Showing posts with label Boardgames. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Boardgames. Show all posts

Friday, November 08, 2019

USAoploy is Releasing a New Edition of CLUE: DUNGEONS & DRAGONS



Shortly after Hasbro launched the 3rd Edition of Dungeons and Dragons, USAopoly produced a version of Clue(do) with a Dungeons & Dragons theme. This 2001 release replaced traditional characters like Mrs.White and Colonel Mustard with the iconic characters Hasbro featured in the Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks. Instead of playing Colonel Mustard, players could now be Regdar or Mialee. The murder weapons were similarly reskinned.



The production was more than a simple reskinning of the classic game of deduction. Yes, it had all the elements of the original, but it also featured elements that added a dash of Dungeons & Dragons feel to the game.


First and foremost of these elements was the addition of pewter miniatures of the characters. While the figures are too small to be used as D&D figures, they are very nice looking and give the game a nice ambience.

Mialee stands outside "The Maze" as she seeks out the murderer.

Regdar readies his weapon as he prepares to encounter a "Random Encounter"

The figures weren't the only change though. USAopoly's designers added an optional "random encounter" rule which allowed the adventurers to fight iconic monsters from the Dungeons & Dragons game, as well as to acquire treasures they could use to aid them in finding out the identity of the murderer.  Players can trigger a random encounter by stepping on one of the "scratched" squares and drawing a card.


The combat in these random encounters is extremely simplified, even more so than in the board game Dungeon. The character's ability to defeat a given monster is static. It doesn't matter whether you are a fighter or a wizard, just roll a d6 above a target number and you win. If you fail, you are banished to "the maze." It's not a "deep" mechanic, but it adds a nice flavor and the treasures can impact game play. USAopoly made sure to include some proprietary Wizards of the Coast creatures like The Beholder and Displacer Beast to the mix to make it a D&D and not generic fantasy experience.

Clue is a very solid game, but it is one that can become less exciting to play over time. That's why it's important that any variant include some small shift in mechanics, and Clue provides a wonderful basis for such changes. Books like New Rules for Classic Games by R. Wayne Schmittberger and The Boardgame Remix Kit by Kevan Davis, James Wallis and others are great places to look for suggestions for how to tweak games that have gone stale. So too is purchasing a game by USAopoly. While some games just reskin the existing game, others add subtle new twists that make the game fresh. Such was the case with the original Clue: Dungeons and Dragons. Will that be the case with the new version?

If the marketing copy and glimpses that USAopoly have given of the interior, it looks like they will.


This year's Dungeons & Dragons themed Clue ties into the new Baldur's Gate: Descent into Avernus campaign, with the players adopting the personas of key characters of the Forgotten Realms who are seeking the location of an Infernal Puzzle Box. There is a traitor who has murdered one of the party, replaced them, and has hidden the item.


A quick look at the board reveals that like the older D&D themed edition, there are board spaces with special markings. In this case it looks like these are either "Intrigue" or "Rumor" spaces that will allow players to draw cards or interact with the game in a way that differs from the basic mechanics.

The game retails for $39.95 and looks like a good purchase for D&D players and those who collect Clue variants alike.


Wednesday, October 02, 2019

Why I Love "Step-Die" Systems Like Savage Worlds and Cortex+

In the last episode of Geekerati (Episode 164) Award Winning game designer Greg Gorden discussed a number of the game systems he's worked on in the past and some of the mechanical innovations he's come up with. Two of his major contributions discussed in the episode were "Exploding Die Rolls" and Die-Step game mechanics.



These mechanics have had wide reaching impact in game design across table top role playing game design and are worth discussing in some detail. As interesting and wide reaching as the influence of exploding dice has been, an innovation that's been around since the first edition of Ken St. Andre's masterpiece Tunnels & Trolls, this blog post will focus on the second innovation, die-step game mechanics, and why they are one of the best mechanical foundations for a role playing game.

There are several common base mechanics for arbitrating the success or failures of character actions in modern role playing games. Some of the most common include Difficulty Number/Target Number (or what Classic Traveller called a "Basic Throw"), Percent Chance (as exemplified in Runequest), Success Threshold (which can use narrative dice like Genesys, die pools like Vampire) or a "you, me, or we" Shared Decision Mechanic like Apocalypse World, Inspectres, and many other indie role playing games.

Many of these systems use a "Fixed Die" mechanic as a part of their resolution. For example, all rolls in D&D's Difficulty Number system are resolved using a twenty-sided die, Traveller and Apocalypse World use a roll of two six-sided dice, Vampire uses a pool of ten-sided dice, and Runequest uses percentile dice. The die type doesn't change to reflect the skill of the character or the challenges faced by the character in a fixed die system, only the modifier applied to the roll or the number of dice rolled changes.

Die-Step games take a different approach. Instead of using a single die type for the determination of success or failure of an action, they use various die types that move up or down to reflect the skill/natural talent of the character. For example, a character's Strength might be reflected as a die value ranging from d4 to d12 with a character of d4 Strength being weak and a character with a d12 Strength being very strong.



According to Rick Priestley, in his book Tabletop Wargames, one of the first wargames to use a Die-Step system was StarGrunt by Jon M. Tuffley. StarGrunt was first published in 1990 by Ground Zero Games and it's second edition is available in pdf for free at the link above. StarGrunt is a science fiction miniatures skirmish game that is inspired by fiction like Gordon Dickson's Dorsai, David Drake's Hammer's Slammers, the Alien films, and role playing games like 2300 AD. The rules are relatively easy to learn and one of the reasons this is the case is the fact that Tuffley decided to represent the effectiveness of individual troopers with something he called a "Basic Die." In StarGrunt, each given trooper is rated as either Green, Regular, or Veteran. The rating of each individual trooper is determined at the beginning of play with Green troopers using a d6, Regulars using a d8, and Veterans using a d10 to determine how successful they are at a given task. StarGrunt uses a Target Number system, but does use a Step-Die modifier mechanic called "Basic Die Plus and Basic Die Minus"  where the dice used by the troop levels is moved up or down one die type (from d6 to d4 or from d10 to d12) under some circumstances and modified by a additive/subtractive number in other cases (+1 or -1 to the roll).



Image Source Non-Playable Characters Blog
The first role playing game I can think of that used a Die-Step system is FASA's Earthdawn First Edition published in 1993, with game mechanics designed by Greg Gorden and others. As stated in the Geekerati Media interview, Gorden was inspired to use a Die-Step system when his boss asked him to design a Fantasy role playing game that had its own system, but that still used all of the polyhedral dice Dungeons and Dragons players were used to using. You can see how Earthdawn knew it was introducing a new concept in the Die-Step system to players of games like D&D and Runequest due to the way they first present the mechanic. In Earthdawn, players attributes are rated by a standard value and then given their die based effectiveness rating (yes, Earthdawn used the Papyrus font). Given that one of the character generation methods in Earthdawn, the random roll method, has players roll 4d6 and drop the lowest value, it is clear that the intended audience was D&D players and the authors were giving these players a point of reference for how good a "d8" in an attribute was. Looking at the chart below, we can see that a character with average Intelligence in D&D would have a d8 rating in Earthdawn.


As mentioned above, Earthdawn is a Target Number system and the rulebook provides guidelines for Game Masters to use when setting difficulty numbers. Looking at an "ordinary" person, we can see that a task of "Average" difficulty requires a roll of between 3-5 to achieve any degree of success. Let's assume a Difficulty Number of 4+ for a task and we can see that a person with a d6 will have about a 50% chance to get an "ordinary" success and a person with a d8 has about a 62.5% chance of getting a degree of success. For those wondering, the use of the term ordinary success is intentional as Earthdawn has Degrees of Success as well and the use of "about" is because the dice are open ended which doesn't affect this particular Difficulty Number but would higher values.


While Earthdawn is truly innovative, it is also illustrative of a weakness in Die-Step systems that will be touched upon later. You can see a hint at this weakness at Step Numbers 8 and 9 on the Step/Action Dice chart above.



Another revolutionary role playing game that utilizes a Die-Step mechanic is Shane Lacy Hensley's masterpiece Deadlands Classic. The first edition was published in 1996, three years after Earthdawn, but the underlying mechanics were designed by Shane Hensley with some additions like Fate Chips from Greg Gorden. Episode 164 of Geekerati erroneously credits Gorden with the use of a Step-Die mechanic in this game. That was all Hensley's idea and demonstrates how great designers can come up with parallel mechanics, though Hensley had done previous work on Earthdawn so that might have fueled the creative fire a little. Deadlands uses a combination of Die Pool and Die-Step mechanics as character attributes and skills are rated by both the quality and number of dice. Thus a person might have a Smarts of 4d4 or of 2d10. The person with the 4d4 rating will roll more dice, but the one rolling 2d10 is more intelligent. Like Earthdawn, die rolls in Deadlands are exploding or "open-ended," but unlike Earthdawn players select only the highest value from their pool rather than adding them together. This innovation leverages the strengths and intuitive nature of Die-Step systems without adding the limitation hinted at above.

One of the primary strengths of Die-Step systems is that they are easy to understand and are intuitive in representing each character's potential. If a game has a baseline difficulty of 4 for most tasks, it is easy to figure out how likely a character is to be able to accomplish a task merely by looking at the kind of die rolled. As mentioned above, a character with a d6 would have a 50% chance of success and a character with a d8 would have a 62.5% chance.

Another advantage, at least from a simulation perspective, is how modifiers affect Die-Step systems differently than standard fixed die systems. In D&D, for example, a +1/-1 modifier adjusts the level of success by a character by +/- 5%. Some might argue, okay I am arguing, that this isn't a good simulation of effects. A person who is a highly skilled sniper would be affected by crosswind and distance, but would not necessarily be AS affected by them as someone less skilled. In a fixed die system, the modifiers are static too. In a Die-Step system, the modifiers are fluid. Some might argue that this makes it more difficult to balance, but I would argue that you should balance for the ordinary and allow the dial to move with greater success.

Let's take the d6 vs. d8 above as an example and assume that these are the characters' ratings in their "Shoot" skill and that the base target number for successfully hitting something is 4+. Okay, this wasn't an exactly random choice. Let's assume that firing at long range adds  -1 modifier to the roll. In the case of the lesser trained d6 shooter, this is a penalty of 16.67%. In the case of the d8 person, it's "only" a penalty of 12.5%. Thus the skill of the characters is coded into the level the modifier affects the character with characters of higher skill suffering lower effects from modifiers. What I like about this is that it means that the probability of success by higher level characters is less random, even when accounting for obstacles and modifiers. And this is done in an elegant way that is embedded in the system.

If you don't agree with the benefits of a sliding system in die step systems, let me introduce you to rigid modifiers in a multiple die Target Number system like Champions. Because these systems use additive die pools, in the case of Champions rolling 3d6 and adding them together, results are along a bell-curve. This means that each point of modification has a different effect on the probability of the outcome based on the distribution curve of the die combination. Which brings me to the flaw in the Earthdawn system. Because Gorden wanted Earthdawn to be able to represent an tremendous range of Attributes, the actual Step/Action Dice table has attribute values going to 100, you quickly end up rolling pools of dice in order to achieve the ability to roll higher outcomes. For example, looking on the chart above you can see that there comes a point where a player rolls a 2d6 and adds them to get a value. This is considered "better" than rolling a d12. In the sense that it is impossible to roll a value of 1, this is better. However a quick glance at the table below illustrates the problem quite clearly.


A character rolling 2d6 has a significantly lower chance of a bad roll, but also has a significantly lower chance of a good roll. The results become even more extreme if the individual dice are exploding as they are in Earthdawn.


This is why I prefer the solution offered by Savage Worlds or Dungeon Crawl Classics which attempt to correct the distribution problem by either adding static modifiers after a person has achieved d12 or manufacturing dice that fill the void between d12 and d20. While the use of Die-Step systems may constrain the power curve more than some other systems, these games are well balanced and use the mechanic to very good effect. Savage Worlds, for example, has done an excellent job of adapting a Die-Step system to super heroes as have the Sentinel Comics role playing game and all the super hero games that used the Cortex+ system.

There are many games and game systems in the table top role playing game hobby. Dungeons & Dragons is a great place to start, but you should check them all out and see what you like.




Monday, May 20, 2019

From the Archives (August 27, 2007) -- Interviewing James Lowder About HOBBY GAMES: THE 100 BEST

In 2007, Green Ronin Publishing released one of the best books on hobby gaming ever written. Their book, Hobby Games: The 100 Best, featured thoughtful articles highlighting some of the best games in the history of the gaming hobby written by some of the best game designers in the industry. Some of the games were well known and are played by thousands of gamers on a regular basis, others were rare games that influenced the creation of the games people play today. One thing is certain, the game became a Christmas Wish List for many gamers and started an internet meme where game hobbyists listed the games they own/play.





Your average consumer isn't a collector of games and doesn't have room in their house for 1000+ board/card/roleplaying/family games and resources like these two books allow for those consumers to purchase games based on the opinions of individuals who have a great deal of experience in designing and playing games.

In August of that year, I and my fellow Geekerati panelists had the honor of chatting with editor James Lowder about the book and added some of our own recommendations. You can listen to the episode here:



The list of games in this edition a wonderful selection of the popular and the rare and consumers cannot go wrong with any of the games on the list.

In case you are wondering, I have provided a copy of the games included in the new volume below. Those games that are in bold are games that I own and those games that are italicized are games that I have merely played. Some of the games I now own, like Apocalypse (aka The Warlord) and War & Peace, were purchased because of this book.

  1. Bruce C. Shelley -- Acquire
  2. Nicole Lindroos -- Amber Diceless
  3. Ian Livingstone -- Amun-Re
  4. Stewart Wieck -- Ars Magica
  5. Thomas M. Reid -- Axis & Allies
  6. Tracy Hickman  -- Battle Cry
  7. Philip Reed -- BattleTech
  8. Justin Achilli -- Blood Bowl
  9. Mike Selinker -- Bohnanza
  10. Tom Dalgliesh -- Britannia
  11. Greg Stolze -- Button Men
  12. Monte Cook -- Call of Cthulhu
  13. Steven E. Schend -- Carcassonne
  14. Jeff Tidball -- Car Wars
  15. Bill Bridges -- Champions
  16. Stan! -- Circus Maximus
  17. Tom Jolly -- Citadels
  18. Steven Savile -- Civilization
  19. Bruno Faidutti -- Cosmic Encounter
  20. Andrew Looney -- Cosmic Wimpout
  21. Skip Williams -- Dawn Patrol
  22. Alan R. Moon -- Descent
  23. Larry Harris -- Diplomacy
  24. Richard Garfield -- Dungeons & Dragons
  25. William W. Connors -- Dynasty League Baseball
  26. Christian T. Petersen -- El Grande
  27. Alessio Cavatore -- Empires in Arms
  28. Timothy Brown -- Empires of the Middle Ages
  29. Allen Varney -- The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen
  30. Phil Yates -- Fire and Fury
  31. William Jones -- Flames of War
  32. Rick Loomis -- Fluxx
  33. John Kovalic -- Formula Dé
  34. Anthony J. Gallela -- The Fury of Dracula
  35. Jesse Scoble -- A Game of Thrones
  36. Lou Zocchi -- Gettysburg
  37. James Wallis -- Ghostbusters
  38. James M. Ward -- The Great Khan Game
  39. Gav Thorpe  -- Hammer of the Scots
  40. Uli Blennemann -- Here I Stand
  41. S. Craig Taylor, Jr. -- A House Divided
  42. Scott Haring -- Illuminati
  43. Dana Lombardy -- Johnny Reb
  44. Darren Watts -- Junta
  45. Greg Stafford -- Kingmaker
  46. Lester Smith -- Kremlin
  47. Wolfgang Baur -- Legend of the Five Rings
  48. Marc W. Miller -- Lensman
  49. Ted S. Raicer -- London’s Burning
  50. Teeuwynn Woodruff -- Lord of the Rings
  51. Mike Breault -- Machiavelli
  52. Jordan Weisman -- Magic: The Gathering
  53. Steve Kenson -- Marvel Super Heroes
  54. Gary Gygax -- Metamorphosis Alpha
  55. Greg Costikyan -- My Life with Master
  56. John D. Rateliff -- Mythos
  57. Chris “Gerry” Klug -- Napoleon’s Last Battles
  58. John Scott Tynes -- Naval War
  59. Erick Wujcik -- Ogre
  60. Marc Gascoigne -- Once Upon a Time
  61. Mike Bennighof -- PanzerBlitz
  62. Steve Jackson -- Paranoia
  63. Shannon Appelcline -- Pendragon
  64. JD Wiker -- Pirate’s Cove
  65. Richard H. Berg -- Plague!
  66. Martin Wallace -- Power Grid
  67. Tom Wham -- Puerto Rico
  68. Joseph Miranda -- Renaissance of Infantry
  69. James Ernest -- RoboRally
  70. Jennell Jaquays -- RuneQuest
  71. Richard Dansky -- The Settlers of Catan
  72. Ken St. Andre -- Shadowfist
  73. Steven S. Long -- Shadowrun
  74. Peter Corless -- Shadows over Camelot
  75. Dale Donovan -- Silent Death: The Next Millennium
  76. Matt Forbeck -- Space Hulk
  77. Ray Winninger -- Squad Leader
  78. Lewis Pulsipher -- Stalingrad
  79. Bruce Nesmith -- Star Fleet Battles
  80. Steve Winter -- The Sword and the Flame
  81. Jeff Grubb -- Tales of the Arabian Nights
  82. Shane Lacy Hensley -- Talisman
  83. Douglas Niles -- Terrible Swift Sword
  84. Ed Greenwood -- Thurn and Taxis
  85. Mike Fitzgerald -- Ticket to Ride
  86. Thomas Lehmann -- Tigris & Euphrates
  87. Warren Spector -- Tikal
  88. David “Zeb” Cook -- Toon
  89. Mike Pondsmith -- Traveller
  90. Zev Shlasinger -- Twilight Struggle
  91. Kenneth Hite -- Unknown Armies
  92. Sandy Petersen -- Up Front
  93. R. Hyrum Savage -- Vampire: The Eternal Struggle
  94. George Vasilakos  -- Vampire: The Masquerade
  95. Kevin Wilson -- Vinci
  96. R.A. Salvatore -- War and Peace
  97. Jack Emmert -- Warhammer 40,000
  98. Chris Pramas -- The Warlock of Firetop Mountain
  99. Steve Jackson -- The Warlord
  100. John Wick -- Wiz-War
Which of these games do you own or have you played? Which games from the past decade should be added to the list?

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

STAR EAGLES: Reflections on Kickstarter Project Expectations



No photo description available.


When Kickstarter launched a decade ago, on April 28th, 2009, it helped to create a new kind of business model that allowed businesses and individuals to raise capital for projects in a new way. No longer did creators have to rely on loans, credit cards, and families when attempting to fulfill their dreams of being a toy maker, an inventor, a novelist, a game designer, or a host of other dream jobs. Instead, they could market their ideas to the "crowd" in the hopes that enough people would be interested in the project that they would contribute money to the creator. People could microfund or contribute large sums and support creators in their projects.

Kickstarter is now a vital revenue stream for small and medium scale creators to launch businesses or business projects, but the supporters have evolved as the platform has evolved and not always for the best. Because of the quality and success of a number of excellent Kickstarter projects, the games of Monte Cook Games starting with Numenera or the Battletech video game come quickly to mind, some people have come to believe that all projects should be as professional as these and that backing a project is more like being a pre-ordering customer than being a dream fulfilling patron. To be fair, there are huge projects like Critical Role's recent animated series project that make the patronage component very clear, but as much as I love Cool Mini or Not their highly professional projects have muddied that water somewhat.

None of this is to say that Kickstarter is "only for the small." Indeed, the platform was designed for projects of all sizes and scopes. It was meant to be used by businesses big and small as a means to fund projects that might not otherwise be funded.

And that gets to the crux of the platform. It's for projects big and small that might not otherwise be possible. It is a project enabling platform and not a pre-order system. A perfect example of the kind of small project that Kickstarter was created to enable is the Star Eagles project by Ganesha Games


Star Eagles is a science fiction action game of futuristic space fighter combat using highly detailed 1/285 scale miniature spaceships

Ganesha Games is the kind of one man shop game company that could not have existed before the internet made international communication fast and easy, changes in global banking allowed for the instant sale of international products possible, and batch print on demand services enabled the cheap printing and shipping of rulebooks. The company is currently based out of a flat in Italy and is run by the one man game designing machine Andrea Sfiligoi. They haven't hit the big time, but they make excellent game mechanics and their designs have an excellent reputation. Andrea's Song of Blades and Heroes has inspired an entire community of spinoffs and even resulted in a couple of rule books using the basic mechanics published by Osprey Publishing, a major publisher in the wargaming community.

Andrea managed to build his successful business for years without a Kickstarter, but eventually ran a project called Star Eagles in May of 2017. My guess, I haven't asked him, is that Andrea saw that there was an opportunity to grow his small company into a medium sized company and if this is the case the Star Eagles seemed a good candidate. Star Eagles is a 1/285th scale game of tactical star ship battles that uses a version of the Song of Blades and Heroes system modified by Damon Richardson to be a perfect fit for tactical space battles. The project sought a modest budget of $16,000 with which Andrea would publish a paperback version of the rulebook, tactical movement templates, condition markers, and both resin and metal miniature space ships for use with the game. It was pretty ambitious and it's clear from the marketing material that Andrea had plans for the project should it succeed at a much higher level than initially asked. For example, you can see the proposed game box Andrea hoped to manufacture if the project managed to benefit from economies of scale.

Star Eagles Game Box Concept
Good news for backers was that the project received enough funding to be fulfilled as promised, but the bad news for backers was that it didn't succeed at a level high enough for Ganesha Games to benefit from economies of scale and transform the company from a small to a medium sized gaming company. The project received $26,688 in pledges from 330 backers, of which about 10% would have to go to Kickstarter corporation and whomever processed the payments. That left Andrea with about $24,000 to manufacture the project, but there were some additional complications. First the 330 backers were divided into 11 categories and each of the categories were promised different packages of material ranging from only the pdf of the rules to full sets of minis, templates, dice, etc. All of this from a one man shop with no ability to benefit from economies of scale.

So...how did they do?

There have been some backers who have complained, but from my perspective I think they did an exceptional job. Given that the scale of the project pretty much meant that some of the items, the resin minis, effectively had to be molded by hand, I am really impressed. I imagine the molds were based on 3D printed models based on Damon's computer designs, but the molds likely had to be hand pressed by the production company. Let me walk you through my package, which was the "Two Squadron Starter Package."

Let's start with the quality of shipping. The fulfillment company was Alternative Armies in Scotland and as you can see, the box had a bit of a rough trip.

No photo description available.

Rough as that box looks, it's actually one of the better looking boxes I've had shipped from the U.K. Some day I'll discuss just how brutal GamesQuest shipments have been for my merchandise. Regardless, it's not the exterior that matters, it's whether what was inside survived intact and Alternative Armies wrapped the items up securely.

No photo description available.

Layer upon layer of bubble wrap protected the items inside and they were a sight to behold.

No photo description available.

From my initial glance, it looked like everything was in the package and a later inventory showed that everything was there. While there were some small issues with the "color" of the resin casts, they were fully able to be assembled and had nice detail that will look very good when painted. Of course, "when painted" is a loaded term for miniature gamers as that might be never.

No photo description available.

The shot below gives a good sense of what the ships will look like when assembled.

No photo description available. 

And a wide variety of ships were provided to allow for a good gaming experience.

No photo description available. 

Close up, you can see some nice details and you can see how some thought went into making assembly easy for hobbyists.

No photo description available. 

As nice as the resin figures where, it was with the metal figures that the set really showed its quality. These casts were fully complete and didn't require any assembly.

Image may contain: shoes and outdoor 

They also featured some pretty cool designs. 

No photo description available. 

No photo description available. 

If I did have one small complaint, it would be that the bases were of the same resin as the miniatures rather than the clear plastic shown in the initial Kickstarter. It's not a deal breaker, and these will look good painted, but they would have had more utility as clear plastic. That aside, the ability to set the dice in the bases is a nice modification.

No photo description available. 

The cards were of good cardstock and had good illustrations of the ships and all of the statistics you need for play.

No photo description available. 

 A real strong point was in the templates. It's likely that these were done by Litko Plastics, since Ganesha has some templates available from that supplier, and they always do good work. Many of these templates work for all Song of Blades and Heroes based games.

No photo description available. 

The turning template is really well designed and intuitive.

No photo description available. 

No photo description available. 

 Overall, I think that this is an excellent project from a small company. I wish they had been more successful as I would have liked to see what they could have done benefiting from economies of scale, but this is a yeoman's effort and is exactly what Kickstarter was designed to allow.
 

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Find Room in Your Pocket Book for Steve Jackson's Pocket Box Games

What is old is new again because Steve Jackson Games is republishing their classic Pocket Box Games from the 1980s. Do yourself a favor and check them out.

Way back in the before times that are the not now (1977), a young game designer named Steve Jackson created an entirely new genre of games when Metagaming Concepts published a small game called OGRE. The game was deceptively simple to play and remarkably deep for its price and size. This combination of low price and small components were the central features of what came to be called "Microgames." Metagaming Concepts published a significant number of Microgames during their tenure, including OGRE, G.E.V. a sequel to OGRE,  and the MELEE/WIZARD games to name a few. These games were a huge financial success for Metagaming, but creative differences led to Steve Jackson leaving that company to form his own company Steve Jackson Games.

When Jackson left Metagaming, he took a couple of things with him that he used to launch his company. These were the SPACE GAMER magazine that Metagaming had been publishing and his OGRE and GEV designs. For a variety of reasons, he was unable to take MELEE/WIZARD with him and would not be able to publish those under the Steve Jackson brand until approximately 30 years later. As a Steve Jackson publication, SPACE GAMER went from a journeyman publication that had a significant "house" focus, to one of the leading hobby gaming news magazines of its era. Though it had its share of house content, the pages of the Jackson published SPACE GAMER were filled with articles about games like D&D and TRAVELLER and its coverage of the CHAMPIONS role playing game contributed to that game's larger success.

But the magazine was only a small part of what would help to transform Steve Jackson Games from a small game company to one of the most successful privately owned game companies in the business. To be sure, it's no Hasbro or Asmodee, but it is a company with gross incomes around $5.5 million. It's still classified as a small business, but it's a cornerstone in the gaming hobby. One of the key reasons the company was able to grow was its swift publication of the OGRE game and a series of new games based on the microgame model, games that came in sturdier plastic pocket boxes.


While there are several games in the pocket box series, the two best known are OGRE and CAR WARS and these are the games that helped to secure Steve Jackson Games' future success. Both of these games, in their early print runs, had short and easy to understand rulebooks, counter sheets, and maps to be used for play. They contained months of deep game play for a very inexpensive price. Both OGRE and CAR WARS became individual product lines, but some of my favorite pocket games are lesser know and equally robust games that cover a variety of themes. These themes ranged from a post-apocalyptic future where a kung fu death cult fought against the evil clone masters to to hunting for Dracula in London, and from the small tactical operations of a Raid in Iran to the massive strategic challenge that is the Battle of the Bulge (simulated with only one page of rules in ONE PAGE BULGE). The games were fun and inexpensive when they were published.

A typical example of a Pocket Box game is UNDEAD. The game was published in 1981 and recreates the battle between Van Helsing's vampire hunters and the dread Count Dracula. The game also includes the ability to expand play by including the possibility of playing a certain consulting detective in a variant scenario. It can be played as either a two player game, or as a mini-role playing game. The box for the game was a medium hardness plastic that had the ability to hang in a store display. 


Inside the box was a double printed poster sized sheet that contained the rules and two maps that could be used in play. The first was a map of the city and the second was a tactical map. In addition to the poster sheet, there was a counter sheet that included all of the counters one needed for play. Players would have to carefully cut out the counters, but they featured engaging and colorful artwork.


Until recently, the only way to get these games was to track them down on eBay and pay a potentially exorbitant price. That all changed this month with Steve Jackson Games' launch of a Pocket Box project on Kickstarter. Now you can get them for $20 a piece, less if you take advantage of some of the pledge levels. Most of these games are absolute gems, and it's nice to see them in print again...this time with upgraded components.





Wednesday, August 08, 2018

Coming to Kickstarter Next Week: Power Rangers: Heroes of the Grid



Renegade Game Studios (CLANK!, Kids on Bikes, Overlight) has teamed up with Hasbro and will be launching a new Power Rangers board game on August 14th. The release comes just in time for Power Morphicon, which takes place in Anaheim the week after the game launches. Renegade will be attending the con and there will be playable demos there

The game, Power Rangers: Heroes of the Grid, is a co-operative board game designed by Jonathan Ying (Star Wars: Imperial Assault, Doom: The Boardgame) that challenges 2-5 players to save Angel Grove from Rita Repulsa’s evil army of monsters. The game features the classic line up of Rangers and like many games launched on Kickstarter features over-sized plastic miniatures.



The preliminary digital renderings of the miniatures look fantastic, so this game is following the trend set by Cool Mini or Not, IDW, and other publishers who use the platform. The game is scheduled for release in the Spring of 2019 and is designed to play in 45 minutes to an hour.

I look forward to watching the Kickstarter proceed and seeing the full array of miniatures and expansions that Renegade Game Studios will be offering.


Thursday, May 31, 2018

A Look Back at CHAMPIONS 1st Edition.

With the recent announcement that Ron Edwards was teaming up with Hero Games to produce CHAMPIONS NOW, a game that hearkens back to the first three editions of the game, I thought it would be a good time to take a look at those older editions.

The CHAMPIONS super hero role playing game is one of the best super hero role playing games ever designed, and the game to which all super hero rpgs are compared.  CHAMPIONS wasn't the first role playing game in the super hero genre, that honor goes to the game SUPERHERO 2044 which I discussed in an earlier blog post.  CHAMPIONS even builds upon some of the ideas in SUPERHERO 2044.  CHAMPIONS used the vague point based character generation system of SUPERHERO 2044 -- combined with house rules by Wayne Shaw that were published in issue 8 of the Lords of Chaos Fanzine-- as a jumping off point for a new detailed and easy to understand point based system.  CHAMPIONS was also likely influenced by the melee combat system in SUPERHERO 2044 in the use of the 3d6 bell curve to determine "to-hit" rolls in combat.



While CHAMPIONS wasn't the first super hero rpg, it was the first that presented a coherent system that allowed a player to design the superheroes they read about in comic books.  The first edition of VILLAINS & VIGILANTES, which predates CHAMPIONS, did a good job of emulating many aspects of comic book action but the ability to model a character in character design wasn't one of them.  CHAMPIONS was released at the Origins convention in the summer of 1981, and it immediately captured the interest of Aaron Allston of Steve Jackson Games.  Allston gave CHAMPIONS a positive review in issue #43 of the Space Gamer magazine, wrote many CHAMPIONS articles for that publication, and became one of the major contributors to the early days of CHAMPIONS lore.

Reading through the first edition of the game, can have that kind of effect upon a person.  The writing is clear -- if uneven in places -- and the rules mechanics inspire a desire to play around in the sandbox provided by the rules.  George MacDonald and Steve Peterson did more than create a great role playing game when they created CHAMPIONS, they created a great character generation game as well.  Hours can be taken up just playing around with character concepts and seeing how they look in the CHAMPIONS system.

There are sites galore about CHAMPIONS and many reviews about how great the game is, and it truly is, so the remainder of the post won't be either of these.  Rather, I would like to point out some interesting tidbits about the first edition of the game.  Most of these will be critical in nature, but not all.  Before going further I will say that though CHAMPIONS is now in its 6th edition and is a very different game today in some ways, the 1st edition of the game is highly playable and well worth exploring and I'm glad that Ron Edwards has picked up that torch with CHAMPIONS NOW.

  • One of the first things that struck me reading the book was how obviously playtested the character design system was.  This is best illustrated in the section under basic characteristics.  In CHAMPIONS there are primary and secondary characteristics.  The primary characteristics include things like Strength and Dexterity.  The secondary statistics are all based on fractions of the primary statistics and represent things like the ability to resist damage.  Where the playtesting shows here is in how players may buy down all of their primary statistics, but only one of their secondary statistics.  A quick analysis of the secondary statistics demonstrates that if this were not the case a "buy strength then buy down all the secondary stats related to strength" infinite loop would occur.  
  • It's striking how few skills there are in 1st edition CHAMPIONS.  There are 14 in total, and some of them are things like Luck and Lack of Weakness.  There are no "profession" skills in 1st edition.  To be honest, I kind of like the lack of profession skills.  Professions in superhero adventures seem more flavor than something one should have to pay points for, but this is something that will change in future editions.  
  • There are a lot of powers in CHAMPIONS, but the examples are filled with phrases like "a character" or "a villain" instead of an evocative hero/villain name.  It would have been more engaging for the folks at Hero Games to create some Iconic characters that are used throughout the book as examples of each power.  The game does include 3 examples of character generation (Crusader, Ogre, and Starburst), but these characters aren't mentioned in the Powers section.  An example using Starburst in the Energy Blast power would have been nice.
  • The art inside the book is less than ideal.  Mark "the hack" Williams has been the target of some criticism for his illustrations, but his work is the best of what is offered in the 1st edition book.  It is clear why they decided to use his work in the 2nd edition of the game.  Williams art is evocative and fun -- if not perfect -- while the work Vic Dal Chele and Diana Navarro is more amateurish.
  • The game provides three examples of character generation, but the designs given are less than point efficient and one outclasses the others.  The three sample characters are built on 200 points.  Crusader can barely hurt Ogre if he decides to punch him (his punch is only 6 dice), and his Dex is bought at one point below where he would receive a rounding benefit.  Ogre has a Physical Defense of 23.  This is the amount of damage he subtracts from each physical attack that hits and it is very high.  Assuming an average of 3.5 points of damage per die, Ogre can resist an average of 6.5 dice of damage per attack.  Yes, that's an average but the most damage 6 dice could do to him would be 13.  That would be fine, except Crusader has that 6d6 punch, and Starburst...oh, Starburst.  All of Starburst's major powers are in a multipower which means that as he uses one power he can use less of the other powers in the multipower.  The most damage he can do is 8d6, but only if he isn't flying and doesn't have his forcefield up.  Not efficient at all.  One might hope that character examples demonstrate the appropriate ranges of damage and defense, these don't quite achieve that goal.
  • The combat example is good, if implausible.  Crusader and Starburst defeating Ogre?  Sure.
  • The supervillain stats at the end of the book -- there are stats for 8 villains and 2 agents -- lack any accompanying art.  The only exception is Shrinker.  
  • Speaking of artwork and iconics.  Take that cover.
  • Who are these people?!  I want to know.  The only one who is mentioned in the book is Gargoyle.  It's pretty clear which character he is, but I only know his name because of a copyright notice.  Who are the other characters?  Is that "Flare"?  The villain is named Holocaust, but that cannot be discerned from reading this rule book.  If you know, please let me know.  I'd love to see the stats for that guy punching "Holocaust" with his energy fist.
CHAMPIONS is a great game, and the first edition is a joy.  If you can, try to hunt down a copy and play some old school super hero rpg.

This is an update of a post from 2012.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Names are the Hardest Part of DM-ing


Coming up with effective names is a challenge for any narrative medium, and this is no less true when it comes to running entertaining role playing game campaigns. Names can make or break a game session. Unlike other media, the challenge in role playing games doesn't solely stem from a need for verisimilitude. Not every game requires realistic names, and some games are better with silly names. It all depends upon the group you are with.

The real challenge comes in coming up with names on the spot that are both serviceable and memorable. You can create as many write ups for NPCs as you want in your game master prep time, but I can guarantee you that your players will often ignore the NPCs you've given deep backstories in favor of interrogating "random street urchin 6" or "Kobold number 5" for hours of entertaining game time. Entertaining game time...if you get the name right. Otherwise, the session might spiral into metagaming or groans. You have to both know what kinds of names fit with your group's temperament, and be quick on your feet. No one wants to wait 5 minutes while you look through Gygax's Book of Names or as you hit generate on a random name generator until you get the right name.

I'm not saying that I'm a master at this particular skill, but I do have one piece of advice for game masters both novice and experienced. Feel free to include your players in the name creation process. Don't feel that you have to do this work alone. If your players want to interrogate "random street urchin 6," as them to come up with a couple of names. These names won't always be great, but they will usually fit with your group's desires and are frequently memorable.

I am currently running a campaign entitled "Tinker, Tailor, Dwarf, and Spy" that takes place within the D&D Known World setting's (aka Mystara's) Grand Duchy of Karameikos. The fact that I am calling it the Grand Duchy will give grognards some hint as to the timeline I've set the campaign in. The Known World setting is a wonderful mashup of various cultures that might not seem to fit on the surface, but which work as a sandbox for freeform gaming. Sure, there's a society with peak Roman Empire governance placed between a proxy for the Eastern Empire and a Feudal society inspired by medieval Poland, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and a dash of the Holy Roman Empire. To the north is a country based on Naples, to the far north are the Germanic and Viking states. To the south is fantasy Hawaiistralia Reality TV island. It's a chaotic place, but if you buy in it can be wonderful. My players' characters haven't discovered it yet, but the "reason" why the countries are so chaotic in makeup in "my Mystara" is because one of the Immortals is preserving the dying cultures of our Earth and placing them on Mystara's surface, must as he places Mystara's dying cultures in it's Hollow World.

Anyway, one of the freedoms that a world like this provides is that almost any name is fair game, and here is a list of the names we use in my game with their alignment, race, and class. Some are canon names from the sourcebooks, but others are just ours.

Duke Stephen Karameikos (LG, Human, Fighter (Cavalier)) -- Ruler of Karameikos and the founder of the "Duke's Tinkers" who are Karameiko's secret police, the organization the player characters work for.

Duchess Olivia Karameikos (NG, Human, Thief (Mastermind)) -- Stephen's wife and the actual Chief of the Duke's Tinkers, she is known only as "The Weaver" to all but the most trusted Tinkers.

Kraeyg Lyste (NG, ??, Thief(??)) -- The publicly known head of the Tinkers about whom very little is actually known. They appear to have the ability to change shape and are careful to cover their tracks. They keep detailed documentation of all members, and potential members, of the Tinkers and rival organizations.

Festival Master Quarch (N, Human, ??) -- He runs the King's Festival in the northern town of Stallanford. Stallanford has no mayor, so Quarch is the nearest thing.

Alaric (CG(E), Human, Cleric) -- A priest of the Church of Traladara who has forsaken his oaths to serve The Iron Ring and who has become a priest of Orcus. (Deceased?)

Dinae (LE, Bugbear, Ranger) -- Dinae was once a tracker and wrangler for the Iron Ring who captured slaves for the organization and answered to Alaric. He has recently been turned into an asset in the service of the player characters.

Sharaen Vlatovski (N, Human, ??) -- A human woman who was married to a Kobold named (xxx) who had been forced into service to the Iron Ring by Alaric. She infiltrated Alaric's hideout by allowing herself to be captured, she was about to assassinate one of Alaric's lieutenants and free her husband when the PCs arrived. The PCs know that she is married to the kobold, but are unaware of her skill set. When the PCs return to Specularum, she will find Kraeyg and enter into service in the Tinkers.

Bukie Bimblebritches (N, Halfling, ??) -- He and his brother Howie own the Inn, Stables, and Gambling Hall in Stallanford. They are quite wealthy.

Felix Fentsworthy (N, Human, Thief(???)) -- He is the local fence in Stallanford and the head of its "band" of thieves. After all, you can't call 6 people a guild.

As you can see from the list above, my players can be a little punny, but not too punny.