Friday, December 31, 2010

Card Game Review - Irondale Expands

This review covers the expansion for Irondale, and not the game itself. If you want to understand what in the burning blue blazes I'm talking about here, you may want to go back and read the original review.

Technically, Irondale Expands is not a card game. Technically, it is an expansion for Irondale (which explains the name). But when you add Irondale Expands to the base game, what you wind up playing is a completely new game. It works with the same rules, but the additional parts will have you wondering why you ever bothered to play Irondale without them (that's assuming you've played Irondale before, and considering how head-spinning it is to play, you may have missed it in favor of something less complex, like air traffic control).

Irondale Expands is a modular expansion. You can decide exactly how much extra game you want, and then just add the parts you dig. I'll go through them one at a time, as if I was a dead-boring hack reviewer at some hugely popular gaming website, and then save my opinion for the very end of the review, at which point you will have wondered why in Hell I didn't just tell you if I liked it at the beginning and save you all that reading. But let's face it, half the time, you're only reading this retarded website to see if I make a really witty joke about one-legged crossdressing prostitutes, so you'll probably read it all, anyway. I would hate to disappoint, so I'll do my best to be funny. Wish me luck (which won't really be necessary, because by the time you're reading this, I will have finished writing, and you'll be the one who needs luck, not me).

The first new addition to Irondale is the City Sprawl. These are 54 new building cards, probably the most predictable addition to a game about creating a city, one building at a time. Fortunately, every new card adds something cool that you haven't seen before. My favorites are the monuments, which act like wild cards when you're trying to decide if you can pull off a master plan and grab a few extra cards. My least favorite new card is the Seat of Judges, because not only does it sound like a very uncomfortable toilet, but it can make someone lose a turn, and in this game, missing a turn means you're going to be bored for a long time, and probably lose the game. It's just too damned mean. In the future, I will be removing Judge's Seat from the deck before I play. I also won't have one in my bathroom.

The City Sprawl also includes the Rector's Spire. This card earns an honorable mention, but not because of what the card does. I don't really care what it does. It just makes me giggle inside every time I see it. It reminds me of when I was a dumb kid (as opposed to a dumb adult, which I am now), and we used to say, 'Rectum, darn near killed 'em!' And it's not just the rector part that's funny - this building is a rector's spire. It's like an all-purpose crotch joke.

An interesting new twist is the New Start cards, which are four cards with no special powers, representing each of the four building types you can make in Irondale. These are not very cool. They don't really add anything to the game, to be honest, and I'm not sure why I would bother with them. But as an upside, they do finally clear up for me what the four building types actually are. Based on the pictures in the original, I previously thought the types were windmill, church, tower and Little Mexico. So it's nice to get that cleared up.

Two new building types make Irondale much more interesting, and by themselves are a great reason to buy the expansion. The first is the Banking Institution. Each player gets one of these, and puts it off to the side. When you complete a master plan, you can store the card, and then redeem it later for awesome bonuses that will make you plan even farther ahead than you were before. While I may not really care about the New Start cards, the Banking Institution is a great way to make Irondale a much better game. It gives you a great reason to work harder at getting those master plans working, and gives you a way to pull off some incredibly impressive turns that will make the other people at the table throw their cards down and stalk angrily away. Which means you win.

The Architect's Guild, by comparison, is not as cool. I didn't like it as much, but you might, so feel free to give it a shot. It just lets you put a card up for sale, and might earn you some points. Me, I generally want to keep my cards in my hand, because the trickiest task in Irondale is keeping up a healthy hand of cards, and most cards require you to have other stuff in your hand. Dumping a card to earn one point means you just have to spend a point later to get another card. Seems pointless to me, and aggravatingly worthless when we played.

So far, my opinions on Irondale Expands are sort of mixed. Some of the new stuff really makes Irondale a much better game, and some just bother me. But to push my opinion from 'somewhere in the middle of the cool zone' to 'you need this, right now, stop reading and go order', the expansion includes the City Square. This totally changes the way you play Irondale, and basically turns it into a whole new game. In fact, it's so cool that the explanation of the card merits an entire new paragraph.

If you're using the City Square, each player gets one. It counts as a sort of wild card, so you can build anything you want next to it and score the maximum points. You don't build just one city any more. Now each player has a city, and you can build on any city you want. You don't score for how your city develops, so you're not screwing anyone by building in their town, but now you have a nearly limitless number of places you could build. You're no longer stuck trying to wedge your buildings into the corners. Now there are corners everywhere, and open spots, and just a whole ton of new things you can do on your turn.

Of course, if Irondale confused you before, the cards in Irondale Expands are going to make you feel like a short-bus-riding potato-head. If you didn't have the mental agility to keep up with the original game, you're totally screwed now. But if you do like Irondale, and you can play it even reasonably well, Irondale Expands makes it a whole new game - and a much better one.

Irondale Expands does exactly what an expansion should do. It doesn't just add a few new cards or a couple additional rules. It takes the entire game, reinvents it, and provides you with lots of options that you can apply to fine-tune it into exactly what you want to play. I could play the original, but I rarely found myself wanting to. Now that I have Irondale Expands, I look forward to getting this one on the table a lot more often.


2-4 players

Many new options
Add what you want, and ignore what you don't
City Square makes this a whole new game that's better than it was before
A great reason to own the original

Some of the options suck (but you might like them)

If you haven't bought into Small Box Games yet, you're missing out. Get over there and put in a preorder now. You won't be sorry, unless you don't like them, and then you might be sorry, but that's really not my problem, is it?

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

RPG Review - Dragon Age

I've played games based on comic books. I've played games based on movies. I've played games based on historical events, novels, and geographical oddities. But until I played Dragon Age, I don't believe I ever played a roleplaying game based on a roleplaying game (well, not counting every RPG that came out since D&D).

The guys at Green Ronin decided that the video game Dragon Age: Origins was so bitchin', it needed to be a tabletop game. So they figured out how to turn a video game RPG into a tabletop RPG, and they did a really good job of it. When you play Dragon Age, you'll feel like you're traipsing around Ferelden fighting darkspawn and getting cussed by mistreated city elves.

The setting for Dragon Age starts off with your basic Tolkien ripoff - dwarves and elves and dragons - but then twists it up and takes it to a dark place. Dwarves are reclusive and anti-social. Elves are downtrodden and abused, either working as servants for humans or wandering around in nomad caravans and being hated by everyone. Humans even have bad hemmorhoids. Everyone is miserable.

And then, because there's already too much joy, unholy monsters crawl out of the ground and overrun entire nations. These boogeymen, called darkspawn, have poisonous blood, brutal intelligence, and a hard-on for killing people. They come in lots of varieties, which means when you're facing a bunch in a fight, you can take your pick of what you want to kill, kind of like a Chinese buffet restaurant. Avoid the eggrolls. They bite back.

What you don't have in Dragon Age are a whole bunch of nonsensical monsters and various races of critters. There are undead hordes, but they're created when demons break through from the dark side and possess dead bodies. There are no orcs, goblins, kobolds, fish people, dog people, snake people or magical floating eyeballs. The bad guys basically come in three flavors - demons, darkspawn or regular ol' people. Those last ones can be the worst - the demons and darkspawn might be hell bent on destruction, but nothing rivals the twisted power of a decent man driven mad by hatred, greed or an overwhelming addiction to cough syrup.

Despite having a limited array of foes to kill (what, no land sharks?), Dragon Age has a wonderfully involved and compelling setting. Sure, the Bioware writers did all the heavy lifting, but I finished the video game and still didn't know half of the stuff I learned when I read the first couple chapters of the player's book. There are decadent Orlesians, the Trevinter Imperium assholes, the barbaric Avvar and the rough-and-tumble Fereldens. There's a history here that actually makes sense, instead of just being a chronicle of various magical wars and invasions by dragons. The players will have a place in this world, and they'll be part of the stories beyond simply the mechanical constructs that plod through the dungeons. In fact, the history is more than just an overlay to help us pretend that this next dungeon matters. The stories you play will be part and parcel of the background of the world. That ruin you're investigating to find the rage demon was once part of the Imperial Road, and it has a reason for being deep in the forest, beyond being a convenient place for a lich to set up shop and hire out a squadron of rotting corpses to fetch his slippers.

But all this consistency and depth doesn't do you any good if you can't play the game, and one thing about Dragon Age is that it's incredibly easy to play. You don't need a bucket of dice in various shapes and sizes. Each player just needs three regular dice, the kind you can find in Risk or Monopoly. Want to know if you can cross the slippery bridge? Roll three dice and add your dexterity. Want to know if you can stab the ogre in his soft parts? Roll three dice and add your strength. Want to know if you picked up gonorrhea from the farmer's daughter? Yeah, so do I.

Another thing that's brilliant is that unlike many games, everyone is in the fight, all the time. You know how in D&D, the wizard kind of hides in the back and waits to see if anyone needs him to blow something up, but he rarely does because he's only got four spell slots left and the fighters can probably handle the giant rats without help? That doesn't happen. The rogues can handle themselves in a fight, and the mage can throw a magical ranged attack for free. When you really need some firepower, the mage can light it up, but he doesn't have to. He can probably hit people pretty well with a stick, too.

A system this easy means you're going to find that your fights run a hell of a lot faster. We routinely ran into players saying, 'it's my turn again already?' You roll once, you roll damage, and you're on to the next guy. You can handle a pretty big fight with minimal fuss, and thanks to a really cool stunt system, there's plenty of room for big maneuvers and surprise assaults. For a game with limited rules, there are a surprisingly high number of options when violence breaks out. The simplicity of the system leaves plenty of room for cinematic takedowns, last-minute saves and courageous acts of heroic proportions. Plus you can totally stab stuff.

The rules for Dragon Age come in two books - one for the gamemaster, and one for the players. But unlike many roleplaying games, these books are short and succinct. You'll know how to play after just a couple hours of reading, and you won't have to read them all twice just to be able to remember how to do a five-foot step. Quite frankly, it's a relief to play a game with rulebooks that are only 64 pages long, instead of the enormous tomes required to play nearly any other game. For the sake of comparison, War and Peace is a shorter read than most paper-and-pen roleplaying games - but not Dragon Age.

Dragon Age is easy to play and easy to run, but in order to accommodate this simplicity, it has to get rid of some of the customization that you see in lots of other games. The rules tell you to create goals for your characters, but there's no reason to do so unless the GM specifically intends to use them. Character creation involves very few choices, and allows for little in the way of creative optimization. Sure, you dispense with a lot of the rules, but you don't get to create the glib conversationalist who can talk his way out of anything because his Diplomacy score gives him a bonus to Sense Motive and Bluff. You can't combine spells for creative experimentation, or train in a series of powerful moves that let you behead three rabbit people in a single blow.

Personally, I don't care if I do lose some of that tweaking, because all that fine tuning is a pain in my ass. When I'm running a game of D&D, I end up feeling like the master accountant and treasurer. Plus Dragon Age doesn't send me spelunking down endless, incoherent tunnels, stumbling across random conglomerations of monsters who never have toilets, and simply advancing from one room to the next like an overnight cleaning crew. In fact, the introductory adventure has exactly one dungeon containing only three areas. There's a fight at a farm, a monstrous demon slaughtering innocents, a harrowing battle across a yawning chasm and a terrifying night attack by gibbering lunatics, but no home invasions. When you go somewhere, you have a reason.

Dragon Age doesn't have the character-based storytelling of Burning Wheel, or the endless customization of Dungeons and Dragons. Instead, it has a solid background, a rich history, and consistent plots. It's quite possibly the easiest time I've ever had running a game, and it doesn't ever leave anyone completely out of the action. It's exciting, dark and just plain fun. Plus you can totally stab stuff.


Rich background that provides a purpose for your adventures
Compelling stories
Simple, flexible system with plenty of room for exciting moves
Fast and fun, for a game where the rules get out of the way and let you play
An emphasis on difficult moral choices

Very little customization
Not a lot of support - yet

The starter set for Dragon Age comes with both books, a map, and three dice. That's everything you need to play characters up to fifth level, and hopefully Green Ronin will come out with set 2 before you get bored with what you have. You can get a pretty good price on the game at Noble Knight Games:

Monday, December 27, 2010

Board Game Review - Battle for Slaughter Gulch

I love Deadlands. The setting, specifically, is amazing. You've got the Wild West, which is awesome on its own, but then to really mix it up, there's this supernatural, mad science, pulp monster, impending doom horror thing working. It is, in my opinion, one of the best settings for a game ever created.

I figured I would enjoy a board game based in the Deadlands Weird West. I mean, the card game was excellent, why wouldn't the board game be just as fantastic? But thanks to Twilight Creations, I have the answer to that little brain puzzler. It would not be fantastic if they made an ugly game that was not very fun to play. Which they did.

The disappointment starts early. The game has up to six different factions competing to claim the ghost rock in Slaughter Gulch. The Texas Rangers and the Agency, the mad scientists and the hucksters, even the shamans and the blessed men of the cloth are in on the action. You all descend on this little town and try to recruit the townspeople and control the various buildings.

If that premise sounds like a bad case of deja vu, it's because it was already done to death in Doomtown, the Deadlands CCG. With the entire nation of the United States and monsters of every stripe available, why rehash the same thing we already did once? We could have been monster hunters killing the walking dead, or salt miners evading Mojave rattlers, or Maze pirates swiping cargo. We could have had so many different games, but every time they make a Deadlands game, it's about taking over a town. Even that rather silly discwars-style game they came out with was about controlling a town. That well is dry.

But let's assume you could get past a game premise this dull, ignoring the vast potential for games that actually would have been entertaining, and pretend you just want to talk about how the game plays. It's fairly straight-forward - you have up to six guys, and you have a little mat hidden behind a screen, and you put tokens on the mat that indicate where your guys will go and what they will do.

Here's a second massive failing. Your actions are limited by the tokens you have. So if you're the hucksters, you can only send one guy to fight, even if five guys all go to the same place. Only one guy a turn can run. You can only prospect once a turn. And when you actually build up your whole team and have all six of your goons in town, they won't have anything to do, because you'll send one guy to rob the train and the rest of your team will stand around with their thumbs up their asses, wondering how they're supposed to recruit someone when they've been sent to an empty graveyard.

It gets worse. The rules are about as clear as a puddle of warm mud on many points, and overly complicated in others. We played twice before we figured out when we were supposed to reveal the townspeople cards. For some reason, your handicapped gunfighters can't move from one building to the one next door with a day to travel, possibly because their wheelchairs are powered by bright colors and the only color present in Slaughter Gulch is dirt brown.

That brings me to another problem - this is one ass-ugly game. The art isn't bad, exactly, but I am forced to wonder if it was created by a color-blind artist. Everything is brown. The backs of the cards and the fronts of the cards, the street, the buildings - everything in the game is some shade of turd. And it's not like they saved a bunch of money, either, because there are spots of color here and there, meaning that they had to pay to print full color, despite having a game less colorful than dirty athletic socks.

Slaughter Gulch comes with a bunch of miniatures. These are very small guys, but they are miniatures. Six for each faction, plus twenty townspeople, means you've got a lot of plastic in here. And you know what? They don't stand up. That would be a minor irritation, except that when your minions get shot, you put them on their backs, and since these sons of bitches won't stay on their feet anyway, you're never sure which guys are actually wounded and which are just looking for a lost contact lens.

But the most grievous error, the one unforgivable mistake made by the creators of Battle for Slaughter Gulch, is that it just doesn't feel like Deadlands. Sure, you can learn spells if you're playing the hucksters, but for the most part you travel from building to building (very slowly) and try to get the townspeople to work for you. You don't banish ancient evils, battle demons in the swamps of Louisiana, or face down El Diablo so you can skin him and make a nice jacket. It has all the thrill and fast-paced action of a local campaign to be elected to city council. It could scarcely be less exciting. Sure, there's a hanging judge on one card, and a walking dead on another, but they don't do anything. In fact, you can get them both to join your team - and then they just turn into normal goons. One of the most powerful terrors of the Weird West just hangs up his magical shooting irons and decides to invent gyrocopters.

I tried to like this game, and my wife actually said she thought it was OK. But I have boxes of Deadlands books and Doomtown cards, plus an entire tool chest full of Range Wars, and I am absolutely despondent over the wasted potential. If Twilight Creations had made a cooperative, Arkham Horror-style game, it would have been a blast. If they had made a Railways of the World-style game where the railroads compete to reach the Great Maze, it would have had tons of promise. But they made an ugly game with sorry-ass miniatures, rehashed a dying premise, and sucked all the excitement and thrill out of one of the best fake worlds ever created.

Slaughter Gulch did do one thing, though - it made me want to play Deadlands again. My son will be happy. He's been pestering me to Marshal a game since last spring.


2-6 players

Based on Deadlands

Ugly colors
Crappy figures
Confusing rules
Frustrating and repetitive
Boring, rehashed premise we've seen over and over
Doesn't feel anything like Deadlands

If you just feel an overwhelming need to have someone piss all over your fondest gaming memories, go to a Baptist church and tell them you play D&D. The Battle for Slaughter Gulch is too boring.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Event Review - Christmas Eve

Usually, this time of year brings out the worst in me. I dislike the Christmas season, and my favorite time of year is when the whole damned thing is over. Of course, we still have to wait a week after the Big Holiday so that people can finish returning Rudolph sweaters and hitting the after-Christmas sales, but soon enough, the world will go back to normal and we can quit hearing seasonal favorites twisted into commercial jingles.

But tonight and tomorrow - Christmas Eve and the Big Day - those are awesome. You don't have to fight the crowds and wade through surly shoppers just to pick up a carton of milk. No more parking five miles from the store entrance and chartering a helicopter to buy a pair of jeans. The radio goes back to playing whatever simpering drivel is on most of the year, and they put away the entreaties from overzealous rock stars trying to convince us that they're actually still human by singing about starving children who don't have presents.

Instead, Christmas Eve can be spent with family. You can sit in a living room twinkling with colored lights, eat too much dessert, and put some brandy in the eggnog so you can survive your children. I love to watch It's A Wonderful Life, even though I've seen it like seven times, and then send the kids to bed so I can wrap whatever presents I haven't managed to get under the tree just yet.

This year we spent most of the day cleaning the house and refinishing the dining room set, because we're having a good friend over tomorrow and my drooling mutts are almost as messy as my drooling teenagers. Then we had a lovely dinner we obtained from Kentucky Fried Chicken and watched Love Actually (you can have my man card if you want, but that is a really enjoyable movie, even if it does feature Hugh Grant, and besides, it's very Christmas-y).

This isn't a very exciting event review. Usually I try to review really interesting things that I do, but unfortunately, it's been a while since I did something really interesting. Taking my wife to dinner and browsing the used bookstore are some of my favorite things to do, but they make for dull reading material. For that matter, painting the chairs and sweeping the living room aren't exactly adrenaline-fueled thrill rides.

But not every moment is made for Kodak, and while I may dread the Christmas season like a colonoscopy, I adore Christmas Eve. Christmas is great, too, but there's something about the night before the actual day that I find almost magic. Knowing that the next day will be happy and bright, that my kids will actually smile for several hours at a time, that the house will be clean and the food will be delicious and the company will be outstanding, it all just makes me feel lucky to be alive.

Of course, my kids are going to wake me up far too early (you would think they would grow out of that, but apparently, knowing what they're getting for Christmas is not enough to make them sleep until a reasonable hour. I may need to dose them with absinthe and Vicodin). There's about a 50-50 chance that I'll need three fingers of Irish whiskey before eleven in the morning, and the aftermath of the unwrapping is going to make my living room look like Chernobyl. But it's going to be a good day. I haven't had one go bad yet, and there's no reason to believe tomorrow will be any different.

I guess as my kids get older, I really end up putting a lot more value on happy moments with my family. Soon, they'll be moving out of my house (if I'm lucky), and these times of pure familial bliss will become ever more hard to find. In just a few years, we're not going to need fifty yards of wrapping paper or a ham the size of Wisconsin. The house will finally stay clean for twenty minutes, without dirty socks and homework piling up in the corners, but we also won't have those few seconds at a time when we actually enjoy our kids.

Christmas Eve isn't a very exciting event. It happens to all of us, regardless of whether or not we like it, and even if we're not religious. Hell, even if you don't observe the holiday, you still probably have the night off, and it's a little hard to avoid the music and animated television specials. It's not like you need me to tell you what Christmas Eve is like, because if you're old enough to read this, you're old enough to have lived through a few of your own. So maybe the point of this rambling and poorly executed article is to hope you can all enjoy this time and have as nice a night as I have.

Now I have to go wrap some presents and do a little last-minute tidying, then get to bed so my kids can wake me up early. Merry Christmas to everybody out there in Internet Land, and I hope your holiday is as fantastic as I believe mine will be.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Board Game Review - Water Lily


At the end of each paragraph, you should ask, 'What will they think of next?' Asking this question aloud is optional, but if you do actually verbalize the question, you should do it in a low mutter, possibly while shaking your head in disbelief.


In the world of board games, we've used just about anything as an excuse to make a game. Delivering the mail? Sure! Farming? Of course! Storing things? Obviously! So it should really come as no surprise when we see a game where frogs race across a pond for the right to marry the frog princesses.

(Reminder: this is where you ask, 'what will they think of next?')

In Water Lily, each player plays a team of four frogs who leap from lily pad to lily pad, bouncing off each others' heads to get extra distance. And in this race, you don't want to come in first, because you get more points for fourth place.

(That's your cue.)

To add a little confusion and delight to this highly improbable race, players will not know which color frogs the other players are representing. So not only are you trying to secure fourth place with your amphibious racers, but you are actually trying to make everyone else come in first.

(Yes. Again.)

The frogs are on wooden discs, and they move faster or slower depending entirely on how many frogs are underneath them. It behooves you to make frog piles, not only because then the frogs in question can move faster, but because the frogs underneath are stuck until your web-footed suitor gets his fat ass off their heads.

(You get the idea. You can take it from here.)

Apparently, there's already too much information available to the players of this game. You know who you are, and you know where you are, so to make things confusing for you, the game actually hides the frogs who are winning. The box has a plastic insert with slides on it, and you put the bottom next to the top with the board covering both, and when a frog finishes the race, he slides into the darkness. So unless you have a much better memory than I do, you won't even know for sure whether you just score fourth place (big points) or fifth place (no points at all). Not only do you not know who your opponents are playing, but you don't even know who's winning! Genius!

The art that goes along with this crazy, exceptionally unlikely game is absolutely gorgeous. The frogs painted on the wooden discs are nice, but the art on the outside of the box (which you see while you play because the whole game is propped up on top of the box) is absolutely brilliant. The board with the lily pads looks like a lovely place to take a dip, if you're a frog, and the frogs on the cover are painted in the same beautiful and evocative style as the rest of the game. They even have funny little hats, because these are apparently medieval frogs.

(OK, you can stop now. Wallow in the incredulity for a while.)

With production values this high, and a game that must have cost a mint to make, it's a shame that the game isn't more fun. It works fine, I suppose, but I'll be damned if we could figure out a strategy to it. The best thing you can do for yourself is remember how many frogs are in each hidden slot, because any kind of planning is nearly worthless. Every clever plot I hatched to foil my opponents or secure my early success was an abject failure, and the one time I did well, I threw caution to the wind and just moved my frogs willy-nilly.

However, if you're looking for a game that plays well with children, boy, is this a big winner. Kids will love the colorful art and the chunky wooden pawns. And since they can put even less planning into this than they do into their next bed-wetting, they can actually have a shot at beating ol' Dad! It's not luck, exactly, because there are no dice or cards. It's more like you're completely at the mercy of everyone else at the table, and you can't possibly plan for every eventuality. Simply rushing the finish line with everything you've got is actually a viable strategy, which means just about every move will be pretty damned obvious, unless it's random and pointless.

I would also like to have a lengthy conversation with the guy who thought it was a good idea to hide the winning frogs. It's bad enough that you barely have any control over when you finish the race, but not knowing where you want to go makes this game an exercise in frustration. I don't feel like I'm doing anything meaningful, beyond providing entertainment for my children when I drop a frog into a chute and he sticks out the top, because I've apparently secured a place so far back in the race that most of the nubile girl frogs have already been married and are heading to Hawaii for their honeymoons (maybe that could be the next theme - a game for adults where you figure out how the newlywed pond-hoppers use their giant hotel beds. If someone can make Water Lily, they could make the Newlywed Frog Honeymoon game).

I can't entirely hate Water Lily, though, because my daughter loved it. It helps that she won twice, but she would have had fun even if she had lost. She liked the art and the chunky discs, and since it took her about 30 seconds to understand the rules, she was able to have fun bouncing off the other frogs and disappearing into the chutes. This game has a ton of appeal for youngsters, and while Mom and Dad may get tired of it after a couple runs, you can finish in ten minutes. So quit your whining and play a game with your kid, already.

Because the next game you play might be about ambiguously gay grasshoppers who collect seashells to make into drag queen gowns.

(It might be OK to ask it just one more time.)


2-6 players

Spectacular art
Easy rules make this a good game for kids
Seriously impressive production
Over in ten minutes

If there's a strategy to be had, we couldn't tell

Water Lily might be a rather ridiculous game for adults, but it could be a blast to play with younger kids. Noble Knight Games has it:

Monday, December 20, 2010

Card Game Review - A Lone Banner

World peace is highly overrated. I know it's a lofty goal, and everyone thinks it would be great. Big philanthropists like Bill Gates and Bono think it would be awesome. They even write songs about it, like where they wish us all peace on Earth and goodwill towards men, or when a bunch of Europop assholes tell us that it never snows in Africa (apparently Kilimanjaro is covered in dried wildebeast dung that only looks like snow from a distance). But I think world peace would be boring.

Maybe I'm just greedy and narrow-minded, but if we had world peace, what would we make games about? I'll tell you one thing, all the games would be made in Germany and feature such exciting pastimes as ironing clothes and storing unwanted bean sprouts. Maybe I'm a Bond villain just for saying it, but when I play a game, I want a little unwarranted bloodshed.

Which is why I like A Lone Banner. In this quick, smart game from Small Box Games, you're trying to take over the world in a massive military rumble. You get to destroy your enemies, take over entire continents, and throw the unpopular kids in the dumpster. It's fun and violent and easy to play, all of which makes it a big winner for me.

The game consists essentially of a bunch of region cards and a pile of dice. Each player gets a set of dice in his own color, which will be his troops. You roll your dice to see how strong your troops will be this turn, then send them out to conquer the planet. Then other people send troops, and they try to beat your troops so they can claim the regions and send your guys home in a black plastic trash bag.

One thing that really works for A Lone Banner is the way turns work. You resolve any fights involving your troops at the beginning of the turn, and then send out troops at the end, so that you generally get an entire loop around the table before you actually find out if you're going to win. If you're the first to announce a claim for some foreign soil, you might find that everyone else fights you for it just because you're there. On the other hand, if you go after territories that nobody wants, there's a decent chance that you can take them without too much of a fight.

The first time I read through the rules, though, I hit a snag that caused me some concern. Depending on what you roll with your troop dice, you might be able to use some Special Abilities. I've played enough Small Box Games to know that Special Abilities are more likely to add confusion and headache than versatility and excitement. But when you see how easy these abilities work, they become an asset, not a liability. If you roll doubles, you can place a powerhouse of overwhelming troop force. Roll a straight, and you can topple a government from the inside, claiming land without even having to send in the marines. I'm pretty sure that's how we wound up with Arkansas.

There's an indecent amount of luck in A Lone Banner, and that's as it should be. You roll to see how strong your armies will be, then you roll again to see if they lose even though they're the meanest motor scooters in Central Australia. It's entirely possible for one player to wind up crippled by his dice, never able to gain more than two pieces of South America while another player just keeps rolling straights and grabbing all the land with CIA-funded internal upsets, until Ollie North comes along and starts shredding every document with Reagan's name on it, including his driver's license. Then Reagan forgets he ever knew how to drive.

So let's face it, world peace might be great for campfire sing-alongs and infant mortality rates, but it would make for boring games. A Lone Banner shows us just how much fun you can have if you're willing to stop pretending we're all peacenik hippies, and just blow something up. The game is easy to learn, quick to play, and happens fast enough that even if you get stomped one turn, it's only going to be a minute or two before you get another chance to run amok like Napoleon with a nuclear arsenal. This is war, and it's fun.


3-4 players

Easy on the eyes
Simple rules with just enough depth to make it interesting
Light-speed game play, so you're never bored waiting for your turn
Fun, smart and bloody

Lots of die-rolling (only bad if you hate games with luck)

A Lone Banner is a very fun game that you can learn in five minutes and play in half an hour. Run over to Small Box Games and get yourself a copy:

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Quick Question

Last month, I pointed out the ads on the side of the page over there. There's the Dogstar Games ad and the Noble Knight Games ad, both for retailers who support Drake's Flames with review product. And then underneath those, there's my experiment ad, the Project Wonderful box where people put in bids and it goes to the highest bidder (you can see that right now, I make less than a nickel a day).

But I was looking at the bids that advertisers have put on that ad box, and some are pretty cool. Like there's Distant Soil, a trippy sci-fi webcomic about a psychic girl whose powers, it turns out, are because she's part alien, and then there are also hot girl aliens who are into some really twisted S&M. One of the ads is for a place that makes steampunk accessories, like hats with gyroscopes and goggles with extra lenses. My favorite is probably the Roast My Weenie guy, who makes metal doohickeys that look like a man with a huge johnson, and you stick a hot dog on his man-rod so that it doesn't burn while you cook it on the grill.

The thing is, I only have the one ad box, so you'll only ever see the top bidder. That means you don't get to see the guy who Photoshops dog heads onto sparrows, or the non sequitur brilliance of Buttersafe, or the time-sink online tactical games that say you can play for free and then beg you for money every five minutes.

So here's the quick question that turned out to not be so quick - how do you feel about another ad box? I hate going to a blog and seeing a page full of so many ads that I can't figure out what the site is about, but I also don't mind a couple cool ad boxes, especially if they're actually good for something. I'll still be monitoring and personally approving every ad that pops up there, so it's not like I'm going to be allowing flashing orange annoyance ads or work-from-home scams. Another ad box isn't going to make me more than a penny or two a day, so I don't give a flying rat's ass about the cash. I just think there might be some cool stuff out there.

Let me know what you think. I'm willing to completely bend to peer pressure.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Games You Should Not Request for Christmas

So it's just a week until Christmas, and you're wondering which games you should ask Santa to put under your tree. Well, first things first - there's no such thing as Santa, he isn't bringing you dick, and with only seven more shopping days, it's too late to get anything here on time. You should have planned better, and asked for your Christmas presents in July, with frequent reminders through Thanksgiving, and a list posted on the refrigerator. You're not thinking, dammit.

So you know what's going to happen, right? You waited too long, and now your mom is going to buy you a really crappy game. You're going to have to play it with her on Christmas, when you really just want to slam four fingers of expensive scotch and giggle your way through your mandatory day off. Then, having opened it, you'll have to put it up for trade and try to get something you actually wanted. And how do you know what you want?

Hell, don't ask me. I don't even know you. You might be into the kinds of games you play with rubber pants and water-based lubricant. I don't know your life. It's none of my business. So instead, I'll just warn you about some games you don't want. If someone offers you a trade and says they'll send one of these games, ignore them. Don't even answer. If someone is going to ask you for a real game in exchange for one of these stinkers, they are clearly trying to rob you.

1. Fantasy. This stupid little card game is probably worth five bucks, and that's only if you need coasters for your coffee table. It's like Kim Kardashian, because it looks nice, but it's pretty much worthless. Only at least in Kim Kardashian's case, she can get a couple bucks if she takes off her pants. Fantasy can only make a couple bucks if you can sell a couple cases of it for firewood.

2. Uncle Chestnut's Table Gype. If you ever decide to self-publish a game, don't print it on a napkin. And don't put grammatical errors all over that napkin. And don't include a hundred stickers that you have to slap on tiny dice. And don't put it in a crappy plastic box so that all the parts fall out when you pick it up. Come to think of it, if you have an impulse to do any of these things, just don't make a game at all.

3. Swat. This ultra-dumb Reiner Knizia game will have you and your friends doing math in your head and trying to remember every card that's been played for the last twenty minutes. When you finally decide that the numbers are what you want, you slap the cards. When you figure out that the game is stupid and painful to play, you leave the table and curse whichever friend brought this crappy game to your house.

4. The Isle of Doctor Necreaux. A cooperative game where pulp heroes assault the island headquarters of an evil genius should have been an out-of-the-park success. Instead, it doesn't work, because it was apparently tested by three gerbils and a recording of Leonard Nimoy signing about hobbits. There's a pacing mechanic whose failure is so obvious, it should have been spotted by the first person to play it, and event cards that fail worse than a drunk bus driver on a crowded street in the snow.

5. Pressure Matrix. If this is how futuristic game shows will look, then we're all going to be really, really bored. The best part of this game is the art on the cover. There's a ton of reading, mandatory slowdown as you read all the tiles you could hit on your turn, no planning, and a butt-ugly game with no decisions that have any impact on the way the game ends. This game is very, very bad.

6. Buzz It! This is not exactly a bad game. In fact, it can be rather enjoyable. The problem is, you don't actually need the game to play it. You just need tequila and some imagination. Of course, if you have enough tequila, you may not have any imagination. So maybe you do need the game. Never mind, let's leave this one off the list.

7. U-Build Battleship. It's Battleship. If I have to say more, you're reading the wrong blog.

8. Yin-Yang. This is another crappy Reiner game, which is no surprise, because 'crappy' and 'Reiner' go together like fleas and a dog's ass. This is one of those math exercises where you try to reach some sort of mathematical goal, but have virtually no control over the outcome and end up wondering why games like this ever get reprinted. Hint: It gets reprinted because it's a Reiner game, and some people will buy anything if it has Reiner Knizia's name on it.

9. Crossroads at Darklion Pass. There are small-press games that are simply unfortunate, and then there are games that are such devastating failures that everyone involved in the production should flee the country and change their names. Crossroads is one of those disaster games that screams abject failure, with art designed by blind people and rules designed by a calculator. Avoid at all costs.

10. Legitimacy. If you ever have the hankering to play a pointless roll-and-move game with cards that fall apart and extra rules that don't add anything, then you could just play Chutes and Ladders and toss in some drinking rules. Don't play Legitimacy.

So that's the list of games you should not buy. It only covers games I played this year, and I skipped a few that other people actually liked. If you want a list of favorites, try a site where the writers are in a good mood every now and then. Ask me about games at Christmas, this is what you get. Be grateful I didn't rant about Christmas carols and mall traffic.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Punishment Game Review - The Board Game Geek Game

[Usually, there would be a picture here. However, when I went to get one, the publisher's website was down for maintenance. Again.]

My group's punishment week consisted of two games that sucked. The first was Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space, which wins the award for the stupidest name in the last five reviews (I'm sure there are names dumber than that, which I could probably find if I looked in my archives, but I can't be bothered). The second was the eyesore called The Board Game Geek Game.

First off, I know why it was done, but the name bothers me. Not as much as Escape from the Aliens Who Want To Eat You on a Spaceship in Outer Space, but it doesn't exactly roll off the tongue. I suppose there were not a lot of options for the title, and it could have been worse. The Board Game Geek Board Game would be worse, for example. Or The Board Game Geek Game for Geeks. Or The Geeky Game for Board Gamers Who Escape From Board Game Geek... dot com.

But the name is the least of the problems with this game (note that, unlike the last title, which I repeated repeatedly merely to emphasize its silliness, this time I intend to abbreviate or avoid the title whenever possible). Possibly the biggest detractor for The BGG Game is how much it hurts your eyes to look at the box. The graphic designer for this game obviously wanted to cram the maximum number of games onto every square inch of the box and the board, and wound up with a hodge podge of visual imagery that resembles nothing so much as a pile of vomit that came out of your eyes.

But a redundant name and the visual cacophony of the board and box don't have to instantly indicate a horrible game. And in all fairness, the game that you play with this mess is more or less sound. It's not terribly interesting, and the theme (which, again, probably could not be helped) is about as fascinating as categorizing the spice cabinet, but it works OK, if you like the kinds of games that tend to come with wooden cubes representing produce.

Each turn, players will represent publishers selling games, and then gamers buying those games. You'll take turns placing your games in stores, and then send your shoppers out to procure games that your competitors put in stores. You'll give points to your opponents if you buy their games, but you can also earn big points if you collect the right sets, so you'll be buying games even if they score for the other guys. This is actually a pretty clever mechanic, since you can earn almost as much money selling games as scoring sets.

There's also a good amount of tactical placement, planning and strategy. When you send your shoppers out into the market, you can pay a little to rearrange them in order to procure just the games you want. If you work hard at getting the cheaper games, you'll out-score your opponents when you finish sets, but you can also score big by making your high-dollar games more attractive to the consumers. If this sounds like the kind of business planning you might find in a conference room meeting with stale coffee and dry donuts, that's because it is. It's good practice for the mental adding machine, but it's not much more interesting than giving a presentation on retail returns over the Labor Day weekend.

I can't fault the actual game play in The BGG Game, because it works. What I can fault, however, is how boring it is to play. These mechanics could have been dusted off half a dozen other games and cobbled together with wood glue and rubber bands. There's nothing new here, nothing innovative, and nothing particularly interesting. You'll play six rounds of selling and buying, then check to see who has the best collections. This is followed by a few minutes of calculator-inducing math, and then promptly sweeping everything into the box to make it go away.

When the creators of the world's most popular board game site decided to make a game, they probably hoped it would be a huge hit. Hell, nobody creates a game and says, 'Man, I hope in a few years to have enough copies of this game in my garage that I'll give it away as door prizes!' But that's exactly what happened, because it turns out mixing a sub-average game with graphics that will make you bleed from the eye sockets is the recipe for a game that people don't want very badly. When you add in a theme that combines the worst parts of droning business meetings and online grocery shopping, you wind up with a U-Stor-It closet full to the roof with unwanted cardboard.

It's kind of a shame that with all the resources available, the result was such a mediocre game. Some of the world's most prolific and brilliant game designers regularly visit Board Game Geek, and it would seem like if anyone had access to the best and brightest, it would be the BGG guys. I have to wonder if the artist they hired was a volunteer, because he never would have made it in any studio where I ever worked. I pretty much have to excuse the name and the theme, regardless of how little I might like them, but the repetitive play and horrible art are fair game.

I'll tell you one thing, though. Having played a game based on a website, and having seen that it's possible (even if it's not a good idea), I'm considering making the Drake's Flames Board Game. In this game, you'll take the role of a foul-mouthed poser with a crappy day job who makes jokes about hookers with cerebral palsy and then pretends to be much cooler than he really is. You'll pretend to be a total industry insider who knows a lot about games, when you're really just a nerd who can tell a dick joke.

I'll probably sell about seven copies, and wind up sticking the other 993 in my attic.


3-6 players

The game play works, even if it is boring

Rehashed game mechanics
Art like a fork in the retina

If you want a copy of The Board Game Geek Board Game for Geeks, just show up at a convention. They'll give you one.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Pieces of Paper Game - Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space

This week was punishment week for my group of gamers. I always feel a little bad for my friends when I bring bad games. They're good sports - they'll play anything once, even if it's horrible - but nobody likes having to play really crappy games.

Which brings me to the subject of this review: Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space. Yes, that is the full name of the game. No, it is not ironic. Yes, it is very stupid. No, it is not based on an Ed Wood movie.

Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space (I'm going to write out the whole name every time, to emphasize how ridiculous a name it is) is a game where half the players are aliens, and the other half are humans, and they're in Outer Space, and the humans have to escape. So at least the title has some truth in advertising.

The entire game is played out on pieces of paper. Each player will have a hex grid with tiny hexes, and they'll write where they're going at the top of the page. If they step on a gray hex, they draw a card. The cards will either make you tell everyone where you are, or tell everyone somewhere you're not, or not tell anyone anything. Since the cards are discarded without letting anyone see them, you can bluff everybody. But since there's no way for anyone to ever check what you're doing, you can pretty much just lie. You would suck if you did, but honestly, the person who made you play this game has it coming, anyway. You'll never know if your friends are cheating, because it's not like you're going to play Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space more than once.

You'll also never know if your friends are cheating because it's nearly impossible to keep track of where everyone else is going. Aliens move faster than humans, so that just makes them even tougher to track. The whole object of the game is to figure out where your opponents are headed and, if you're the bad guys, jump on them and eat them like sugary baked goods. If you're not the bad guys, you just want the bad guys to not eat you, which you manage by escaping through an escape hatch. This is where the 'Escape' part of the title originates, in case that was not already abundantly obvious. The imagination of the designers was not exactly stretched to its limit with this bit of wordsmithing brilliance.

As you play Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space, you may begin to wonder if it would be better with a different number of players. Like, if you play with just two and realize that it's a stupid game, you may wonder if it would be more fun with four. Or if you play with four, you may wonder if it would work with two. The fact is, it doesn't matter how many people are playing, because it doesn't work no matter how many people are subjecting themselves to the misery. You'll chart your progress, try to remember where your friends last said they were located, and attempt to puzzle out what made anyone ever think this was worth publishing. And you will figure out that the only thing that changes with more players is how many people are going to be pissed off that they played.

There are a few additional twists, but they essentially come down to items that the humans can use if they find them and escape hatches that may or may not be locked. These tweaks add almost nothing to the game, beyond being a couple more decks of cards with icons and no words. In fact, it's almost as if the designers didn't want anyone to know what the pictures were supposed to mean. If they had actually written descriptions on the cards, it would have been a lot easier to play, but I suppose then they would have needed a translator. The designers probably thought they would need access to the enormous international market, because of the colossal hit they knew they had created. They were so, so wrong - this game is ten pounds of ass in a five pound bag - but they didn't know that. They probably thought they were six months away from retiring in Bora Bora with their new private jets and hot trophy wives.

I do have to give credit to the art in Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space. It's a very minimalist style - mostly colorful half-images on a black backdrop - and it looks damned classy. Sure, a lot of the art is so bare bones that it's impossible to tell what it's supposed to be, but it looks great. If Andy Warhol created a board game, it would look like this. It would probably be about as much fun, too. The design makes the game more difficult to play, but it does a bang-up job of looking pretty, and at least you don't have to try to figure out why there are like fifty soup cans.

One last point remains to be made regarding Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space. If you like to get value for your gaming dollar, you should definitely not buy this game. You get a small deck of cards, a bunch of diagrams to plot your movement, and a handful of golf pencils. If you buy the limited edition, you also get a card with a picture and a signature, plus a few more of those diagrams. There's almost nothing in the box. If you paid twenty bucks for Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space, you might be a little miffed. But the regular version is more than thirty dollars, and the limited edition goes for fifty. If I fill a box with rubber chickens and fake vomit, it would be worth more than this game, and a lot more fun (assuming you have any sense of humor whatsoever).

The real travesty here is not that I made my group play Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space. The real travesty is that it wasn't the only crappy game we played this weekend - but for that, you'll have to wait until next time.


2-8 players who have absolutely nothing better to do

Very tasteful design

Gaming value rip-off
You can't play without ruining the components
Cards just show symbols, and lots of them
Plodding and random
Planning, strategy and tactics are completely worthless
Irritating and pointless
Everything else not directly associated with the very tasteful design

I'm not giving you a link to a place you could buy Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space, because I care too much about you. It's the Christmas season. This is my gift to you.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Card Game Review - Sobek

Ancient Egyptians were some downright rotten people. They would steal and kill and rob and even park in handicapped spots. When something needed building, and there were big government contracts on the line, those Egyptian bastards would sell their souls - not to mention their grandmothers - to land the fat paycheck.

I know this is true because I play games, and they're highly educational. In Sobek, all the players are competing to get rich off the impending construction of the temple to the great crocodile god (his name is Sobek. He might be a jackal or bird or something, and not an alligator at all. I'm not an historian, so I don't know, and I'm not Egyptian, so I don't care).

Egyptian people got rich by having sets of things. Like if they had three baskets of wheat, that might make them rich. Or if they had four bundles of Playpharoah Magazines - you could totally get rich off that. And the reason this made them rich was because you could only sell things if they came in a bundle. So if you saw one cow, you knew that owner was screwed - he could never get rid of it. The only way to sell it was if he could get a couple more.

Sobek does a fantastic job of representing the economy of Ancient Egypt. In this game, you score points (which represent money) by playing sets of matching cards. This is a shockingly accurate depiction of exactly how Egyptian dudes got ahead - they sold stuff, but only in bundles. Every turn, you have the option to wander through the marketplace and add a card to your hand. Hopefully that card will help you make a set, because, you know, you can only score with sets. Nobody ever sells just one pile of rocks, after all. You can only sell them if you have three piles of rocks.

In Egyptian marketplaces, goods were placed all over, and all you had to do to get one was walk up and take it. The trick was, if you didn't want the thing right in front of you, you had to stab somebody, or steal an old lady's walker, or leave the bathroom without washing your hands. In the game, this is represented by being forced to take cards as corruption points. It's pretty realistic.

Instead of taking a card (maybe you don't want those ebony logs, because maybe you're not actually making a piano), you can play a set. This is like selling it, because you can score points later. Obviously, Egyptians were masters of the credit market, because they would sell stuff to you now and then make you pay out the ass later. That's sort of how Citibank does it now, only back then, the Egyptians had a little more integrity. If you didn't pay, they would stab you and throw you in the Nile, but at least they never used auto-dialers and obnoxious assholes with minimum wage jobs and unresolved power fantasies.

Some of the cards you can get have people on them, and those people can help you out, just like they did back in the Olden Days of Egypt. Instead of taking a card or playing a set, you can play a helper. This is like when the Egyptians would make a couple phone calls, and the priest would come out and absolve them of their sins by taking their stuff. It works pretty much the same way in the game - you play the card, and then the person comes and helps you out, maybe by giving you more stuff, or taking away your corruption stuff, or by letting you use your corrupt stuff to make sets (which, as we know by now, is the only way you can sell them).

That corruption does add up. Just like in Ancient Egypt, you didn't have to be the least corrupt. You just had to avoid being the MOST corrupt. If you're the merchant with the greatest number of dead people hidden in a basement in Queens (as represented by your corruption cards), you get to be the scape goat. You lose a whole bunch of points, and everyone else whistles awkwardly as they slide quietly past. You go to jail. They send fruit baskets.

When the dust settles and the temple is built, everyone checks to see how many points they got. That tells you how rich you are. Just like today, Egyptians won if they had the most money, so the person with the most points is the winner. Along the way, that person has probably stolen goods other people wanted, stuck other players with corruption points, and made them dump all their goods into a garbage can infested with head lice. There is a very high probability that someone at the table will have, at some point in the game, told someone else that they hate them and hope they lose a limb in an industrial accident. It's good, clean fun, Egyptian style.

Egyptians also cared a lot about how their stuff looked. They spent a lot of time carving sculptures and painting pictures (though that may have been because they didn't actually have an alphabet, and were forced to write everything on the wall because it was the only place with enough room to finish a sentence). Once again, Sobek brings home the past, by giving us great art, very nice cards, and an insert tray that ties for the coolest ever made. You'll have plenty of eye candy to enjoy while you steal from the poor, kick puppies and drive 35 in a school zone.

OK, I confess. This isn't historically accurate. It's just a set collection game with a penalty for impatience. But it's simple and fun, and has plenty of chances to make your friends hate you. Most games like this are short on interaction, but Sobek is almost one continuous opportunity to screw your opponents. If you watch the cards, time your plays and make your move when it counts, you'll probably clean up. If you're impatient, vindictive or sloppy, you'll get your ass kicked. And if you hate card games with weak themes, you'll just be looking for something else to play. Not me, though - I think Sobek is a hoot, even if I think some old Egyptian guy should have been able to sell just one cow at a time.


2-4 players

Great cartoony art on high-quality cards
Fast-paced and entertaining
Plan a little, scam a little, and hose your friends a bunch

A little watery on the theme

In case you haven't been keeping up with the site (and with all the lewd humor, who can blame you), Noble Knight Games sponsors Drake's Flames by sending me games so I can tell you about them. I don't ask for handouts - I'm not a huge website with hundreds of thousands of members and expensive ads all over the place. If you want to support this site, you can shop at Noble Knight Games, who will see the value in continuing to provide me with games, so that I can keep giving you reviews. It's a giant win-win-win, which is something corporate people say so that they can steal your wallet.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Card Game Review - Shashawa

Sometimes, to make me feel a little less guilty for doing something I love and getting free games for it, I try to tell myself that I am providing a service. I promote games for companies, hopefully pushing sales, and I tell buyers which games they might like. I'm like a GI Joe public service announcement.

But sometimes I just plain feel bad. When I review a game like Shashawa, I think readers will find themselves wondering why on Earth I felt the game needed a review at all. It's cheaper than used dirt, so it's not as though you're going to be thinking long and hard before pulling the trigger on a game that barely costs ten bucks. When you're adding games to your basket to push the order into free shipping, it's not likely that you're being particularly discriminating, anyway.

And the actual game in Shashawa is unimpressive, too. You pass cards to make matches, and when someone makes a match, they call out and everyone grabs a water token. Except that there are fewer water tokens than players, so someone gets a bad case of dry mouth. Three misses means you're out. And now you know how to play. You could seriously play this game with a regular deck of cards and just about any kind of tokens. I suggest you use spoons. I hear those are popular.

There's no strategy or planning in Shashawa. You pass cards, and try to grab a round piece of cardboard. You can handle this. Small children can handle this. Very old people with Alzheimer’s can handle this, though they may wonder what they're doing when they get halfway through the game. Come to think of it, completely competent adults may wonder what they're doing. In fact, the more competent you are, the more likely you may be to wonder why you're still playing.

Now, it's not entirely fair to just bash the hell out of Shashawa. It's not like it's boring. It can be fun. You get that palpable air of tension that comes when you play a game requiring you to have split-second reflexes, and there will probably be a lot of laughing. A game that inspires a whole lot of laughing can't be all bad, even if you could get the exact same result watching old Adam Sandler movies.

Come to think of it, you might as well go ahead and buy Shashawa. If you play it twice, you'll more than get your money out of it. You'll laugh, you'll have fun, and you can play with the in-laws when they visit for Christmas. It's not my first choice for games, but if I'm having company and they want to play a game, I can break it out without having to reveal how long I spend painting miniatures for Warhammer Quest, or trying to explain the rules for Conquest of the Empire.

I guess I don't have to feel too guilty for writing a review of Shashawa. For one thing, the publisher really wanted me to write about it, so at least I'm fulfilling that obligation. And if you're looking for a wide-access family game for the holidays, you could do a lot worse. You won't be adding it to your wishlist, and you'll probably end up throwing it into a trade deal down the line to add another five bucks in trade value, but at least you'll have it handy when you need it. Considering how close we are to the time of year when we have to choose between whiskey and firearms to make it through a visit from your mother-in-law, you might need it sooner than you think.


4-8 players

Super easy rules
Light and fun
The kind of tension you get when you have to react fast
Perfect for family get-togethers

More shallow than the puddle you get when you spill a beer on a concrete floor
You could easily replace it with a deck of playing cards and a raid on the silverware drawer

Noble Knight Games is carrying Shashawa, which means you'll know just what to add to your order to get it to nice round number:

Monday, December 6, 2010

RPG Review - Fiasco

Roleplaying games have several things in common.

1. A referee. This is the guy who comes up with the story, creates the monsters, plays the shopkeepers, and pretends to be the king. His job sort of sucks, but he gets to know all the secrets.

2. Some rules for determining what happens when somebody gets punched in the face, or stabbed in the kidney, or stomped in the nuts. Generally, these rules involve rolling lots of dice.

3. Getting better. Your characters will get stronger, and faster, and smarter, and learn handy skills like blacksmithing and trap-making and parallel parking.

Fiasco does not have any of those things, and yet it is most certainly a roleplaying game. You'll take on a role, and you'll play it. So that's a roleplaying game. It just doesn't have a wild setting, a dungeon master, stat blocks or character advancement. You start and finish in a single session, with no setup time and no need to learn a bunch of rules. If you're not intrigued yet, then you probably found this site accidentally, when doing a search for reptilian venereal diseases.

In Fiasco, a handful of players take on the kinds of characters you might find in a Coen Brothers movie like Fargo or A Simple Plan. If you've never seen Fargo, then 1) shame on you, it's awesome, and you should see it right now, and 2) it's one of the greatest examples of how bad decisions can lead to disastrous outcomes, with characters ending up either in prison or in a wood chipper.

All you need to play Fiasco is a whole bunch of regular dice, half of them black, half of them white. In a pinch, you can use blue and red, or yellow and green, or chartreuse and beige (but those last ones would probably be kind of ugly dice). When you want to have something good happen to your character, you want white dice, and when you're hoping your character gets completely screwed, you want black dice.

Which brings me to my next point - you may very well wind up rooting for your character to be arrested, imprisoned, maimed or killed. You might be laughing hysterically as your drug-dealing extortionist is buried under eight feet of snow and shoved into a massive drift by a snowplow. Because more than any other game I have ever played in the history of playing games, Fiasco is all about the story.

Here's a short synopsis of one game we played, to give you an idea of how completely screwed up this can be. Mike was selling drugs to his boss, Derek, who also owed him a bunch of money for gambling debts. Billy Joe was also trying to supply Derek, and Derek was embezzling money from federal grants to cover his bad habits. Lisa wasn't involved in any nefarious misdeeds, but just wanted Mike to actually show up to work and do his job. By the end, Derek was in prison, Billy Joe was homeless in South America, Lisa was still an underpaid company drone, and Mike was dead. As it turns out, he was buried in a snowdrift. By a snowplow. That Lisa was driving.

The game is broken down into acts, with each player having two scenes in the first act and two in the second. You use this huge pile of dice in the middle of the table to determine whether your scenes go well for you, or if they go bad. Maybe if Lisa had been able to get Derek to reprimand Mike in the beginning, a lot of misery could have been avoided, but we gave her a black die for that scene. Derek blew her off, and it went downhill fast. Mike ended up killing a completely unrelated company contractor when Derek fed him a red herring, and Billy Joe put decidedly questionable porn on Mike's computer so that Derek could blackmail him. Billy Joe put a dead seal in Mike's bed to scare him off, but all it did was get Mike angry. Then things got worse.

With no character generation outside establishing some relationships at the outset, and no rules for resolving violence outside handing over a single die, the rules in Fiasco practically fade completely into the background. They provide a framework and guide to make sure you create the most god-awful Charlie Foxtrot that results in the maximum potential mayhem. Hilarious hijinks will ensue. People are very likely to die - or worse.

If you're playing roleplaying games for the chance to explore bizarre, fictional worlds and work out your deep-seated power fantasies, Fiasco is not for you. But if you want to see a story grow right before your eyes, and you want to take part in that story and watch it twist and gyrate like a belly-dancer's hips, then you should waste no time in getting a copy of this incredible game. I've been playing these silly games for thirty years, and Fiasco is the most fun I've ever had with a roleplaying game. It is simply amazing and pure genius. The rules are short, intuitive and easy to read, and after you try it one time, you'll be talking about the game for weeks to come.

One quick word of warning - Fiasco is most certainly NOT a game for children. Our game started with extortion, gambling, embezzling and drug addiction, and before we were done, we added murder, illegal porn and some downright unfriendly acts towards animals. The book has a very readable, conversational tone, sprinkled liberally with the kind of profanity that George Carlin says you can't use on TV. It's raw and exciting and hilarious. I could not possibly recommend this game more highly. If you only play one game this year, then you should definitely get out more.


3-5 players (preferably grown-ups)

No referee
No stat blocks
No accounting
Pure, unadulterated awesome that you can finish inside three hours and be discussing for years

Could spoil you - you may never want to play any other RPG

If you're not too weak in the knees, you owe it to yourself and your loved ones to pick up a copy of Fiasco. Bully Pulpit Games has the game, plus they support the crap out of it with new scenarios all over the place:

Friday, December 3, 2010

Card Game Expansion Review - Rise of the Creator

Expansions are kind of a way of life in the world of games in general. They make the fans all excited, because they add more value to the games you already enjoy. And the publishers make more money, because in addition to having a new product to sell, they also tend to inject new life into old games and drive sales of the originals. To sell more Arkham Horror, Fantasy Flight offers Dunwich Horror. To sell more Summoner Wars, Plaid Hat releases The Vanguard. And to sell more Gamma World, Wizards gives us... well, never mind, it's not a perfect model.

Small publishers know the power of expansions, too, so to get more attention for Chaos Isle (a very fun game by a very small company), RealmsMasters recently released Rise of the Creator. To read a review of the original game, you can check here. I also reviewed the expansions, which add a bunch of value to an already cool game. And to read about Rise of the Creator, well, just keep reading.

Chaos Isle is a chaotic dice-fest where you take turns revealing zombi cards and then killing them with your awesome dice-rolling skills. It's fast and bloody and fun, but there really isn't enough interaction, in my decidedly non-humble opinion. Players don't get to hose each other unless they're already dead, and in a game this nasty, I totally want to do that. That was my biggest complaint with the original game, along with the amateur-hour art.

It seems the guys at RealmsMasters follow Drake's Flames, because everything I wanted out of Chaos Isle has been added to Rise of the Creator. This 30-card expansion includes three new kinds of cards, including feats, viruses, and mutations. Plus you get a couple new monstrously evil zombis to murderize and collect their unholy corpses. So it's basically a game you can play with the third-graders in Sunday School.

My favorite cards in Rise of the Creator are the feats, which let players totally screw the other players. I would not consider playing the game without these new cards. Feats let your heroes power up zombis on your opponent's turns, make him fight more monsters, steal his cards, or just save your bacon when you're about to die. They're fantastic, but they can be hard to get, and they're not free to use, either. You have to discard the trophies you've collected, take wounds or dump your gear when you want to play them, so while they are very powerful, feats are balanced wonderfully by the expense involved in using them.

To get more feats, you have to fight mutated zombis, which only occur when they're drawn along with one of the new mutation cards. If you're fast enough, you might be able to just run away, and considering how much more deadly zombis can be with a mutation card, that might be wise. But since killing them all is the only way to get more feats, you'll find yourself diving headlong into really bad decisions against very poor odds. And that's great, because this really is a game about doing incredibly stupid things against unimaginably horrible monsters.

And just because too many people were actually able to win this game before being massacred, eaten by mutated ringworms and turning into the walking dead, we have the new virus cards. If you're playing with the feats, which could definitely make the game easier if you use them right, you also get to see how the zombi virus has mutated. Maybe there are just more bad guys to fight every turn, or maybe they run faster, or maybe they just bite really, hard. On the other hand, maybe the infection has spread to the heroes, and they get more gear, or get to attack each other. And maybe the infection has become a full-scale epidemic, in which case you have to deal with two of these nasty cards at the same time.

You only get two new zombis in Rise of the Creator, but what the new guys lack in quantity, they make up in quality. These suckers are going to be crazy hard to kill, with an exceptionally high chance of making you dead. The head bad guy's pet is called Noxx, and he looks like a cross between a dragonfly and a very sick angler fish (look 'em up, they're creepy as sin). And Rex Jarvis, the undead auto mechanic, is one mean motor scooter, especially because he can whip out a shotgun or a fireman's axe and go to town on your pathetic human.

The guys at RealmsMasters also stepped it up in the art department when they put together Rise of the Creator. The design issues I had with the original game have been completely addressed, by varying the backs of the cards and printing the card types bigger (not to mention making the cards easier to read). And where some of the art in Chaos Isle looks like it was done by a small child with a box of colored cheese doodles, everything in Rise of the Creator is pure bad-ass. The art looks seriously demented but completely professional (assuming that your professional artists are acid-tripping psychopaths with very bad dreams).

Every single thing in Rise of the Creator makes Chaos Isle a better game. The feats are fantastic fun, the mutations make you work for the feats, and the viruses add a twist that means you have even more fun ways to play this crazy game. If you haven't checked out Chaos Isle yet, now's the time. RealmsMasters is running a great special where you can save a bunch and get everything in one package, and if you already have everything else, Rise of the Creator is only twelve bucks, anyway. Break out the dice and prepare to re-kill the undead - it's time to go back to Chaos Isle.


2 to 6 players (You can play the original solo, but the whole point of this expansion is to screw your opponents. Not a good idea in a solo game.)

Great art
Massive improvements in the graphic design
Finally hose your buddies!
Makes a damned fun game even more damned fun

Nothing comes to mind

Imagine my delight when I discovered that Noble Knight Games is carrying the entire Chaos Isle line! Or don't imagine it. If there are children present, it could be disturbing.

And if you want to get everything at one time, you can check out the Whole Damn Thing here (just real quick - the word is 'damned'. 'Damn' is a verb. After you damn something, it becomes damned, unless you're not very good at damning. I know, nobody likes a grammar nerd.)

Thursday, December 2, 2010

RPG Review - The Burning Wheel

If you grew up on Dungeons & Dragons, a few factors became standard operating procedure. One, you were going to fight, get hurt a lot, and then win (unless your DM was a dick). Two, you would carry barrels of treasure back to your local inn, where you would then spend at least 45 minutes on lengthy accounting procedures and profit sharing. Three, if the princess was locked in the tower and you had to kill the lich, you could send just about anyone to get her out again. Essentially, D&D is a board game where you can do whatever you want, as long as you can figure out how to roll for it.

And if you grew up on Dungeons & Dragons, The Burning Wheel will blow your mind, because the only similarities between the two games are elves and swordplay. Everything you ever knew about dungeon crawls is out. There have been several attempts in role playing games to make players actually play some roles, but The Burning Wheel doesn't try to add character interaction to a board game. It's not about the dungeons, the monsters, or the treasure. This is a game about the people you're pretending to be.

The Burning Wheel has been around long enough that serious RPG nerds will probably have heard something about it. You may have read phrases like 'character-driven story lines' or 'story-driven game' or 'something you could clear up with some medicated cream.' But those don't really tell you anything useful, beyond being a jumble of irritating words that sound like either corporate boardroom catchprases or medical diagnoses.

To understand just how important the characters are to their own story, all you have to do is look at how you go about creating your fictional alter ego. Rather than rolling some dice and assigning some attribute points, you actually have to start with birth and chart the life of your character through a series of lifepaths. These paths can twist and turn to create a fascinating life, and as you choose your paths, your character develops almost spontaneously. You can have an end goal in mind - in fact, you really should - but you'll be adding tons of meat to your warrior knight as you take him from his spoiled noble roots, through his service in the war against the orcs, and up to his current life as a knight errant in the service of the king. You'll invent family members, associations, and maybe a hooker or two (those are optional, but I recommend them). You'll feel like you've been playing before you ever roll any dice.

Speaking of rolling dice, this is not the 'I hit him, does he hit me?' back-and-forth of most RPGs. You could face down an opponent, roll your dice one time, and within two real-time minutes, one of you is dead and one of you is cleaning the blood off his blade. You're not maneuvering around, checking initiative and making five-foot steps. You're diving in, yelling a hoarse battle cry, and swinging for the fences until the bad guy's severed jugular sprays blood all over your clean shirt. There's a more in-depth battle system for when the battle really gets messy, but The Burning Wheel is not a game about fighting. It may be a game about people who fight, but it's the people who are important, not the fight.

The most obvious indicator of how personalized these stories really are can be found in the beliefs, instincts and traits. Every character has something important to him, whether it's looking out for number one or always stopping to help old ladies cross the street. These beliefs are integral, and when the player invents these beliefs, he's telling the GM that he wants them to come into play. If your grizzled veterans believes firmly in the bond of brothers in arms, sooner or later, one of his soldier buddies is going to wind up in some hot water. If your sticky-fingered beggar has an instinct for swiping loose change, you're as much as telling the GM that you want plenty of chances to steal (and probably get caught).

The best showcase for all these character components is when they make problems. When one character believes that might makes right, and another believes in the rule of law, they're going to clash, and then something interesting will happen. The GM has to be light on his feet, because the story rotates around the characters, and all it takes is one horny sailor with a taste for older women to completely derail everything you had planned (especially if you hadn't planned on centering the story around the waterfront bordello).

What this all means is that, unlike most mainstream, commercial RPGs, The Burning Wheel does an exceptional job of putting the role playing back into role playing. You're telling a story, not killing monsters. You're growing and changing and mutating, not leveling up and rolling for more hit points. You can still have plenty of action - but players will want to be a little more careful, because the toughest brawler can be dropped by a single sucking chest wound. You know, like in real life.

I can hear the erudite uber-gamers in the back, which is crazy because you're not actually there, which means that you're just voices in my head. And those voices are saying, 'other games have done this!' And you know what? I've played those games. They tend to be self-indulgent, arrogant crap designed by douche-nozzle fruitcakes who think their bowel movements smell like Old Spice body wash. And to really embarrass those elitist assholes, The Burning Wheel does it better. Admittedly, some of the writing in The Burning Wheel smacks of 'look how cool I am', which is ironic and slightly hilarious in a role playing game, but it's not bragging if you can do it, and The Burning Wheel delivers some of the best cooperative storytelling and role playing you're likely to find.

I have a few complaints, but they're fairly minor. For one thing, the rules are really long, and you have to digest several hundred pages before you can even stab anybody. It's worth the prep time, but you'll have to read some confusing rules, and for lots of them, you'll have to read twice, because some of the ideas are very unlike all the other games you've played. And in all that reading, you'll have to occasionally listen to the author get a little preachy about the right way and the wrong way to play his game, which gets only slightly older than a well-aged sharp cheddar. Hell, I could probably write a couple paragraphs about the various problems I have with Burning Wheel, but they would be completely overshadowed by the fantastically fun time I had playing it.

The Burning Wheel is a grownup RPG. If you just want to play out some nerd-rage power fantasy with a sword as long as a Buick and underground caverns full of stock monsters, you're going to hate Burning Wheel. But if you showed up to play a smart game that twists and develops and grows on its own, with stories that only your characters could tell, The Burning Wheel should be the next game you buy.


Create interactive stories that revolve around the characters, not the dungeons
Emphasizes the story, instead of being a tactical reenactment with a flexible ruleset
A system that creates interesting conflict
Stories about the characters, not their battles or magic armor or bestiary of slain foes
Some of the most fun I've ever had role playing

Some confusing rules that, from time to time, get a little counter-intuitive
More than 600 pages of rules spread over two books is a bit intimidating
The author's 'voice' is a little on the irritating side
Inconsistent art looks like it was culled from a clip art collection

Noble Knight Games provided me with this review copy after some of you requested it. So you wouldn't be reading about this awesome RPG if it weren't for them, which means that if you want to buy this game, you should get it from Noble Knight: