Scythe

Fun night of gaming last night playing Scythe by Stonemaier Games.

We played a seven-player version which made for lots of drama and strategy. Even with 7 the turns go quickly and the game never felt like it was even close to dragging, which is very impressive.

The game uses absolutely no dice, which makes for a refreshing change. In fact, it had one of the lowest random chance element of any game I’ve ever played. It’s all planning and decision making, which can be good or bad depending on how clear-headed you are (I had a bit too much whiskey as per usual šŸ˜)

Each player has a unique sect that they play as. Although the actions you can take are the same across the board, each color has a different cost for those actions. There are also a few special actions or variants on those actions that can be unlocked through building mechs.

That’s right, there are mechs! Thematically it’s based in some sort of alternate future (or vaguely steampunk past??) It’s a fun element that shows up not only in the flavor text, but in the game pieces themselves. And there’s a LOT of game pieces. I’m a sucker for any game with cool minis and euro-style machined pieces. Although I can’t think of any other game that uses both at the same time!

Looking forward to playing again!

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Shogun

Shogun by Queen Games (not to be confused with the 1986 game of the same name by Milton Bradley) is a resource management / zone control game for 3-5 players.

First, let me say, this game is a lot of fun for someone like me that cut their teeth on Risk and Catan at various times in their board-gaming life. The game board itself will immediately remind you of Risk with its Regions and Provinces and unit allocation. Digging deeper you get elements of Citadels and Kingsburg with turn order and special power selection. You will have to manage rice and gold properly while defending your borders (or expanding them) and erecting buildings that decide your eventual Victory Points. It’s like Risk smashed together with Catan, which is very cool because both of those games with their singular objectives become a bore after too many playthroughs.

This brings us to the most important and interesting part: Combat! A special dice tower is used for your units to “hit”, but instead of throwing dice into the tower you will throw the warring units themselves. The innards of the tower have maze-like paths and shelves with cutouts, making some units stay inside the tower and others find their way through. Your units may just push other units stuck inside the tower out, and on top of it all there are Farmer units that can battle for or against you seeded within the tower. It’s a fully unique and interesting mechanic that adds elements of luck, statistics, and meta-gaming. Most importantly, it takes trust in the hardware and the playtesters that helped develop it.

The theme of feudal Japan is a refreshing change of pace from fantasy and scifi tropes that overwhelm gaming, and although this may only be an aesthetic reskin that holds no true relevance to game play mechanics, it was a welcome element.

The game materials state that it takes about 2.5 hours for a game, but we played 4 hours in a five player game, and we tend to play fast, so add an hour or two for your group if you have slow or methodical players. There are lots of decisions to make and if you aren’t thinking ahead and adjusting strategies as new things crop up on the board you could get stuck in a sluggish drag.

There are 3 and 4 player options for the game, but 5 player seems to be the most balanced and what the developer intended.

Overall a great game, and one that I am super pumped to play again!

In Defense Of AP (Action Points)

A long time ago I decided to make a move from the standard D&D-style collection of actions to a system based on Action Points, or AP.Ā  Instead of having different slots of actions–Major, minor, bonus, move, etc.–I wanted players (and myself) to be able to choose a wide array of potential actions on their turn without being locked in to categories. Sure, a normal round using AP in Shattered Empire still may have the superficial look of One Move, One Attack, Drink One Potion, but there will be tons of times when it doesn’t. You can use your AP in any way you want, which means that some characters will attack multiple times instead of doing anything else. Situationally, you may take three move actions on your turn instead of attacking at all. You might sit back and save up AP for the next round, unleashing a giant combo, or make a skill check, read a spell-scroll, and then fire a crossbow. You have a max amount of action points to use, and depending on the situation you may use them in any number of ways. It lets strategy and variety rule over combat encounters.

But, lets be fair. It can slow down a turn.

Some players are really good at keeping numbers in their head, thinking about actions before their turns, and making quick decisions based on context. And some players will inevitably ask “How many AP have I used this turn again?” It might take a little training to get the flow down perfect, and it might even take the GM urging a certain player to pick up the pace. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s a better one.

My favorite thing to shake my head at is when a player realizes they still have AP left over, so instead of just ending their turn they take a superfluous action. They may have put themselves in the perfect position strategically, performed every action they planned, and had great results, but by-the-gods they are not going to waste 2 AP. “I’ll move five feet to the right.” There. A nice even 0 AP.

But, to be fair again, those slow players are going to be slow no matter what system they use.

Perhaps the biggest reason AP wins over Actions is in spellcasting. Varying AP costs for spells encourage combos and synergy. All too often in RPGs the Standard Action is used up when you cast a spell, and there’s no way to cast another one. With that type of system, how often does a Controller or Leader say “screw it, I’ll just attack” instead of casting a buff or debuff? They don’t want to “waste” their Standard Action on granting their ally a bonus to attack. They may entrap an enemy with a spell, but by the time their turn comes back around and they are able to attack it the effects may have already worn off. I’ve watched it happen over and over.Ā  With a rich AP system, you can make those combos where you cast a spell that makes an enemy vulnerable to poison and then apply poison to your mace and attack them. You might not be able to move that turn, or maybe you sacrificed some defense in order to save up AP…but there is a path to your ideal actions.

AP also introduces the concept of situational value to a spell or power. Different powers cost different APs, so you might choose one or another based on the other actions you want to take that round. You can stack powers because they aren’t all “Standard Actions.” You can put your head down and run all the way across the battlefield instead of going one “Movement Action” per turn.

Weapons too can be affected in a different way because of AP. You might be able to take two stabs with your little knife, dealing minor damage to two targets instead of swinging your giant halberd and dealing massive damage to only one target. AP effectively grants an “attack speed” to different types of weapons; an attribute that is completely missing in so many tabletop RPGs.

Does using an AP system cause more bookkeeping? Technically yes. But it’s so marginal that it doesn’t matter. Usually your AP isn’t going to change outside of leveling, and the system is easy. There is no need to physically chart your AP usage every turn. You can quickly and easily track it in your head, and it resets every turn anyway.

Finally, AP resets at the END of your turn. This allows for multiple actions to take place during the round, even if it is not your turn. Reactions, interruptions, extra defense…You spend AP on these, so if you are willing to limit your actions during your normal turn you can perform more actions during someone else’s turn in the round. This adds another layer of strategy and gives a feeling like things are happening more in real-time and in response to multiple other players and NPCs, instead of just having a “Reaction Action” slot.

If you are interested in an AP system, check out the BASE12 system or shoot me a message to playtest the Shattered Empire campaign setting!

To Explore Strange New RPGs

At one time I started working on a Star Trek RPG homebrew using the BASE12 system. I’ll probably not do anything else with it because I’m much more interested in creating my own worlds than I am in repurposing other people’s. But if you need a starting point for a Star Trek home game, here’s a Race/Class/Skills handbook and character sheet that you can use. This is literally everything I have, so you’ll have to get creative to fill in the gaps. Enjoy!

Player’s Handbook

Character Sheet

Trusting Your AudienceĀ 

Making your own game for your friends to play raises problems that you never anticipated, but you essentially know where you want to go in the end. It’s just for you and your friends after all.

Preparing a game for the public, however, brings up a whole new list of problems that must be solved.

If something is a little unbalanced when I run a session as a GM, I just tweak it. I’ve talked about this recently:Ā fudging. A couple extra hit points here, a smaller die size there…and like magic we’re back on track and balanced. It’s an important skill to have as a GM. But should it be expected?

Is it reasonable to ask someone playing your game to use common sense and improvisation to keep it running smoothly? Or is this a cop out, essentially releasing a broken game and asking someone else to fix it?

I’ve been building combat encounters and trying to playtest for balance, but sometimes there are so many variables that I can’t account for everything.

“Yes, this WOULD be a balanced Level 5 encounter, except they found that chest of magic maces last session, so now it’s a steamroll.”

I’ve had to learn the hard way in comedy and screenwriting to trust my audience. Have faith that they can follow. Don’t treat them like idiots, don’t spell everything out for them. Know that they’ll get there without you. Maybe it’s the same theory here?

Or maybe this is completely different, and requires a different approach.

What do you think?

Banished: Hardcore Resource Management and City BuildingĀ 

If you grew up playing games like SimCity, Warcraft I & II, or Civilization, chances are that you would immediately fall in love with the 2014 PC game Banished. But be warned: This game is not for the faint of heart. 

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Banished is currently on sale for $5 on Steam. Go pick it up on the cheap!)

This game feels like someone took the hardest parts of every civilization-building sim, mashed them together in a ball, and then used that as their blueprint–but with way more depth, strategy, and sky-cursing mass extinction events. Oh, and to top it off, there’s none of that pesky combat to get in the way of your construction and city planning. Your enemies are nature, chaos, and your own over-zealous choices. 

That’s not to say that Banished depends on luck or just one specific formula to succeed. There are many avenues to victory, and perhaps even more avenues to defeat.  Too often games like this require you to set your sliders correctly and then sit back and watch the world take shape. 

This is not that game. In fact, unlike many other survival sims, you can win or lose by how much direct involvement you have with your city and workers from one moment to the next. Sure, there will be times that you can assign a few workers and then go grab a glass of water from the kitchen, but often you’ll be working the controls like a mad scientist in some steampunk comic, pulling levers, twisting knobs, and fine-tuning minutiae. And trust me, it will change on you in a heartbeat, so don’t get too comfortable. 

Perhaps the vanilla version suffers a bit from late-game listlessness, and that would be my biggest–and perhaps only–complaint. But what bails it out is the open integration for user-made mods that breathe new life into your games, tweak existing mechanics, and add tons of brand new assets. In fact, this is one of the few games where I would strongly recommend using a specific mod INSTEAD of playing the vanilla game. 

The mod I’m speaking of is called Colonial Charter. This mod is seemlessly integrated, a breeze to install, and 100% free to use. It adds countless new buildings, job plots, resources, and production goods to the base game, and feels like it was intended to be part of the game from the start. Not only that, but it adds some quality-of-life additions found in other mods, making it a veritable all-in-one solution with no worries of load order adjustments or mod conflicts. Once you use this mod you will never go back to vanilla, and starting a new game will feel like a totally different experience with its multitude of maps, settings, and world bonuses. (For a real gritty post-apoc feel I recommend an Adam and Eve game on a desert map. Play on Hard to give yourself that desperate-survivalist challenge.)

Banished isn’t for everybody, but that’s fine. It’s deep and thoughtful, and there are absolutely no bad guys to shoot or run over with your jeep. This isn’t a mindless time killer, and it isn’t for the impatient or noncommittal. For those of you left standing, it is well worth your time, mental bandwidth, and spare change.