cleverness I never would have imagined in the board game arena just 3 or 4 years ago. Now they’re everywhere.

For those of you that haven’t really played a serious co-op board game before let me briefly outline them for you:
You and a group of friends will be working together to beat the game itself. Maybe you’re trying to wipe out a virus that is teetering on the edge of a pandemic and is threatening to wipe out humanity.

Basically a turn goes like this: You move your guy. You do an action to try and help the team a little. Then you draw a card from a deck that is nearly always terrible for you and your ilk.
The whole point of the experience is to overcome these challenges. You must prepare for, and mitigate, the bad stuff that you will inevitably draw from the deck of terrors. It’s strategy at its core, and is usually so finely balanced that no matter the number of players you have to do everything just right or humanity is doomed. They often end in nail-biting finishers where this one move will determine the fate of the game.

Sounds great, right? Well, yes, they’re clever and can be fun. But they suffer a fatal flaw.

The flaw comes in two flavours: Play By Committee and Field Commander.

They’re two sides to the same coin, however. If you’ve not played a co-op game you probably just won’t really understand the problem. It goes something like this:

There is no room for error. So everyone discusses each facet – starting with the character selection. Something like: “Well, you go this guy, and I’ll go that guy and then we’ll also need another guy and for our first turn you do this, I’ll do that…”  It’s not that bad on the face of it. Everyone is typically involved, and options are discussed and strategies developed. The problem is — why am this guy? I don’t really control him, except to move him and to declare that,  yes, I will do the action we all agreed on a few minutes ago. Really – other than a bit of brainstorming – there is absolutely no reason it couldn’t just be one person playing with 6 characters, rather than 6 persons playing with one character each.

This leads me to the Field Commander. You see, it’s even worse when it’s not even a committee. One player – one who has a lot of experience, or looked up strategies, or what have-you – directs everyone on what they should do. Strategically, it actually makes a lot of sense. Everyone is on the same page as “we” all “work together” towards a common goal. So, in many ways, it’s the best way to win… but why I am even playing? Why not just let the Field Commander play with 6 characters? In these sorts of games you could literally get up and walk away, and it wouldn’t make a lick of difference.

The one saving grace of a co-op board game is that they can be pretty fun the first couple times you play. These problems really only rear their head after you start to learn the mechanics. Once you start to learn the odds of drawing cards, or work out some optimal strategies for various situations. Once you start getting to that point (in my experience after about 3 games) then everyone starts to agree on tactics and strategies and then the committee quickly and naturally forms. (Or if one person is perhaps more strategically-minded than the other players, the field commander comes out.) Prior to this point people tend to do their own thing a bit. No-one knows the game well enough to make suggestions and most of the time all anyone can recall is their own character’s abilities. So it’s up to each individual to step up and help out. It really doesn’t take long to get past this point though.

So I can be talked into playing a new co-op game a few times (especially if no-one is experienced with it) but I won’t be buying any more.

The one exception to this rule (that I have so-far found) is Space Alert. I’ll cover why in a later post.

Mage Knight an Adventure Game Done Right

So I was able to get my girlfriend to play Mage Knight last night (and at the last second my roommate too.) If you haven’t played this game, you really should. I describe it as “DnD compressed satisfyingly into one evening.” It does take all evening, don’t get me wrong, but DnD campaigns take months or years and yet this gives you close to the same level of satisfaction. So for my group who, as I described previously has trouble regularly getting together, it works great for those few times we can get together. In a later blog post I will go into full details of the game, but a bit of searching on Google will reveal all if you are impatient.

What I will say, though, is that this game – despite it’s complexity – works surprisingly well for new players or not-really-gamers. I attribute it to the exceedingly clever mechanics that make things inherently intuitive. You will still need someone who knows the rules well to clear up all the nitty gritty details, but honestly I explained the basic ideas in about 5 minutes to my roommate then just said “let’s start adventuring!” I was able to just explain things as they came up from there and, like I said, due to the intuitive nature it all just made sense.

I spent some time setting up the play area exactly like the rules say to do so. Behold!

The Perfect Set Up

Not pictured is the third player who joined us just before the first turn.

It was my girlfriend’s second game, and my roommate’s first – so it’s no surprise we failed to capture any cities (actually we called it half-way through the last day, so we might have captured one.) The end result:

blurred together

It’s such a pretty game.

I’m a dragon!

 

Tools for a DM

So my cousin asked me to run a DnD campaign for him. My friends and I have tried many times to start DnD campaigns and other than 2 campaigns many years ago, we’ve never been successful in getting them to last more than a few sessions.

So with that in mind, I thought I’d talk briefly about the tools I used as a DM. I guess every group is different, but I really do like the set up we have now. Largely this has spawned from a requirement of getting together regularly (without actually getting together) and having sessions run FAST. I have to admit we haven’t been entirely successful at either of these things.

Which DnD?

Firstly, and most importantly – which flavour of DnD? The community is fractured, and Wizards of the Coast know this and hope to reconcile everyone with DnD Next. I’ve tried some of the beta, but for my money our group works better with Pathfinder. I won’t say much more about the various editions right now, but let’s just say I like Pathfinder because of its clear rules, and flexible system. That is: It’s playing a game (something I obviously enjoy) with the rigidly-defined ruleset that outlines the world, but with the flexibility to do anything you want within that ruleset. I’m not big on the laissez faire ODnD or 2E and 3.0/3.5 had a number of poorly balanced and overly complex components. Pathfinder (cough “DnD 3.75” cough)

Playing Online

Look, even if we weren’t playing online, I’d still demand everyone use a laptop. We started out with pen, paper, a clear sheet of plastic and miniatures. We all loved the minis and dice. The mat was a necessary evil. Having said that, since switching to a VTT (Virtual Table Top) I couldn’t go back. We lose the visceral feel of dice and minis, but gain so much more. Not least of which is the ability to play online.

The first major hurdle when playing online is communication. At the time VTTs were focused on text-based chat. IRC and instant messengers were catching on quickly, and people started to realise they really could play online… but we more-or-less skipped that. We were early into VOIP (Voice Over IP) programs like TeamSpeak for computer games anyway, and this far more preferable than text chat. So that’s a must. Mic, and VOIP program.

VOIP

I’ve been pushing my group to use video chat now – it is 2013 after all. I’ve been able to put my foot down and get people on Google hangouts. It works well in many ways – it’s easy to see when someone gets up and walks away and won’t hear what’s happening. I can use my hands and facial expressions in my descriptions. I can see if someone is confused or distracted from what’s happening (I remember clearly my cousin holding his head in his hands as he tried to puzzle out what to do about a Otyugh.)

Having said that, video chat hasn’t been all smooth sailing. Not everyone had a camera – although most now do. Google Hangouts is probably the best video chat out there, but has many problems. It auto-mutes when it detects typing, which is sometimes great, and other times exactly what you don’t want. Despite being a “just works” solution, several people were having trouble getting it to go smoothly. Also the improvement from text to voice was much more significant than voice to video. I still think it is a worthwhile addition, but if your group refuses to move on from voice it’s not the end of the world. It is a game-breaker, though, if they refuse to move on from text.

VTT

VTTs started to spring up around the turn of the century as people and companies began to realise that you really could get a lot of value out of using them and playing online. The ability to drop quality tokens on to quality maps, and track everything on a shared online space has to be experienced. It’s why I can never go through the effort of minis and mat again. VTTs are just more convenient and higher quality.

Unfortunately, no-one has taken this niche and slam-dunked it yet. Which is a great shame. I think WotC and Paizo, in particular, are missing a huge opportunity here. I might do a specific blog post about it later, but I would have been really excited about DnD Next if they announced it was going to be tightly welded to a VTT. Imagine being able to download their new product’s rules straight into a VTT that does all the number crunching for you. Imagine all your campaigns kept in the cloud. Imagine downloading high-quality professionally designed campaigns with all maps and tokens already configured. Unfortunately WotC has failed at this twice now, and Paizo has made some tentative steps with their own VTT, but it looks like it is aiming low and not going anywhere.

Roll20 has had a massive spike in interest lately, due to good marketing (via a kickstarter campaign mostly.) It looks like a serviceable little VTT, but I don’t agree with it’s direction. I believe in almost the exact opposite of it’s direction. It’s done everything it can to strip out all the number crunching that a computer excels at, and combined things that could easily be achieved through other tools already.

The VTT any connoisseur will use is MapTool.

Alas it has some hurdles that need to be cleared. It is built on aging technology – Java 6, with only a thick client as an option (you can LAUNCH from the website, but it just downloads and starts it in a window.) When you’re trying to get 5 people all going at once, oh god… let’s just say I always set aside the first session of any campaign to not only finalise characters, but also troubleshoot Maptool. Installation, configuration, connectivity… Don’t get me wrong, for MOST people, it will work fine. There is always going to be at least one person in your group, though, who has a funny Java installation, or some setting on their computer, or some firewall issue, or any number of other rare problems.

Once you get connected then it is far from the most intuitive tool. I mean, as a shared map space it’s simple enough but there are some really powerful things you can do with Maptool. To work them out it is absolutely a requirement to have one person working in IT. That person will most likely have to be the DM, and it is preferable if that person has a programming background. I’m not saying this to tell you to steer clear of Maptool. I’m saying to get the absolute most out of it – which my group does and recommends – you need to know how to handle a computer.

Why is it so powerful? Well it is possible (albeit it requires spending hours digging around on the rptools.net forums) to download a set of macros that are so powerful you can make your computer do all the heavy lifting. Well, 90% of it anyway. Attack with a button? Check. Timed statuses? Check. Spell casting – including spellcraft checks to ID, save rolls for everyone hit, auto-application of status, links to the rules of the spell as it is cast – Check. Line of sight dynamically calculated? Check. Light sources and vision automatically and dynamically calculated? Check. Bleeding/dying in a button click. Check.

I could go on, and on. As a DM just being able to tear through a large group of monsters by pressing the “Mass attack” button, or even to fly through them one at a time by clicking “attack, confirm, miss. Next.” is such a boon. Being able to track statuses – such as buffs – is so handy. All the more so because ones that are simple statistic modifiers (+1 attack for example) can be automatically accounted for, and automatically expire. Did you ever play “hunt the buff” when you used pen and paper? You know – you’d roll and work out you were just 1 or 2 points from a hit. So you and the DM would start to wrack your brains to see if you forgot any buffs. “Did you count the +1 from bless? How about flanking? Higher ground? Bull’s strength? Oh! There you go. Ok then, you hit.”

Unfortunately, with a massive series of community-created macros which are built on a community-built VTT… there are inevitably problems with those tools too. Every time I change versions (which itself can be quite the trick) previously broken functionality becomes fixed and previously-working functionality breaks. About 50% of the time I discover, through much research, that you can fix the problems by changing some esoteric setting. I wish it was simple, I really do, but it’s not.

Character Sheets

I’m used to an autocalculating sheet too. I’ve been through many, though. Back in the 3.5 days I found one to download. Fill out the right fields, pick things from drop-downs, and hey-presto, everything calculated. Cross-class, synergy, to-hit, AC, money (weight from money) – you name it. Once we started using this bad boy… holy cow did we find some places where we were doing it wrong. I couldn’t see myself going back, so when we changed to Pathfinder and couldn’t use the spreadsheet any more (which had a number of bugs which I had personally fixed… and taught myself some very advanced Excel as a result) I started to use The Only Sheet.

Eh. Look. It works. It was just never as intuitive as the original spreadsheet and this is almost entirely because the designer is trying to make a living off it. So he’s using Microsoft Excel to do some very advanced scripting and programming and also trying to protect that background work so it can’t be stolen. So you end up needing MS Office, download the sheet, pay a subscription for the sheet, work out how to use the sheet, and if you find a problem with it… hope the developer fixes it for you. It’s all very clunky. I’m frankly amazed it works at all (but, I swear, it does if you decide to dive into it.)

Once again – where is Paizo or WotC for this? If a VTT is too complex, surely they could build an online character sheet that correctly and automatically calculates your end-numbers? The community can do amazing things, but again no-one has really nailed this one yet.

Our solution: Google Drive. There is a decent character sheet here, but it only the barest of the bare. All you do, though, is make a copy of that, share it with your players and when they fill it out you can have all of their character sheets sitting on your Google Drive. You can open them all (and make changes as you see fit) and they can only see their own (and makes changes as they see fit.) You can roll-back if you need to to any point in time, and you can see what they’re in real-time. If it was a bit more automagical, and powerful, it would be perfect. As it is, it does the job. I just hope we don’t make a serious mistakes we discover 5 levels later!

And How’s It Working Out?

So with Google Hangouts on one screen, Maptools on the other, the character sheets opened in Google Drive and all the campaign materials open in Adobe Acrobat – I have everything I need at my fingertips (albeit with alt-tabbing required.) I spend most of my time staring at Maptools and Hangouts though.

It works, but it’s not perfect. It’s frankly way harder than it needs to be. And it call all be solved by a good VTT from Paizo. Built in video chat would be a plus, but Google Hangouts will do – what really needs to happen is a Maptool-killer app that has it all… or alternatively RPTools needs to quickly birth the next version of Maptool. They’ve put a feature-freeze on Maptool – which previously iterated quite quickly – but as far as I’m aware they haven’t even started work on the next major version yet. It could be killer, but as a community-driven, open-source project, I don’t have any hopes of seeing it before 2015. I’d expect someone to swoop in and steal the limelight, but I’m not seeing any promising contenders to be honest. Sigh.

And, to be honest, one of the main reasons for doing all this is so we can get people together quickly and easily. Short, sharp sessions. I’m not sure it’s working out. Getting people together is as hard as it has ever been, and preparing for a session that you can fly through in 2hrs takes 2 days of prep (I might be a bit anal about it I suppose.) Still, it’s not a rate I think I’ll be able to sustain. It’s a shame, and I’ll keep pushing on for a while yet – myself and my players have invested quite a lot into this campaign and I’d like to see it go somewhere – but I’m seeing some writing on the wall, I think.