Monday, April 30, 2012

Card Game Review - Souvlaki Wars

The other day, my wife called me and told me I just got a package from Athens. I thought she meant the Athens that's in Texas, because I live in Texas and couldn't really figure out why I would be getting mail from Greece.

I was wrong. It was from Greece, and it contained a card game about running a fast-food restaurant. Apparently, in a nation where people are lighting themselves on fire because it's cheaper than paying for a cremation, there's still someone with enough money to publish games designed to taunt their hungry countrymen.

In Souvlaki Wars, each player will own a restaurant that serves gyros, souvlaki (this is Greek for 'meat on a stick'), french fries and soft drinks. Even the high-end French eatery only serves Greek fast food, but you get it brought to your table by a snooty asshole with a nasal accent. The other place, you have to brush the cockroaches off your shaved meat sandwich before you eat, but at least nobody tries to feel you up while they put a napkin in your lap.

The game is a lot like those Flash games you can play where people come into your cake store and ask for chocolate cake with white frosting, then you get that guy his food and the next guy wants white cake with chocolate frosting, and then the next guy wants a cupcake shaped like a boob. You get some food cards every turn, and then you get customers, and you try to feed your customers before they get pissed off, cover themselves in kerosene, and start lighting matches.

This doesn't sound like a lot, honestly, but it turns out, Souvlaki Wars is a pretty fun game. You will have to get past the fact that the English is an afterthought and most of the cards are in Greek, but once you do, you'll find out that along with being financially destitute, Greek people actually have some idea how to make cool games. If they would apply this same brilliance to balancing the national budget, maybe they would have fewer human torches and more games about Thermopylae. It's cool that I can sell gyros to fat people, but it would be even cooler if I could yell, 'This… Is… Fattening!'

(As I write this, I am suddenly aware that I am insulting an entire nation while forcing them into an ancient stereotype. At some point, I will need to switch over to jokes about bushy moustaches, hearty soup and fisherman's caps.)

There is a pretty healthy amount of strategy in this game, and no small amount of luck. The designers of Souvlaki Wars were great self-editors - they added exactly as much as the game needs, without dumping a bunch of extra stuff in there. There are event cards that can get you an edge when you need it, or take one guy down a peg when he's running away with the game. You can pick some of your customers, and avoid the ones who have gyros when you're holding a hand full of meat sticks and Diet Sprite. And then there's a luck-of-the-draw element that gets you phone orders, and these are random, and lots of times, you won't have the right food because you blew your load last turn and now all you have is a 50-gallon drum full of french fries.

We enjoyed Souvlaki Wars. It moves fast enough without feeling rushed, but still provides enough tricky decisions and smart plays to engage the mind. It's definitely a lighter game, not one you're going to plan an evening around, but there's enough meat on this kabob to satisfy a light appetite. The art is fun, the game is easy to learn, and it's not often that I get to enjoy a game about serving food (unless it involves lingerie models and whipped topping, and then my wife will totally murder me).


2-4 players

Light yet engaging
Fun, quirky art
Nice mix of planning and smart plays
Good balance of luck and skill
Decent interaction (with chances to be really mean)

Games about restaurants are low on my list of 'damn, that's a cool idea!' games
Not all that beefy, even though it's about beef

You know who doesn't carry small-press restaurant games from Greece? Yep, Noble Knight Games. They do not have this one. I actually can't figure out where you would buy this game. Probably you can find it in Greece.

ANNOUNCEMENT: The winner of the Minion Games contest was David Kartzinel, who will get a copy of Those Pesky Humans. Fun game. Good call, David.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

TCG Review - Redakai

In the comments of my last post, a reader asked if I would review Radekai, and mentioned that it was available on close-out at Target. Since I love to give people what they want (as long as it involves me talking about games), I went out this morning and bought about 20 bucks worth of this game. I played it, and it was very bad, and so I decided to take my revenge the only way I know how - by saying something bad about it on the Internet.

I was pretty stoked when I first saw Redakai. It looks freaking awesome. All the cards are printed on clear plastic, and the biggest part of the game involves stacking them on top of each other to alter the way the total stack appears. There are cool plastic accessories, and neat plastic deckboxes, and even chip clips you can use as power counters. The graphics are very cool, if you like the art in Digimon, and the stuff I got comes in sculpted metal tins. If I was only scoring a game on eye candy, Redekai would have already received an uncompromisingly glowing review.

But this is one book that does not deliver on its cover. The game play requires very little actual thought, and the designers failed in nearly every way that matters. There's a training game that requires as much consideration as boiling a pot of water - except that you could actually screw up boiling water. The advanced game is only slightly better, but at least it's a game.

The idea is that you've got these three kids who are all really good at turning into monsters and then throwing horrifying violence at each other, and the other player has a similar team of malcontents. This is how you know it's a game for the kids, because adults are generally a little less impressed with violence to minors. If you can hit one of your opponent's child soldiers three times, the little punk is out of the game, and you only have to take down two more. There's some light decision-making, but overall, this is a game for kids who are even younger than the pre-teen characters who are beating on each other with lightning bolts and mucus attacks. Redekai is probably also a cartoon, but I don't know, because I don't have cable any more.

There are really only two kinds of cards. You can turn into a monster by placing a see-through card on top of your character, or you can attack an opponent by placing a see-through card on top of his character. That's it. If that sounds like a game with a lot of depth and opportunity for smart decision-making, then either you're an idiot or I'm not describing this very well. That, or you're still in grade school.

Every character has defense ratings, and every attack has attack ratings, and if you want to play an attack, it has to beat the other guy's defense. And in a full game played with full decks, we never once ran into an attack card we couldn't play. The theory is sound, but the execution is horribly flawed.

Additionally, turning into a monster is rarely useful. Because the attack ratings are so high, modifying your defenses is usually rather pointless. This leaves you with two reasons to mutate - gain a special power, or heal some wounds. But not enough of the monsters have useful abilities, and not enough of them provide any healing. Unless you buy bucketloads of cards (and we bought a lot of them - they were cheap), you're not going to have enough monsters that you'll usually want to bother.

I wasn't just underwhelmed by Redakai, though. I was very disappointed. The concepts are beyond sound. They're wicked awesome. A card game that keeps track of your stats, with special abilities and power scores and health and everything all right there, changing on the fly thanks to see-through cards - this is really clever. You can see moments of brilliance here and there - attacks that do no damage but render opponents defenseless, monsters that gain special abilities when played on top of the right character, and a sort of weak reaction effect that pops up now and then with some very cool potential for mayhem. The problem is that they had a great idea, and they managed to make it suck.

If more thought had been put into the actual execution of this game, I would have been back at Target tonight, cleaning them out. This game is full of unfulfilled promises. I want to build a ridiculously clever deck and use it to destroy all the children who oppose me. I want to mix up some combos and deliver frighteningly effective child abuse. I want to surprise my opponent with brilliant maneuvers and ironclad defenses. Instead, I'm just going to take turns going back and forth, stacking cards on the other person until one of us manages to finish off the other.

Redakai is long on style and short on substance. Your kids will probably love it, assuming they haven't finished sixth grade, and you'll be dazzled by the holograms and sculpted boxes and plastic accessories. But after you play it a couple times, and never really see the cleverness come together, you're going to wish you had not bought it at clearance, so that you could take it back to the store.

I know I do.


2+ players (if you have enough cards)

Intriguing idea
Outstanding production value
Quite simple to learn
Like playing with toys

Very little useful decision-making
Card design mistakes render the game a little on the dull side

If you want to buy a bunch of Redakai, real cheap, go to Target. I'm not going to deliberately give you a link to waste your money, though.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Announcement - Shopping Spree

When I started writing reviews more than ten years ago, I did it for one completely selfish reason - free games. Trade an hour of playing and an hour of writing for a 60-dollar board game, and you're coming out ahead (this equation breaks down when you review a 20-dollar game, by the way). Over the years, I built up an enormous library of games, and the games I couldn't get as review copies, I worked trades or (far more often) just lived without.

I still really do like getting free games. That hasn't changed, and I doubt it ever will. There's something really fun about having a box show up at the front door and opening it up to see a bunch of games I didn't pay for, but still get to keep. Even if they're crappy games, it's still pretty cool.

However, as time has passed, things have changed. For one thing, I find that I actually like writing Drake's Flames more than I care about getting stuff for free. At this point, I actually look forward to writing about games even more than I look forward to having free games show up at my house.

Unfortunately, in order to write about three games a week, I have to actually play three games a week, and that's not always easy to pull off. Sometimes, there won't be many new games hitting the market, and when that happens, there's not a lot to talk about. And that's not the biggest issue I have, either.

The biggest reason I have trouble landing enough games to write three reviews a week has nothing to do with the market, and everything to do with my penchant for writing unapologetically blunt reviews. And they're not just blunt, either - I could just say, 'this is not much fun,' but when I say that a game is as pleasant as prison sex, I tend to alienate publishers.

I mean, let's face it - publishers are just people, and in many cases, they're just people who are really invested in what they produce. They don't want to see their labor of love compared unfavorably to a bucket of warm snot. And they get scared easy; knowing that there's always a chance that I could tear a hole right through their game and cost them sales is often enough to make publishers shy away without ever considering sending me a game.

So my conundrum, in short, is that I want to write about games, but can't if I don't have the games, and people won't send them to me because I said their art looks Stephen Hawking drew it with a box of Crayola stainproof markers. I've gone in circles on this one, trying to find a way to get the games and still be able to write the way I want to write, and I've come up with only one viable solution:

I'm going to have to buy games.

At first, the idea was almost offensive. Why would I write reviews for games that I buy? It's crazy! It's unthinkable! Hell, I only got into this racket to get stuff for free. It's completely counter-productive to buy games just to review them, especially when the most I make off them is about a nickel a day (which goes into my online Project Wonderful account, and which I've never actually withdrawn, meaning I've never actually made any money). If I buy my games, I could just play them and save myself all the trouble of telling people about them.

But then, I'm not really writing for the free games any more. I've discovered, over the last few years, that when I write what I want to write, without an editor or moderator or anyone else to tell me that I'm too raw or offensive, with nobody telling me to say something nice to please an advertiser, with nobody to tell me when I've crossed the line, I freaking love it. I get more out of writing than I do out of playing the games. And when I'm having trouble writing because I can't get games to play, the solution is obvious. I need more games.

So I'm going to buy lots and lots of games. Not all of them - I'll still accept any review copies that anyone wants to send me. But I've set up an arrangement with Noble Knight Games that will allow me to get steep discounts on the games I want to review, and I'll be using it to pick up the stuff that people won't send me. This may cost me a few hundred bucks a month, but if it means I get to keep cranking out the stuff I want to write, it's worth every penny.

It also means that now more than ever, I need my readers to help me out by considering Noble Knight Games when you shop. Drop my name when you order, and it helps immensely. Because where Noble Knight was hooking me up with a game or two now and then, they've really committed to this now. They're selling me inventory at a rate that doesn't make them any money, just so I can keep bringing you reviews (and now, I can bring you reviews of games like Blood Bowl Team Manager and Road Kill Rally, that I couldn't get you before).

It also means that review requests are going to be a lot easier to answer. If you have something you would like to see reviewed, let me know. If I can get it from Noble Knight Games, and I have any desire to play it, I'll just buy the son of a bitch and to Hell with the scaredy-cat publishers. So fire away with those requests - and look for some A-list reviews in the coming weeks.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Card Game Review - Slapshot

I've said before that I don't tend to be a big fan of sports games. If I want to play a game that feels just like playing baseball, I'll go outside and play baseball. If you're looking to recreate the theme of swinging a bat and throwing a ball, it's hard to beat actually swinging a bat and throwing a ball (of course, if you're doing both of those things at the same time, someone is very likely to get hurt, which is one favorable point for enjoying a board game instead of a sport).

However, I am nothing if not a veritable font of contradiction. I played Slapshot this weekend, and it's a game that recreates an entire season of hockey. It's a sports game, and I liked it, and I didn't play any hockey at all. Come to think of it, outside high school, when we played with a volleyball and brooms on a basketball court, I've never played hockey. I'm from California. You can't really wait for the pond to freeze when the temperature never drops below 60.

So Slapshot is a game about sports, and I don't like games about sports, and I liked Slapshot. Weird, huh? Probably the saving grace is that while it is theoretically a game about managing a team of cartoon hockey players through a season, it's also very abstracted, with a lot more attention paid to building your hand (also known as your team), damaging your opponents' hands (their teams) and winning hand comparisons (hockey games). You don't have to worry about stuff like penalty shots or high-sticking or other words that you would associate with hockey if you knew anything about the sport, which I do not.

The way this works, you'll have a hand of six cards in a specific configuration (three blue, two green, one red). The game gives you ways to swap your cards in an attempt to improve the quality of your hand, and it gives you ways to devalue the hands of the other people at the table. Then, when you think your hand is good, you can challenge another player to a game, and he has to accept or be hit in the face by a really big Canadian guy with missing teeth and a thousand-yard stare.

The hockey game part is where you find out how well you've done at building your team. You'll compare cards, one at a time, with another player. It helps to have the best players, but you can still lose a game to guy who has a mediocre team, but puts them in the right order. Unfortunately, until you've played with the same people a lot, you won't have the foggiest idea what the right order might be, and so randomly shuffling your hand is about as effective as carefully stacking your deck. While this might seem ridiculously random, what it really means is that it's very important to get a solid team before you start challenging everyone to a fight.

A few extra tidbits help to make Slapshot a little more strategic, like goalies who can stop every shot and bruisers who can send opposing cards to the hospital. But by and large, Slapshot is about as difficult to play as Monopoly, but it finishes a lot faster. In fact, this might be the perfect game to break out when your family is staying over for Thanksgiving and you're looking for any way to relate to them that doesn't involve another game of Scene It: Nickelodeon. It's easy to learn, easy to play, and has enough skill to keep your interest, and yet enough luck that Uncle Barney can win.

In fact, if there are marks against Slapshot, it's that it is almost too accessible. I know I sound like a game snob now, but the fact is, lots of us like a pretty sophisticated game, and Slapshot doesn't really deliver sophistication. It delivers hockey in a card game. There's a bunch of luck, and planning from the first play is about as useful as putting a screen door on a boar. Or tits on a submarine. I don't know, it's just not all that useful.

If you're looking for a deep, involved, intelligent game that will challenge your mind and engage your imagination, Slapshot is not that game. But if you want something fun, fast, and easy to play, you could do a lot worse than to pick up Slapshot. And when Uncle Barney doesn't have to fall asleep on the couch while your nephews endlessly guess quotes from iCarly, he'll thank you for it.


2-6 players

Fun, fast, and easy to learn
A little strategy and a lot of luck
Great for people who don't play many games

A little shallow
A lot of luck

You can get Slapshot pretty cheap, which is good. You just have to go over to Noble Knight Games and order it.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Contest - Minion Games

It's been a long time since I ran a contest. This is primarily because I don't really have anything to give away, but it's also because I hate dealing with postage. It's a pain in the ass, really, and it's easier if I just blow it off and wait for free games to show up so I can write about them instead of actually buying them like normal people.

But last night, I got an offer that I just couldn't refuse. Well, I suppose I could refuse it. All I had to do was go, 'I have decided to refuse your offer.' So I guess it's more accurate to say I decided not to refuse it. So whatever, couldn't or wouldn't, it amounts to the same thing - someone is getting free stuff. You can be just like me, getting free stuff, except that you don't have to feel obligated to write about it and add some dirty jokes to go for the cheap laugh.

The contest is sponsored by Minion Games (as you may have guessed, had you read the title of this post and saw that it said, 'Contest - Minion Games,' though I suppose you may have been confused and just thought it was a game about creepy little bastards who work for mad scientists or something). They're running a contest, too, where they'll give away a game every week and then someone will get something for free, just like me but without the stupid gags.

If you want to enter the contest at Drake's Flames, all you have to do is write me an email and tell me which Minion Games game you want to win. Then I'll go through the list, throw out anyone I don't know, and just make one of my friends the winner. Then Minion Games will send a free game to someone I know, and everyone else will think they entered a fair contest run by a totally impartial third party.

Ha! No, I won't really do that. I'm not paying for shipping, so I don't care who gets this free game. There are some fun games in there, and honestly, I'm just going to pick one random person and send the name to Minion, who will send hunchbacks to your house to rub their hands and say, 'yes master!' in a most obsequious fashion. That, or they will send you a free game.

So I'm basically telling you about two contests. For the Drake's Flames contest, do these things:
1. Go to and look at their games. They have some fun ones.
2. Pick one of these games as the one you want to win:
    Five-Fingered Severance
    Grave Business
    Those Pesky Humans
    NILE deLuxor
    Sturgeon (don't pick this one, it's not very much fun)
3. Email me at and tell me your name, your address, and what game you want.
4. Wait a week, and then I'll pick a winner and send the name to Minion, who will ship you a free game (if you won - for most people, step 4 will not really be necessary).

For the Minion Games contest, where they're giving away a game a week, you have to buy something. It's cool, though - the contest is actually at, and they have a TON of stuff. Like crazy dice, RPG books, board games, and other stuff that's especially cool if you're a nerd. Here's how you enter that one:
1. Go to
2. Buy something. I don't care what. Neither do they, but they would rather you spent a lot of money.
3. When you get to the last step of the checkout sequence, there's a little notes box for special order instructions and what-not. Just put 'Drake's Flames' in there, and you'll be entered to win a free game.

So there you have it, two contests for free games. For the first one, all you have to do is email me. For the second one, you have to buy stuff, which I know you do anyway. For the Drake's Flames contest, I'll announce the winner next Monday, April 30, and then that lucky bastard can have a free game. For the RPGShop contest, I won't have any idea who won, so I won't be announcing that.

OK, go.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Expansion Review - New Summoner Wars Decks

If you're enough of a nerd, you probably know of the existence of the cable program 'Attack of the Show'. It's a nerd thing where they look at nerd stuff and pretend it's all really cool, which it actually is, but nobody but nerds accepts that fact at face value, and I have a hard time believing the super-hot dame on that show is actually a huge fan of Skyrim. But there is one part of the show that's very believable, and it's the part where that guy from Mad Men comes on and talks board games. It's pretty cool that a guy who has a small part on a boring TV show from a cable channel plays games, and it's even cooler that when he was picking his favorite two-player games, one of them was Summoner Wars.

I should make it clear that I had nothing whatsoever to do with the development of Summoner Wars. I played it about two years before it was released, and then did absolutely no playtesting of any kind. But I am pretty good friends with Colby, the guy who created and publishes the game, and so I still like to stand a little taller when I see Summoner Wars winning massive industry accolades and being very, very successful. The only bragging point I have in relation to Summoner Wars amounts to name-dropping, but I still puff up like I actually did something when the game wins awards.

It also helps that Summoner Wars is one of the funnest games I own, which is especially awesome when expansions come in the mail. Colby is a never-ending fountain of gaming genius, because every new faction adds something so cool that it completely reshapes the way you play the game. The most recent additions are perfect examples.

The Filth is a brand-new faction that specializes in being incredibly gross. By itself, that is not much of a super power, to be honest, or neckbearded basement trolls the world over would form their own Justice League. But the byproduct of being disgusting is that The Filth can mutate into fun new shapes, and some of these are just plain crazy. You aren't going to have a lot of guys on the board, but the ones you have will be rocket fueled. Also, gross.

Take, for instance, the spew mutant. This ugly son of a bitch will puke at opponents three spaces away, and if he can hit with both dice, throw in a third damage for good measure. Or the edible mutant, who is covered with Ho-Ho snack cakes that can be peeled off and eaten to regenerate the health of his teammates. Sadly, offering up his spleen as a protein shake is not healthy for the edible mutant, but he's pretty tough, and can do an awful lot of exceptionally frustrating healing before he goes down for the count.

These mutant freaks are a great way to get very tough guys into play, but cheap. It's not all glory days, though - since the original victim stays in play underneath the mutated version, when your enemy finally manages to cap one, he'll get double the magic from it. This means that where it might take you three turns to accumulate enough juice to summon a champion, a lucky opponent who kills three dudes in one turn could be a powerhouse the next. First he cleans you out, then he drops the hammer when your defenses are down.

And if there's anyone prepared to deal out the pain, it's going to be the other new faction, the Mercenaries. This is not technically a new faction - Colby has been putting mercenaries into expansion packs for a while now, but up until this point, all you could do with them is a little deckbuilding. Now, though, the Mercs have their own summoner, and even better, you've got a ton of cards to tweak them exactly the way you want.

Even without tweaking, though, the Mercenary deck is bad-ass. They specialize in knocking down walls. And not metaphorically, like when a social worker connects a junkie with his long-lost dad. No, they really just screw up actual stone walls. The summoner will do automatic damage to a wall, and then get extra cards for it. One champion will bust walls and restore magic cards from his discard pile. One of the commons will stand next to enemy walls and steal magic. And just when you thought it was safe, because all the walls are down, they'll bring 'em back.

I can't even decide which new faction I like better, because they are both insanely entertaining to play. As with every other deck in Summoner Wars, you have to play the teams correctly to take advantage of their abilities. The Mercenaries, if played right, will have their enemies trembling, without any way to summon. The Filth, if played right, will turn their enemies into bird-monsters and take control of them. Either way, these are two fantastic additions to a fantastic game.

Yes, with the two new factions available for one of my favorite games of all time, Summoner Wars just keeps getting better all the time. You can ask that Mad Men guy, if you don't believe me. He's kind of a nerd, but then, if you're reading this, the odds are that you are, too.


2 players (4 if you buy extra sets)

Two new decks with wildly different abilities add brilliant new play options
An amazing game gets even better

Nope, forget it

Normally, I would link to Noble Knight Games at this point, and send you scurrying for your credit cards. But they're sold out, and since Colby is my friend, I would rather you bought from him, anyway. Plus, this way you can get the promo cards:

Monday, April 16, 2012

Board Game Review - Lords of Waterdeep

If you were to tell me that Wizards of the Coast was going to make a D&D game about ruling the city of Waterdeep, I would not have been surprised. But if you told me that game was going to be a worker-placement Euro-style game, I would have laughed at you and told you that you were insane. A dry Euro game can't be a D&D game! Euros are only supposed to be about farming and making recipes and delivering the mail! The granddaddy of dungeon crawl games is not supposed to spawn Euros. It's supposed to spawn violent games with too many rules, and with the right crowd, sexual innuendo and half-naked women with gigantic metal weapons.

Obviously, the guys at Wizards did not ask me for my opinion. Which is good, because otherwise they would never have made Lords of Waterdeep, and I could not have played it, and I would not have discovered how much fun it is. On the other hand, I would not have been forced to admit that I don't know everything. Of course, that's easier to do at 41 than it was at 19, when I would rather put my hand into a wheat thresher than admit that I was not actually smarter than my parents.

I'll get this out of the way, right off the bat - Lords of Waterdeep is definitely a Euro-style game, and it's definitely dry. Sure, you can recruit a band of warriors to purge tentacled horrors from the sewers of the city, but mechanically, you may as well be preparing a recipe for chili pie.

The theory is that you're in charge of some ruling group in the city of Waterdeep, and stuff comes up and you have to protect the city. You send out your agents to recruit adventurers and build taverns and find worthy quests, but you never actually get your hands dirty and kill something. You sit back in your ivory tower, drinking mimosas and dabbing at your guyliner while you send your minions into the city to do your bidding.

Happily, the minion-sending part of the game is actually very compelling. You've got all these things you can do, and places you can go, but you're in constant competition with your opponents. If you need a cleric, for instance, but the Harpers get there first, you'll have to send an agent to go pull some dirty tricks that let you steal guys from other people, because otherwise you're going to have to wait until the enemy agent goes out back to take a leak.

This results in the first layer of semi-artificial interaction - blocking your opponents. This is the most passive-aggressive game idea ever invented, and for some reason, Euro people don't mind that. I suspect they also learn how to let out heavy sighs and specialize in making you feel guilty when you ask them if they could pay for their own coffee this week. If this was the only interaction in Lords of Waterdeep, I would hate this game an awful lot.

There is, however, a second layer of interaction that is a great deal less artificial - the intrigue cards. Using these cards, you can directly screw with your friends. You can swipe their adventurers and steal their gold. You can sneak in behind them when they think they've blocked the builder's hall. You can assign them jobs that they have to complete before they do anything else, which ends up costing them resources and time. In a game where you never have enough resources or time, that's pretty damned mean-spirited. So I loved that.

The combination of blocking your opponents and directly hosing them makes for a game that has just the right amount of interaction without being so nasty that your wife won't play it with you. If the D&D folks are going to make a Euro, at least they made one that isn't some boring, solo circle-jerk. Where many games of this nature have you pretty much ignoring what everyone else is doing, the key to enjoying Lords of Waterdeep is in carefully scrutinizing the other players. Is the City Guard building an army for a massive warfare quest? Quick, give them a mandatory job that will kill off half their fighters! Is the sneaky mage chick running magic jobs like they were going out of style, revealing that she is almost certainly hiding a bonus for arcana gigs? Better run up there and reset those quests before she can snag another one!

I'm not going to pretend that your average blood-and-guts fan is going to love Lords of Waterdeep. The interaction is there, and it's exciting, but there's no disemboweling warfare. There's subtle intrigue and careful maneuvering, combined with reading your opponents and guessing their moves before they can pull them off. You'll have to plan ahead and build contingency plans for when those nasty Red Sash assholes steal your high-dollar mage's tower or hire all the thieves. You must be prepared to counter the underhanded attacks on your own grand designs, and keep an eye on every other player, all the time. And don't count the money until the game is over - in one game, right as the game ended, one player revealed a hidden bonus and shot from last place to a huge winning margin. She snowed us all, kept her head down and avoided looking like a good target, and snuck past us to make us all look like drooling chumps.

I really enjoyed Lords of Waterdeep, and can see myself playing it a lot more. It has some problems, like the fact that it could just as easily be about filling orders for potted plants, but in terms of providing the kinds of things I like to see in a game, the game delivered. Heck, it may give Flash Point some competition for family game night favorite. So what if it's a D&D Euro - it's a fun game.


2-5 players

Requires good planning and clever execution
A sweet spot of interaction that's not too nice, and not too mean
A Euro game that actually requires you to read your opponents, not just stare at their cards
Perfect for family game nights or weekend gaming clubs

A theme as rich as D&D should never, ever feel pasted on

So now that I like this game, you're thinking of buying it, and just need to find a good price for it. How about saving ten bucks on it? Yeah, that's right, Noble Knight Games has it at one hell of a discount.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Special Post - Dungeon Crawls

A reader recently asked me which were my favorite dungeon crawl games. Since dungeon crawls are my absolute favorite kinds of games, I felt qualified to talk far more than was necessary, and it got so long, I started thinking, 'Why don't I just write a whole thing, and get out of a review for one day?' And then, since I had pneumonia Friday and didn't write anything anyway, I remembered that I had one to make up, so this seemed like the perfect time.

Before I get started, I should probably clarify what I mean when I say 'dungeon crawl'. This is basically any game where you have a small handful of individual bad-ass life-takers who enter some closed environment without a clear idea of what's at the end, pursuing a particular goal, and something unfriendly tries to eat their livers with fava beans and a nice chianti. This definition does not mention one thing that might be kind of obvious - the dungeon - and that's on purpose. A dungeon crawl doesn't have to be a fantasy game, a point which should be come clear when I start discussing games that don't have orcs or elves of any kind.

It's worth noting here that this list is neither comprehensive, or in any kind of order at all. I'm not going to try to remember every dungeon crawl I ever played, because frankly, who the hell has time for that? But if I don't mention it here, it does mean one thing - it wasn't compelling enough for me to remember it. That, or I never played it. That, or I'm just being spiteful because the publisher wouldn't send me a review copy. No, wait, it actually won't be that one - I say nice things about plenty of FFG games, and they freaking hate me.

OK, the list.

Warhammer Quest
My list starts off with my favorite game of all time. This one is the bar against which other dungeon crawls beg to be measured. It has everything - developing characters, the choice to use a DM or not, excellent miniatures, and the potential to be expanded in, like, 700 directions. Because the entire Games Workshop line of fantasy miniatures can serve as expansion material for this game, you will run out of money and time before you ever run out of interesting new ways to kill your heroes. Sadly, this one has three things working against it. First, it's totally out of print. Second, it's ridiculously expensive. Third, my copy burned up in my house fire, and now I have to buy it again, and I painted all the miniatures for it, which makes me a little sick when I think about it. For what it's worth, that third one is only a problem for me. The rest of you just have to come up with the money.

Mutant Chronicles: Siege of the Citadel
This is not my favorite. It's interesting, and it's fun, but it has too many problems. For one thing, to really play this game properly, you need exactly five players. Any less, and you can't take advantage of the rotating DM, and the monsters will be harder to kill than they should be. Any more, and someone has to watch, because only five people can play. Plus, while the minis are totally bad-ass, the game itself lacks flavor. I know that's insane, because it's Mutant Chronicles, but the game-play fails to deliver the background of demonic mutants versus corporate head-takers. It's a little dry, and if you ask me, that's the kiss of death for a dungeon crawl.

Actually, there may be two death kisses for dungeon crawls, and the second is taking forever to get anything done. Descent has magnificent miniatures, buckets of expansions, and even one way to play that lets your characters improve from game to game. It's just a shame that it takes so freaking long to finish anything. First-time players are going to get bogged down in the various monster abilities (what does it mean when my monster has Venom and Web? Oh, it means I have to look something up). Even veterans are going to take all night to take clean out even the smallest dungeon. There are some wildly cool mechanics at work here, like the building threat levels and specialized dice, but I've never played a game of Descent that anyone would describe as fast-paced. So while I had a whole lot of this one before the fire, I don't think I'll be replacing it.

If I put this list together without HeroQuest, anyone who knows anything about dungeon crawls would be forced to assume I was either an idiot, or hopped up on cold medicine (I am, incidentally, one of those things. Possibly both). HeroQuest is the quintessential dungeon crawl, and while there are a few hiccups that hurt it from time to time, it's impossible to deny its importance. Four archetypical heroes invade an archetypical dungeon, maraud through a dungeon that changes every time, and get better by buying more stuff and finding magical weapons. It's fun, but after twenty games, it can get a little repetitive. It's also better suited to kids than adults, which is why Warhammer Quest is better.

(Yes, the 'twenty games' thing is both a joke, and true.)

The D&D Adventure Game
If HeroQuest is John Holmes, then the D&D Adventure Game is Ron Jeremy (don't feel bad if you don't know who either of those people are - and if you don't know, for God's sake don't Google it). It's not really called the D&D Adventure Game, it's called something else officially, but it's a bitch to locate because the unoriginal bastards who created this game couldn't come up with a unique name. The game is everything HeroQuest was supposed to be, and then some. It's also geared more for kids than adults, but it's better than HeroQuest in just about any way that matters. It has two strikes against it, though - it was only published in the UK, and it's out of print. That means that for those of us in the United States, it can be kind of a bitch to find a copy. But it's worth it - it's very, very good.

This game from Asmodee is on shaky ground being called a dungeon crawl, especially since I don't intend to include Space Hulk on this list, but I still maintain it fits the definition. One player assumes control of the forces of evil, and send demons scuttering through hellish tunnels after the other guy's arrogant, imperialist crusaders. It's one of those stupid-but-cool premises; the humans have run out of real estate on Planet Earth, and have decided to do a land grab into Hell. Literally, Hell. Only Hell is all made up of little caverns and tight corridors, and the humans are going to have to kill a lot of demons to set up shop. This game is brilliant, and includes some outstanding pre-painted miniatures. I can't think of anything bad to say about it, except that it's not, in the strictest sense, a dungeon crawl. I overlook that fact because it's so damned fun.

Dungeon Plungin'
The games on this list so far are pretty impressive games, so it might be a surprise to see a game pop up that is a free print-and-play. But if you do print it and play it, you'll be amazed to find a really interesting, surprisingly well-developed game that provides everything I want to see in a dungeon crawl. Your characters can be whatever you want them to be, and can improve with time. You don't need a DM, so you can play it solo. The art is campy and perfect. The pieces are as good as you decide to make them. The rules make for a just plain excellent game - but you're going to spend two weeks putting it all together. Of all the stuff in my office that burned up, this is one I'm definitely replacing.

This is another print-and-play game that is virtually a complete knock-off of HeroQuest, with a few slight improvements. On the other hand, HeroQuest did a few things better than Venture, so it's kind of a wash. The upside is that for 20 bucks and a printer cartridge, plus a couple nights spent married up to a bottle Elmer's glue, you can have a very satisfying dungeon crawl with a lot of variety and some pretty cool free expansions. This one gets the Drake's Flames seal of approval - but I still like Dungeon Plungin' more. And I like Warhammer Quest more than that.

This game is towards the end of the list because while it is fantastically gorgeous, it's not one that I'm going to play again. If some of the games on this list fail to deliver the setting, Hybrid has the opposite problem - the setting material is so involved and developed that it actually gets in the way of playing the game. A card that lets you do one simple thing will have a short story printed in a type so small you can't read it, and the beautiful floor tiles have so much embellishment that you can't always tell where the spaces are supposed to be. The miniatures are amazing, but they stick out so far past their bases that you can't put two of them next to each other. And the worst part is the rules, which are an absolutely incomprehensible train wreck. As amazing as this game looks when you play it, it's just not worth the hassle.

Mansions of Madness
Remember when I said dungeon crawls didn't have to be about dwarves and goblins? Well, this one drives that point home in spades. Mansions of Madness takes elements of lots of very successful dungeon crawls, adds in some Lovecraft horror, and makes a dungeon crawl game that has me coming back every chance I get. It may not even immediately look like a dungeon crawl, but it definitely is. In some cases, it's even got dungeons. Lots of miniatures, great art, and best of all, a story that unravels as you play it. It lacks a little replay value, just because of the highly individual way each scenario plays, but that doesn't bother me at all. Fantasy Flight makes several expansions for this game, and if my base copy hadn't burned up, I would probably buy them all. I'm not sure I can cajole my family into playing this one enough to make it worth it, but I'll probably be replacing it anyway.

So that's the list, and like I said, it's not comprehensive. There are a LOT more, like the recent D&D games that I quit liking after the second one, and most certainly will not be replacing. These are just the ones that I thought of while I sat here on a rainy Sunday afternoon. Except for the fact that my favorite of the list is at the top, they're also not in any kind of order. If this list helps you discover a cool dungeon crawl game, then my work here is done. And if it doesn't, then my work here is still done, because it's not like I'm getting paid to do this, anyway.

Oh, and I'm not making some master list of links for you. Google something, you lazy assholes.

Super Dungeon Explore
Man, how could I forget this one? I love this game. When all my games were thrown out the window in a smoldering pile of ash and melted plastic, I rooted through the remains and was able to save all the miniatures (though a couple of them are a little worse for wear). It's fast-paced and action-packed, a solid two-player dungeon brawl that will leave you hungry for expansions. How I forgot this game, I seriously don't know. Must have been the cold medicine.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Card Game Review - Jab

My kids like to play a game called ERS. I have no idea what that stands for. Maybe Emergency Room Services. That would make sense, because when my kids play it, the game often ends in injuries. They have repeatedly attempted to get me to play with them, but I have generally avoided it based on the fact that I do not want to play a game where my kids will beat me. And I don't mean they will win; I mean they will physically assault me, because ERS is one of those fast-eye coordination games where you throw down cards really fast and then slap each other to try to grab them at the right times.

I mention all this because last night, I talked my daughter into playing Jab with me. Jab is a real-time boxing game you play with cards, and because it is so fast and frenetic, it reminded her of playing ERS. Specifically, she said, 'I don't like this. Let's play ERS.' Sadly, I had to agree, and I don't even want to play ERS.

The premise is interesting. You have cards representing your boxers, and you have cards representing punches. You play your punching cards onto the fighter cards and try to score points by having more punches hit your opponent. If this were the whole game, it would be kind of stupid because all you would do is put down cards and then add them up and then realize that it was a tie. But there's more.

There will be one card, off to the side, listing a specific set of punches, like hook/jab/haymaker. If you can get all those cards on your opponent, you can take that combo card and score mad points. And if you can put down a haymaker and then a color-matching punch, you can stagger your opponent and make her stumble around like Charlie Chaplin screwed up on whiskey and vicodin.

These options, and a few others in a similar vein, do create a bit of a sense of strategy, but it's not easy to grasp that strategy because you're basically just slapping down cards as fast as you can. If you stop to analyze the table and look for potential scoring opportunities, the other guy is going to plant a haymaker in your left nostril and send you to the mat. So you have to be watching eight to ten piles of cards that change at a rate of about one a second. My daughter summed it up perfectly when she said, 'Son of a **** in a **** with a round rubber **** and half a side of **** covered in motor oil and fish guts, this is hard.' OK, I'm paraphrasing. She can't pronounce asterisks any better than you can.

There really is an insane amount of information to process here. Jab has you playing cards as fast as you can, trying to counter-punch and avoid the haymakers and connect with the combos and otherwise figure out how to come out ahead. This is especially difficult because of how fast things will change - you'll decide to go with a combo strategy and score a bunch of extra points, but then your opponent will lay down three haymakers that you'll need to block and you'll have to come up with a new idea, because the old one is going to get you a bloody nose and little birds flying around your head.

I admire the designer of this game for creating something I have never seen before. The idea of real-time card games is not new (at one point, I owned all the decks for Brawl), but the implementation of this game actually channels the concept of a boxing match pretty well, without making you put on gloves, take off your shirt, or have Rocky Marciano's trainer cut your eyelid with a razor blade. I'm glad I have the game, just to see how it works. It's sort of like owning an old transistor radio - you're not going to want to listen to it when you have a perfectly good MP3 player, but it's still cool to take it apart and then lose the screws in the carpet so someone else in the house can step on them in the middle of the night when they go to get a drink of water.

Sadly, I cannot admit to having enjoyed playing the game. While it seems like it could be a fast-thinking strategy game, it devolves pretty rapidly into a flurry of random card plays followed by some math. Sure, you can finish in fifteen minutes, but it's just not likely to be fifteen minutes you enjoy. Spend the time shaving and plucking your eyebrows, and you can sleep in a little more in the morning.

The real downside to last night's games of Jab (we tried it several times, to see if it got better) was that now, my daughter insists that I play ERS with her tonight. If I don't write a review Friday, it's because she broke my fingers trying to steal a combo sandwich, whatever the crap that means.


2 players

Interesting concept - real-time boxing game with cool mechanics
Very sturdy cards
Plays fast, and if you're really sharp, you'll win all the time

High concept devolves into random card-slapping after thirty seconds
Puzzling, because it looks cool but just isn't that much fun

It's worth running down a copy of Jab just to see how a game this unique would work. It really is unlike just about anything else. You can get a copy for less than 20 bucks, right here at Noble Knight Games:

Monday, April 9, 2012

Story Game Review - A Penny For My Thoughts

I played an incredibly weird game this weekend. It was really cool, but man, was it a trip. It was called Kick the Can, and I think it was just invented by kids who couldn't afford a soccer ball, so they played with garbage.

I also played A Penny For My Thoughts, which is also weird and cool. But unlike Kick the Can, there's virtually no physical activity of any kind. This makes it perfect for fat people and those unfortunates who have been stapled to their living room furniture. You won't burn off Easter dinner played this game, but your brain will feel like it just got done running a 5K.

To play A Penny For My Thoughts, everyone has to start off by pretending that they are amnesiacs. Every player is undergoing treatment for this memory loss, and trying to remember what happened to erase the past. So you take this trippy drug that makes it so that you can see into the other patients' memories, and just pull out little snippets that can help them reassemble their broken histories.

That's the backstory, but it's not really the game. The game is all about improvisational, cooperative storytelling. The pretend therapy session is just there to provide some kind of framework around which to build your stories, and to present some rules that you can use to weave a wild yarn with the help of two or three of your closest friends.

Of all the cooperative storytelling games I've played recently, A Penny For My Thoughts is easily the most intense. It deals with real-world situations, emotions and senses, and can get real mature, real fast. Because other players are there to prompt you with details and choices, you can quickly get the feeling that you have only the vaguest hint of control over your story, and if you're not willing to get really into the game and seriously play along, it's going to make you cranky before you're done.

A few choice rules make this seat-of-the-pants storytelling particularly tricky. You'll start off every segment of your tale with some tidbit, like crunching leaves or rain on your neck or a shattered lightbulb. Then people you thought were your friends will ask you yes-no questions - but you have to answer yes. So when the guy goes, 'Was your friend also gay?', then guess what, you're gay. Some other lovely questions that came out of our game (to which the queried player was forced to agree) included the death of loved ones, painful wounds, and insanity. I should probably count my lucky stars that I wasn't asked if I was a paraplegic.

Taking these amusing details and creating a story is just the first part, too. Because every time you get to a place where your character would do something important, you get two possible options, which come from the same people who told you that you were an incontinent homosexual who had killed his grandmother. When your dialog options are either, 'Actually, Bob, I did kill your dog,' and 'Sorry, Bob, I sold all your stuff on eBay,' it poses an interesting dilemma.

We did manage to create some very intriguing stories, including a twisted murder mystery and a miracle cure for cancer that was only available in Switzerland. However, the process was, at times, rather painful. Not the stories themselves, exactly, but the procedure itself. Because the single most important thing you need to play A Penny For My Thoughts is a roomful of people who are in total sync with how to play, and we didn't really have that.

One of us wanted to drive the stories for the others, and kept pushing extra material into the details. Another wanted to be silly, and at one point, had a character jumping out of a cab screaming about the rapture. Another was just plain irritable, and kept yelling at everyone else and correcting even minor mistakes. Accept my guidance on this point, and don't play A Penny For My Thoughts with your family. Seriously. Don't do it.

On the other hand, if you have some friends you really trust to follow the rules and spirit of the game, A Penny For My Thoughts is a delightful way to kill an afternoon. The spontaneous and unpredictable tales that are created when a group of people take turns driving can range from heartwarming to downright thrilling, especially when you truly never know if your character is going to get the girl or wind up on death row.

I enjoyed A Penny For My Thoughts, and if you're able to find some people who can truly dedicate themselves to making it work, you might, too. It's not easy to play, and will challenge your imagination and cooperation beyond what you thought was feasible, but you'll find yourself creating great stories and exploring possibilities outside what you could ever consider on your own. Depending on how much you like telling stories, you might also have a hell of a lot of fun.

(Incidentally, I did not actually play Kick the Can. That was a lie. I own a soccer ball, and do not need to play with garbage.)


3-4 players

The deepest cooperative storytelling game I've tried so far
Lets you create some of truly fascinating tales
Straightforward rules that let you start playing without having to read the whole thing

Absolutely, emphatically requires you to be in sync with the other players
No sanitation on these stories mean you could see some serious darkness

If you've got the imagination and mental stamina to play a cooperative storytelling game this intense, you'll be hard-pressed to find one more enjoyable than A Penny For My Thoughts. You can get it from Noble Knight Games, right here:

Friday, April 6, 2012

Expansion Review - Rallyman DIRT

Last week, I reviewed Rallyman, and some people took offense to me not liking it because rally racing is kind of a solo sport. One guy even asked why I expected it to be anything else. In reply, I did not expect it to be anything else, I just thought it was not much fun to play a solo race game. By the same token, if someone makes a game about washing the dishes or picking dog poop out of tall grass, I will probably not give it a particularly enthusiastic review. Rally racing is cooler than poop scooping, though.

However, I did say that I thought the actual mechanic of Rallyman was pretty cool. The thing where you roll the dice, pushing your luck as you speed through turns, trying not to accumulate the danger symbols that mean you wipe out - that thing is cool. It works pretty well, and I liked it.

So while I was still not leaping out of my chair to try the expansion, called Rallyman DIRT, I still wanted to try it to see what it added. And let me tell you, it added a lot.

For starters, now there's dirt. You probably guessed that from the title. And on top of dirt tracks, we also have dirt tires. Not tires made out of dirt, you understand. That would be absurd. These are tires specifically designed for driving on dirt. They are still made out of rubber.

In fact, the DIRT expansion adds all kinds of new tires. You can slap on snow tires or soft tires or regular tires or dirt tires, and they each do different things on different terrain. The soft tires, for instance, give you magnificent handling on the first part of your race, and then fall apart so that you crash at the end. The rough-terrain tires let you downshift twice, which is so particularly cool because it lets you drive faster for the whole race. You can speed toward a steep curve in a high gear, and then crank it down at the last second to whip around in the kind of power slide that would normally only be seen in the Fast & Furious movies.

Speaking of power slides, the new tracks for DIRT are pretty damned cool. There are really long turns now, and you can slide all the way around them, or slide part of the way and then downshift to hit the inside of the track. There are intersections that make it so the course can cross over itself, and if you screw up on one of those turns, you could wind up losing two turns backing up and trying it again. We played a long track with snow, dirt and asphalt, and it was really cool seeing how different combinations of terrain and tires can make your car behave.

Also incredibly cool are the spinning cards that tell you how soft tires work on snow, or dirt tires on asphalt, or blown-out tires on dirt, or - well, there are a lot of options, and this was an exceptionally useful solution. They could have just included tables and graphs and stuff, and made the game look like a spreadsheet for an annual sustainability report, but instead we have cool spinning cards that let you know at a glance how much you can push your car, how hard you can downshift, and how bad it is to wipe out in the snow.

So here's the summary, if you're thinking about picking up Rallyman DIRT. First, you can't play it without the original, so try the base game before you get the expansion. If you like it (and you might, if you're not put off by racing against nobody in particular), but you want to see a wider variety of racing scenarios, pick up DIRT. It adds so many cool options that it's definitely worth the purchase - assuming you don't mind playing a racing game without any direct competition.


Four new boards let you make an enormous course
Spinning cards let you swap tires with ease
Still looks pretty darn good

None, really, except that it's still a solo racing game

Rallyman DIRT, like many of the games I've reviewed recently, is only available from Game Salute. Man, am I glad I made up with those guys.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Board Game Review - Dragon Valley

Some games are just not born sexy. Life is not fair. For instance, I was not born sexy. It took me years of hard work to get that way, and now that I am officially over the hill, I am once again not the least bit sexy. That might explain why I am so bitter and angry. It might also explain why my credit card statements shows thousands of dollars billed to massage parlors.

Anyway, games. Not sexy, or sexy. Dragon Valley - not sexy. But like me, Dragon Valley is built for durability and power (actually, wait, that's not accurate. Neither of us is all that powerful, either. But I am magnificently durable). It's a good game, smart and fun, with multiple effective strategies and some really interesting decisions to make. It's just a shame that a game with this much to offer is going to be overlooked because it is not at all easy on the eyes.

It is, however, pretty darn clever. Each player is in charge of a keep that is getting overrun by monsters, and you have limited resources to repel those monsters and ask politely if they would return to their homes and take up macrame. If that doesn't work, you will be forced to stab them repeatedly or throw them off cliffs (for some reason, throwing a flying dragon off a cliff is an effective way to kill it, because these dragons don't just fly away). And if you're feeling especially adventurous, then on top of fending off waves of invading marauders, you can also venture out of your completely unsafe homeland and go take over the monsters' houses.

The monster segment of the game is interesting, but the part that makes Dragon Valley particularly cool is how you get your resources. Every turn, you get a random draw of cards, buildings and troops (including bad guys), and one guy divides those up into as many piles as players. Except he doesn't get to choose who gets what - he has to wait while everyone else picks piles, and he takes what's left. It becomes exceptionally important to divide the piles according to what everyone wants. You may even poison one pile with all the monsters and worthless cards, just so that you can add that one building you need to complete your masterpiece of monster destruction.

This divvying up means that you have to be flexible in your winning strategy, and at the same time, not tip your hand. If you're planning on building a line of magic monster flushers, it might be best not to do it one at a time. Wait for it, survive a few rounds of villainous crotch-punching, then blast out all at once and watch everyone look dismayed. I think Conan would agree that the wailing and lamentation is the best part of beating your friends.

Dragon Valley is a fun game, but I wouldn't say it's flawless. It's not hard, through some really stupid card distributions, for one player to wind up running away with the game while everyone else is just trying not to have dragons fly up their asses. Sitting to the left of the guy who can't figure out how to split the take every turn is virtually guaranteed to make you happy, because he'll do a bad job and then you will get all the awesome stuff and everyone else will get screwed. And sitting to the left of the guy who is ridiculously good at this game means you will routinely get hosed while everyone else benefits from the ignorance of their fellows. This can have the unhappy effect of making the game kind of suck.

Probably the biggest strike I have against Dragon Valley is that, in a game where I will be doing this much violence, I can't do any of it to the other guys at the table. Club orcs like baby seals? Sure, all day long, but I can't even flick boogers at my actual opponents, and that makes it tough to control the guy who is winning the game. You couldn't play it solo, because you need the interaction of the split (plus you're going to win every time), but at times, it kind of feels like you might as well.

However, despite a few slight hiccups, I did have a good time playing Dragon Valley. If the new Space Hulk is a Maserati, then Dragon Valley is a boxy Volvo with a faded paint job, but it works OK even if it's a little homely. There's not much interaction, and your seat at the table can determine how well you'll do. But it does have some neat concepts, even if it is flawed, and it can get you to work. No, wait, the work thing is just the Volvo.


2-4 players

Interesting resource division
Flexible strategies combine with good long-term planning
Multiple ways to win make this a pretty cool concept

Not enough interaction
Unbalancing potential in seating order
Not sexy

Dragon Valley is currently only sold online through Game Salute, so if you want it, this is about the only place you'll find it (unless you go to a store):

Monday, April 2, 2012

RPG Review - Bulldogs!

I love sci-fi RPGs, especially if they're high-energy and campy. Give me Star Wars over Traveler, for instance. I love space dogfights, but those would just be sort of drab in real life, as two ships who are too far apart to see each other fire missiles across space and activate countermeasures. I want screaming Tie Fighters, even though you couldn't actually hear them in space.

So Bulldogs! is exactly my brand of sci-fi RPG. There are a bunch of different alien races (none of which are expressly human), laser cannons on spaceships, blaster pistols and floating space stations. It's got a lovably anarchistic basic concept, and enough room to let you play whatever kind of game appeals to you. Since I was the one running it, we went with a cross between Firefly and Star Wars, and added some Ice Pirates for good measure.

This theme was pretty easy to pull off with Bulldogs!, because it's actually the basic concept the game offers up. That's a bit of a time-saver. Plus this concept has a lot going for it - just figure out why each of your violent miscreants is willing to take on a ridiculously high-risk delivery job, and then you don't have to work out how they all know each other. Then the company you work for gives you jobs, and you take them, and BANG - instant adventure-starter. It's the space version of meeting an old man in a tavern.

Once you start the job, the fur starts flying (if you're playing the cat-people or bear-people - otherwise hair is flying, or skin, or bits of teeth and stuff). The game is designed to make it really easy to just dive right into the action, and to give you lots of cool places to fight. Instead of gridded movement and measured ranges, battlefields are divided into zones. If one guy is in an alley up the street, and another is on a rooftop across from the alley, and a third is standing in the middle of the street, that's three zones. You don't have to get all technical with miniatures and engagement penalties and stuff. You just say, 'I'm going to dive tackle the guy in the alley,' and then you roll for it. It's that easy, and it's a heck of a lot more interesting than having the whole game take place on a sheet of oversized graph paper.

Another thing that Bulldogs! has going for it is that it's based on the FATE system, which is probably my favorite generic RPG system. Your skills are rated as positive modifiers, and you don't have basic attributes at all. If you're really good at punching people, why do a bunch of math and add in your strength and dexterity and focus? Just be good at punching. Then it's one roll, two seconds of adding (which you can totally handle, as long as you finished third grade), and you know how bad the other guy's eye is going to swell up.

This simplified but intuitive approach to resolving conflicts is pretty awesome, and half of the reason I adore the FATE system, but really my favorite thing about FATE is the use of aspects. If you're a dynamite pilot, you might have an aspect called Like A Leaf On The Wind. When you desperately need to pull off a great flying maneuver, you invoke that aspect, spend a FATE point, and the odds of succeeding go dramatically in your favor (and you hopefully don't wind up with a giant chunk of steel impaled through your sternum). But then, you could also have some of these aspects be more negative. I had a short bear-man who had an aspect called Watch Yer Step & Hold Yer Nose, because he had a tendency to drop a deuce when he got nervous. It gave me lots of opportunities to do my Triumph the Insult Comic Dog impression, and finish sentences with, 'for me to poop on!'

In fact, for a gamer overly used to grids and feats and skill trees, FATE can be intimidating. Bulldogs! makes this a little easier by removing most of the trickier parts of FATE, but it's still a huge departure from the more technical games you've played before. The GM is going to have to do a lot of work, but it's not more work than you're used to doing, it's just different. Instead of calculating the target's armor class and subtracting out modifiers for range and dual weapons, you'll have to decide whether to compel an aspect or change zones. It feels more believable, though, and it moves a lot faster than the traditional alternative.

Bulldogs! puts the FATE system to extraordinarily good use, and as an added bonus, the author uses a readable tone and tons of examples. The illustrations throughout the book are a little cartoony, but they do an extraordinary job of bringing the setting to life. I loved just flipping through the book, and unlike some seriously dense games I've read in the past, enjoyed reading it even when I was learning the various uses of the engineering skill.

The setting, unfortunately, is where Bulldogs! breaks down a little. There's almost no background information, which can be great if you would prefer to make the entire galaxy yourself, but can suck if you wanted a ready-made universe. Since half the reason I love role-playing games is because I like to explore imaginative settings, I was a little disappointed not to get more information about the galaxy where I'm supposed to go jet-setting all over the place.

The aliens are also a bit of a disappointment. There are plenty of varieties of alien, but with only one exception, they seem to fall into two categories. Either they are basically human, but with one weird tweak, or they're animal people. There are green-skinned humanoid con-men and purple humanoid space Nazis. There are cat-people, bear-people and even slug-people. While Bulldogs! provides an excellent system for creating your own alien races, it seems that when it came to giving us imaginative races, the creators were more concerned with making a workable system, and letting the readers do all the heavy lifting.

However, I'm more than willing to overlook the shortcomings in setting material when it comes to Bulldogs!, because the game we played was just so damned much fun. We had shootouts, negotiations, kidnappings and space battles, and we did them all in the space of three hours. We enjoyed it so much that everyone agrees that we can't wait to play again. However, next time, I'm going to spend a little time working up some aliens, and maybe put together a planet with more description than 'red and dusty.'

I am not, on the other hand, going to relinquish my homicidal, incontinent teddy bear. He's just too much fun.


Fantastic use of the FATE system
Creates believable, dimensional characters with lots of interesting details
Easy to play, once you get the hang of it
Fun to read, with great art

Could throw you if you come in expecting D&D in space
Not much setting material, and unimaginative alien races

Noble Knight Games is all sold out of Bulldogs! (except for the d20 version, which I would avoid like it came with flesh-eating bacteria). But you can still get the game direct from the publisher's website, right here: