Monday, February 18, 2013

Eclipse: New Dawn for the Galaxy Review

Eclipse: New Dawn for the Galaxy is a board game for 2-6 players about exploring, researching new technologies, battling ancient aliens, and creating a galactic empire. Players choose to play as humans or one of the alien races. These range from intelligent plants to cyborgs to warmongering spider people. Each race has its own quirks and specializations. Humans, for example, start off with the technology to build starbases and have the best resource conversion rate. The game recommends each player choose humans for their first time out.

Before I discuss gameplay, let's talk about the actual physical game itself. This is easily the biggest box on my gaming shelf and for good reason. This veritable chest contains hundreds of game componentsships, hexes, ship upgrade parts, technology tiles, populations cubes, influence disks, ancient alien ships, etc. Everything is pretty high quality. Each hex, for example, has a unique image on it. Those who have played Twilight Imperium will likely criticize the relatively low level of detail on the ships used, but I don't think they detract from the game in any way. The sheer number of components may lead some to believe that this is a very complex game. The good news is that it's not. 
This game requires a lot of room. We had to play on the floor.

The game consists of 9 turns in total, no more, no less. Turns progress clockwise around the table as each player performs an action until they pass. These consist of explore, influence, move, research, build, and upgrade. At the beginning of the game, the board consists of a central hex with the other players' hexes surrounding it. The board grows through exploration, and the only limit to the galaxy is the number of hexes. Exploration is vital, as building new ships, researching new technologies, and upgrading your fleet requires resources. It's also risky; there's a pretty good chance that you will have to battle some ancient ships at least a few times in the course of a game, not to mention the possibility of player vs. player conflict.

Combat is simple and fast. Ships of the same type battle first, with the ones with the highest initiative shoot first. As a default, only sixes are hits and only do one damage a piece. Of course, by the end of the game, most of your ships will be tougher, faster, or more powerful depending on what you choose to research, meaning few combats are ever alike. 

Each player gets their own character sheet. 
Researching is another key component of the game. The available technologies are generated randomly, which both adds to the replay value and creates a race for the most valuable. The kinds of technology you can research range from improved hulls for your ships to wormhole generators which allow to travel to previously inaccessible hexes. 

So how exactly does one win this game? Through victory points. At the end of the ninth turn, you total the points for every hex you control, the research you've done, the ships you've destroyed, and any alliances you've made. This is one of those games where losing is just as fun as winning. There is a sense of narrative that unfolds as players take turns exploring, researching, and strengthening their empire. 

One thing I should mention is the length of this game. The box says 30 minutes per player, but I have never seen it run that fast. I would say closer to an hour per player for newbies and maybe 45 minutes for those with some familiarity. This isn't really a criticism though; just know that if you break this out, it will likely be the only game you play that day. 

Out of all the board games I've been playing lately, this is my favorite. Fans of 4X games will love this, and those who were intrigued by Twilight Imperium but put off by the complexity will find much to enjoy here. There is a fairly hefty price tag, but it's definitely worth it. 

Friday, February 15, 2013

And to Whom Do We Make Out the Check?

This is a debate that cropped up in my group in the past few weeks. When we award experience, are we rewarding the player or the character? The DM took the stance that for XP goes to the character. This seems rather logical and the alternative, of rewarding players for their actions rather than the specific characters, may seem odd but bear with me for a moment.

XP is not a thing that exists in the world of the game. It is an abstract method of reward for the character completing certain tasks. While the character would explain any growth a result of some period of risk, training, or research, none of those tasks are completed unless the player wills their character to do it. To argue otherwise creates an artificial separation between the player and their character.

This may not seem like a problem, but the second you introduce a dream-based adventure or give the players alts to use for a scene the question rears its head: do we award XP for this? If we're talking about reality, that is, how things function in the real world, why should I give XP for playing out a dream based adventure or for someone else's experiences? For these questions, I have a simple answer: because gaming time is limited. If you ask the players to roll dice, they should be rewarded experience. Otherwise, those scenes should only exist as narrative pieces.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Freebie: Stars Without Number

You should cruise over to DriveThruRPG and snag a free copy of Stars Without Number. The ruleset looks similar to OSR versions of D&D but, you know, science fiction. Even if you never run it, it's worth the read.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Purple Sorcerer Games' Crawler's Companion Review

A whole slew of Kickstarter projects were announced immediately following the release of DCC RPG last year. Purple Sorcerer Games delivered their goods last week, offering a hybrid of a dice roller app and rules reference guide. The best part? The app is 100% free regardless of whether you backed the Kickstarter project.

One of the most common complaints I've read about DCC RPG is the "need" to purchase funky, expensive Zocchi dice. I've never given this complaint much validity because the rulebook outlines very simple methods of generating these results and really, what gamer doesn't love dice? Assuming you have a smartphone, this app remedies that "need". Well, sort of. 

To be honest, the main dice roller interface is a little bit clunky. You roll by swiping your finger over the die towards the center of the screen. One of the features is a die-lock, which allows you to roll multiple types of dice at the same time. The problem is that dice often get locked unintentionally, meaning you'll sometimes be rolling extras. It would be better if I just had to tap the screen instead of swipe. 

Another issue is that dice don't automatically disappear from the table after they've been rolled; each one is removed manually by tapping it. In a game where every class uses numerous types of dice, not having a clear-all function to remove clutter quickly can certainly be frustrating. 

The main dice roller portion of the app isn't a total loss, though. When you roll multiple dice of the same type, it displays the total on a single die. Critical hits and fumbles initiates are announced via a "Natural 20" graphic and a laughing skull, respectively. The sound of rolling dice sounds like the real thing. All of these features distinguish it from being just a random number generator. 

The reference portions of the app are what really shine. Spells, critical hits, and critical failures all have a mini-dice roller function with none of the aforementioned issues. Simply click on the appropriate option and displays the total of your roll and the appropriate result. You can program your modifications into these sections to account for the relevant bonuses which makes pulling the results from one of DCC's hundreds of pages of tables as simple as pressing a button. 

There is also general reference section of the app that is equally useful for both new players and veterans alike. This is broken down into three sections, one for classes, combat, and general reference. One of the issues with the first printing of DCC is the lack of an index. While the second printing has remedied this, finding rules, which are still spread out over several sections, is now much faster and convenient. 

Despite its flaws, Purple Sorcerer Games has given us a tool that is as essential as the rulebook itself. The issues I have with the dice roller function are certainly forgivable considering the price and nothing an update can't fix. 

Friday, February 8, 2013

The Golden Rule

In the last year I have run campaigns using Pathfinder, Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG, The Burning Wheel, Mouse Guard, and Traveller. The internet tells me that this variety of games is somewhat atypical. If my gaming groups are an analog for any other, the system groups use is largely decided by the GM. It makes sense. Game Masters tend to be the most experienced members of a group and usually have the best familiarity with the ruleset. The internet also tells me that most groups have a dedicated GM. This means that the group is often playing that person's favorite game. This is how it should be. Between learning the rules and all of the out-of-game prep, GMs typically have the largest investment in a campaign. 

Speaking from experience, I have yet to play a system that does everything well. As much as I love DCC RPG, I think it fails to do anything to encourage deep, character driven storylines. The reason I don't fault it for such is because it is clearly not trying to be that game. What it does well—pulp fantasy, dungeon crawl, "Appendix N" adventures"—it does better than any other system. But I don't always want that, and many groups don't always want what the GM has to offer. 

The question is: how do you get a group to try a new system? The Golden Rule: play anything, but only GM what you want. There are far too many great, innovative games to get stuck playing the same one forever, but convincing a GM to look into a new system isn't easy. Offering to don the mantle of GM for some time is likely to be welcomed, as it is an incredible amount of work. It's overwhelmingly been my experience that groups benefit from having multiple people capable of running games as well as playing as many games as possible. 

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Monday, February 4, 2013

Descent: Journeys in the Dark 2nd Edition

Variety is the only staple in my gaming diet. Normally, I'm content to hop from system to system as what I want from the gaming experience changes. Imaginative pulp fantasy adventure? DCC RPG, every time. Deep character roleplaying? Burning Wheel. Intense, tactical decision making? Wargames, like Warhammer or Warmachine. Sometimes, I just want a casual adventure game that has a high depth to low complexity ratio. Descent: Journeys in the Dark 2nd Edition is that game.

Descent is basically D&D with none of the roleplaying elements and a streamlined combat system. Each game, or quest, pits a group of heroes against the Overlord as both sides struggle to progress their objectives and foil their enemy's plans. Objectives range from simple kill missions to scenario specific goals, like lighting all of the beacons to alert the castle guards of an assault. While it's true that there is no roleplaying, the simple stories that unfold really make these games feel purposeful, which isn't always the case with dungeon crawls. This sense of story is only heightened during campaign play and this is where the game really shines.

Like D&D, the heroes have four archetypes to choose from: Warrior, Healer, Mage, and Scout. Each archetype then has two classes to choose from. Warriors can choose to be a Berzerker or Knight; Mages, Runemaster or Necromancer; Scouts, Wildlander or Thief; and Healer, Disciple or Spiritspeaker. These options cover most of the standard options in fantasy roleplaying games and do offer a considerable amount of choice to the player, as each has their own unique skill tree. One of the most exciting parts of campaign play is using the accrued experience to purchase new skills.
The detail of miniatures is pretty high, particularly for the heroes. 

The Overlord also earns experience. In addition to controlling all of the monster on the map, the Overlord has a deck from which they draw traps, events, and other effects to tip the odds in their favor. As the Overlord gains experience, they can purchase new cards and further customize their deck.

The board is assembled from interlocking tiles. There are A LOT of tiles. 
Mechanically, the game is very easy to pick up. I ran a total of six quests this weekend, three in two different groups. By the end of the first quest, each group had a solid grasp of how to play. Combat is simple without being too base; roll to hit, spend surges (indicated by lightning bolts on the dice) to increase damage or add effects like stun or poison, and the defender rolls defense. The  attack dice are slightly confusing to interpret initially because each side may have a combination of a numeral, a number of hearts, and lightning bolts. The defense dice, on the other hand, just have a number of shields. You resolve combat by subtracting the number of shields rolled from the number of hearts, applying the remaining hearts as damage.

One of the things I really liked is that dedicated healer's are not a necessity, which is almost never true in D&D. If the Overlord reduces you to 0 health, you can spend a turn to Stand Up, recover some health, and you're back in the fight the following turn. Without a healer, the number of knockouts tends to snowball, but smart players can prevent the initial KO from happening by avoiding unnecessary fights and focusing on the objectives.

Interested parties may be put off by the price. $80 for a board game is expensive, but between the sheer number of high quality components and the replay value, there is a huge bang for your buck. The game comes with 20 quests, but there is a lot of room for customization for creative players. By comparison, a set of the core rulebooks for D&D or Pathfinder is going to run you a little more, and, if you enjoy the tactical elements of those games you can't go wrong with Descent: Journeys in the Dark.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Character Suicide

Something happened on Wednesday night in the DCC game I am playing in that has never happened before: a character committed suicide. Due to some unfortunate circumstances, one of the characters accidentally (and brutally) murdered a 13 year old girl. Later in the adventure, we were in a room with several jail cells full of zombies. That same character unleashed all of them and tried to fight them off as we ran to let him perish (it became obvious what he was doing at this point).

It's overwhelmingly been my experience that players rationalize their actions. Very often, these atrocities are simply forgotten. A choice few choose redemption. I have never seen a character commit suicide as repentance.

Still, there are two other facts which make this anomaly more interesting. As much as I love DCC RPG, I do not think of it as a system that encourages deep, character driven roleplaying. It's an imaginative adventure game and one could never develop their character beyond the implications of occupation and class choice. This is also the first time playing an RPG for this player and it's both surprising and refreshing to see someone dive headfirst into a character.