Gamer’s Notebook

April 2017

Gloomhaven

Seems to be a little bit of ‘easily excited’ buzz on this one. Mainly from the BGG Bloodthirsters cheerleader squad. This never alters my opinion. At all.

Can I review a game with ninety odd scenarios on the basis of playing one? Of course I can.

Can I possibly review a dungeon crawler fairly, given that I dislike the form and that it can’t be that hard to do it well? Probably not. So here goes.

Like Steve Martin it starts well, but goes quickly downhill.

These are the good bits.

Unlike a big game we know, Descent, there is no need for a GM. So no one has to sit out and silently place plastic. On the other hand, there is zero scope for ad libbing, tuning monster numbers, or enhancing the story experience.

The character, fatigue and action card system is truly clever. I liked it a lot. Each character has the usual asymmetric stats card but added to this is his modus operandi for the day. Mine was, broadly, do not gain too much XP and do very little to aid the party. Great fun. Instant Neutral Evil.

Your dedicated action cards add more character and respectable decision making into what is normally a routine plod of fixed movement and combat values. Plus they handle initiative effortlessly. As you use the action cards they gradually deplete and despite rests, both long and short, you will eventually be too tired to do anything. This seems like a genuine nod to the realities of fighting, exploring and fear. In the Seventies we campaigned for weeks without sleep. Sometimes in real life.

I also liked the fact that they have made a stab at giving your enemies individual flavour. Monster-type specific cards – there are hundreds of them – are flipped each round (reminiscent of Sentinels of the Multiverse) which make the denizens do… stuff. Sometimes very weird stuff. What do they do? Job one is homing in on the party. Archers might eschew their inherent advantage and close range, or advance and use their swords. Gobboes might lay a trap, instantly forget where it is, and fall in. Almost always monsters will queue at a doorway as if there is a fire drill or the buffet has opened. Sometimes they even rush into another room – gasp! – but never work out that their mates need help. The variety is welcome but doesn’t always make perfect sense. . I see an app in our future, and then all will be well. Good effort chaps, but nothing like as refined as Warhammer Quest: Adventure’s believable monster actions. Wheel. Reinvented.

There are no dice. Instead each character has a deck of fate cards that are probably rooted in the excellent Fudge RPG system, and which simulate a dx – d7 I think initially, but multiple duplicate values make x much higher. You calculate your basic combat factor, which is variable depending on what action card you played, and then a fate card draw modifies the total. Cards can generate +1, +2, 0, -1, -2 and also the powerful x2 or the painful null – this is a total fail (x0). As your level increases, because this is a legacy game, you can eventually swap a +1 card for a +2, and so on. Levelling up is generally well handled. Clearly gamers always like the idea of custom cards, more stuff and skills, non-resetting experience and moving through a long campaign. I am assured there is a personal quest element and a character retirement plan, which is nice in a Village kind of way.

The final good thing is that because of the underlying fatigue driver, the game plays in a reasonable time and self generates time pressures. Even with four. We got through in three hours, including the usual rule queries. There is however player elimination. Strange but true. Level one characters are very brittle and I almost died immediately in the first room because I moved right instead of left. This was not a record. In Dan Glimne’s Dungeonquest I opened the first door and fell down a bottomless pit. But characters do die before the end and if you are unlucky, your game night is over. Off to find another game or read the paper. If I may be so bold, this is questionable, or even wrong. Especially for a co-op.

The less good bits are… the bits. There are an awful lot, in a massive box, but they are underwhelming. Considering the price (£120), buzz and recent rival productions (Cthulhu Wars!), I expected much more than cardboard monsters in stands. The artwork is not much better. It so needed a French art director. Jean Bey, the genius from Rackham might be available… where is he now?  Fortunately I bought everything he ever did, including the beautiful Hybrid. Or perhaps Peter Gifford could advise.

The bad bits are that the format and the scenarios are no different from anything we have seen before. The shadow of brainless D&D and Descent looms large… It is the usual procedural laziness based on a young teen idea of fantasy: Room A. The door opens and the room is overstocked with monsters. Option A – Kill them. Grab the gold. Option B – run away. Option C – is missing. More monsters appear. Space is rather tight. There might still be a dragon hiding behind the altar. Room B: repeat. Room C: repeat but add extra monsters. Room D: repeat but add a boss monster and a chest. They have not even used passages… perhaps the best bit of any dungeon. Mites, anyone?

It is depressingly uninventive. Lowest common denominator gaming. You do little but fight, cast magic, kill and pick up treasure and XP. And die. There might well be more sophisticated interaction later on, though I doubt there will be much. The emphasis is on tactical skirmish combat and you know exactly how they go. But even the combat system and monsters are vanilla, if cleverly scaled for the number of players. There is no elegance  here, nothing that might make you change weapon or try a different tactic. We do get external and urban scenarios, which would definitely appeal to me, but I suspect they are designed by the same 13 year old brain, where more is always more. We have started in a dungeon after all. As you do. Wilderness will just be a dungeon with the roof down.

I concede it is hard to be original. The millions of recorded hours of D&D have seen to that. But once, just once, I want to open a door and encounter a different cliché. Even a starving kobold huddled in the corner would be a treat. She might help with the quandary of why you are in an overpopulated, foodless, tiny dungeon in the first place. You might negotiate with her, or gain some information, get cursed, or be assigned a quest. This is surely basic stuff: it has been possible since Tales of the Arabian Nights. While I shudder at the memory of Mansions of Madness, I would even take a puzzle at this point, and that is a big stretch for me. Anything but baseless slaughter. Better hurry though, because one of your party will probably just kill her for a gold piece. My only hope here is that the system and community supports some open source scenarios that ask a little more than a bionic arm or a nuclear wand. Looking inside the box, it is a sandbox. Let’s see what happens.

Ironically, within hours, we sat down to play Legends of Andor. Not perfect, a bit puzzley, but frankly getting the idea that adventuring is not just about clipping the local fauna. Every monster you kill, from the very few that appear, moves your game time clock forward. So you don’t kill monsters unless you absolutely have to. You avoid them. It is not difficult.

Okay. Enough.

There is some good design work in Gloomhaven. I might even play it again, obviously depending on the scenario. I certainly look forward to the next game, Founders. I would hazard a guess that the overall campaign story will be worthwhile but at what price? If meta narrative is the aim, then you need a sub-hour scenario length to build the lower level story. This would establish your heroes, who may gain their fame through healing, humour or historic deeds, not just by notches on their swords. But that is not, designers of the world, an end in itself. For all the variety we see in a Gloomhaven dungeon session, it might as well be ten minutes and driven by cards.

Ultimately a lot of effort and money has been spent to design a decent system that is totally wasted on the topic. Hack and Slash D&D does not need a legacy reboot or Euro mechanisms. It needs to be forgotten, along with Munchkin, except perhaps for nostalgic chats at the pub. I am sorry, but the genre is laughable. As shallow as gaming gets, just before you get into the really bad taste stuff.

So, sadly, Gloomhaven turns out to be a young cousin of Descent; leaner and quicker, a little smarter, but still dated and dumb. Legacy dumb. The philosophy is interesting: if you are not going to want to progress past the first session, is it really Legacy?

And so to…

Legacy Gaming or
Sticker Culture
(and Seafall)

I let the Legacy thing run a bit. To see if it sank or swam. In short, I should love it but was not convinced it was anything but a genius marketing ploy, with a side of annoying anal collectors. They presumably now buy three copies? Play, preserve mint, and investment. The subjected games didn’t tempt me. Risk? Nah. Too many treasured memories and massive arguments. Pandemic? Okay once or twice, but massively overrated. Thunderbirds, perhaps!  So, almost by default, we tried Seafall. I am… almost won over by the idea. Not yet the execution. I am slowly surrendering to the sticker culture but I have not yet torn anything up. As with Gloomhaven, I very much liked this one in parts. Really, really hated others, like nothing since Robo Rally, and I had to be verbally restrained by my local group.

Annoyances and fudges first.

Firstly, the theme is nebulous. We are a handful of provinces seeking to expand our mercantile trade while trying to understand the mystery shrouding the area. The board looks like a railway or straight channel. This is a big clue. The symmetric setup feels false and a sop to abstract balance, in a situation that craves diversity and imbalance. Is it a pirate game? Well, yes it probably is. Check the cover art and the rules. Do they admit this? Not really. So we have a whole level of legal trading and exploring which makes you your money. This is time consuming, but you have to do it every time unless you want to fall out with people.

Next we have artificial restrictions and negative rules space. Unlike learning a complex game in instalments, here we know all the rules but… some are intentionally missing. We can see islands to explore, odd symbols, a massive stone arch under which we can sail, and sites or ships to raid. But we are either banned from doing so, or are not told how. So you have a rules query but you cannot look it up. It feels odd, but all will become clear. It is a trade off for the revelations to follow. It adds to the suspense. I get it.

But what this means is that the overall pacing of play is set by the designer. We are in his hands, and it is a commitment far beyond the normal two or three hours. If he feels it will take you four sessions, or ten hours, to achieve plot point x, then that is what it will take. Moreover, for you to finish my design, it will take you twenty (estimate) sessions or roughly fifty hours.

This to me says the designer has to fully understand that time commitment, and be empathically on top form. More so, he needs to be capable of sustaining extended play, much like a roleplaying GM. That means pacing, theming, incentivising, engagement, scalability and verisimilitude. Believe me, this is not easy. It also seems barmy these days – it is hard enough to design a two hour game. That said, we have played it for five sessions. I will give it one more.

On the flipside there is, as with Time Stories and Gloomhaven, an inferred arrogance here. My game format is so valid, well tested and interesting, you will want to play it repeatedly until I decide you can proceed to the next level. I know every designer does this but they don’t demand such dedication.

This staged revelation approach leaves each gamer, and the group, with an interesting decision. At what point do they bail? Clearly many have gone the distance. Developments in Seafall had me resigned fairly quickly, at which point – as if it knew – the game introduced the next interest level. I stayed on but I doubt we have completed more than 20% so the group may want to continue, leaving me in a hole. Thus the call becomes highly subjective. For me, Seafall is good but it is not ‘give up another ten major game slots’ good. I have seen enough. I can guess where it is going but I would like to know the outcome of the mystery. Ironically, if it was in space, then I would be much more inclined to continue.

Right. That was the kind, constructive bit. Now for the serious problems.

When I read about Legacy systems I immediately thought role playing. Ongoing campaigns where you build slowly and steadily towards higher levels and bigger challenges. Yes, of course, there are setbacks. But everything you earn, XP or objects or reputation, is retained. Not in Seafall.

Session one is a learning scenario. I don’t believe it is avoidable. In fairness the system is nothing an experienced gamer couldn’t grasp in half an hour – you can guess most of it – but learn we do. Like those training sessions at work where they tell you how to lift a toothbrush safely or be nice to people with giant nose rings. The session runs two to three hours. Not a lot happens and, deep joy, at the end of it we are told that it counts for nothing. Nothing. Not even a certificate. I actually swore.

So what we certainly do not need is an evening of potty training before we are allowed to enjoy the full game. I will say no more because Here be Spoilers. The spoiler aspect is odd. I want to talk about these games, but their nature precludes public discussion. Nobody wants to know what is happening on scenario six if they are on two. We don’t want to know how it ends. Like Game of Thrones on TV. So I have had some agitated discussions face to face with the people at the same point in the cycle. But that is all.

Then we have milestones. This is, to me, the huge flashing beacon that says the game is not properly developed. Some basic actions get you some glory and often money or goods.  Interestingly trading doesn’t accrue glory, because it is a little too safe.  Put simply, if you roll the dice and risk sinking, you get glory. Basic Risk vs Reward. But I don’t know why you get glory for ship mods. Anyway. The milestones are the specials board on the wall, interesting targets that can be claimed by anyone. Again, no spoilers. The milestones carry decent to generous glory values that make the routine stuff look desultory for the relative difficulty. And it gets worse as we progress. Balance. Missing.

That was bad. But there is much worse. The killer, at which I almost got annoyed, was the session end portcullis. First there is the strongly implied need to convert your hard earned money into treasures. Why? Because dodgy old vases are better than cash? Inflation proofing? Tax evasion scheme? No, because somebody has a Dominion brain and that is what you do these days to get VPs. Stupid.

If someone achieves the Glory Target, the session abruptly ends. This can happen surprisingly quickly, often through those milestone rewards or a big sale of goods. You know this, in fairness, and are trying to do it yourself. The winner however gains all the better spoils in the game. The losers get a ship improvement. All record their accumulated glory. But in a cruel twist of fate, any goods you have not sold, and any cash you have not converted to variable value knickknacks, is lost. Yes. Gone. Your treasury and warehouse are bulging and your ships may be full of goods, but because Jemima’s strategy has beaten you to the arbitrary glory target by a microsecond, they mysteriously disappear. Your three hours was virtually wasted. Sorry. Bad luck old chap. In all seriousness, this was slack jaw inducing. I argued for three weeks, partly because I could not believe it. Cruel. Thoughtless. Poor design.

The clue is in the title: Legacy. This is not just about cute stickers and evolving rules. We are building a dynasty:  establishing a business model, discovering the world, trading, seeking the reason behind the odd activity. What is up with the natives? Why are all goods the same price? Why do countries only have two ships? It is about building an ongoing story arc, a narrative that colours and survives several sessions. Memories, people. Memories. This is encouraged through remarkable events, naming ceremonies, famous battles, sinkings, persistent allies, and character development. It is discouraged to an irrational level by brutal resetting: losing buildings, ship upgrades, money and goods every single game. This is embarassing design work.

From then on it is almost all good. Intuitive systems, fascinating storyline, exciting sea battles, breathless excitement when you place a sticker on the board, explore a new site, find a goldmine, gain a skill, buy a treasure or succeed at a milestone. The second best feeling is when you get told to open a new chest heavy with cards, bits, milestones, stickers and new rules. Bliss. Worth the entry price alone. But the real appeal is… the paragraph book. It’s big. It’s fun. It tells the story. It has a near illegible font.

Various events through the game tell you to read from this book. I like paragraph books.  A lot. This is somewhat more focused because it is not used every turn, so readings are infrequent and can be momentous. Oooohs around the table. Sometimes. You often get a token decision – typically help the natives or rip them off – but sometimes it is a major plot development or clue. Rarely, it is the command to select and open a new content chest. All good, nothing bad.

The appeal is maintained at a surprising level, because it becomes slowly clear after three proper sessions that this is all you are going to be doing for some time. Every time you set up on game night you will be trading to gain money, exploring nearby islands and hoping to get enough skills and leads to achieve something next week. The board and exposed rules quickly tells us how likely we are to progress. It is not going to be fast but that is the deal. If I am going to play Flat Top, Lord of the Rings, or Call of Cthulhu I know the time requirement. Same here. Thankfully, I like the Legacy idea a little more than I thought I would. And for this reason I will try Pandemic Legacy to see how well this aspect is handled.

It is almost as if there is a price to pay for the enjoyable parts. Again, this is decided by the designer. I like trading. I certainly don’t mind the odd sea battle. But how often do I want to repeat this in one evening, or on successive game nights? I want the paragraphs to be read out and find out more about the setting or the Pantheon of the Dead (made up place, not a spoiler). That means session end or milestones or island discovery. I have to do two hours of routine stuff to trigger this, and even then it may not happen.  It is like role playing with a weak GM.

A session has been taking 150 minutes. Let’s be generous and say this will be two hours when you get experience but there is a bit of time consuming housekeeping every time, as you might expect. The outcome of that time investment (in terms of impact on play) is measurable only in a marginal increase in skills, hold, speed or combat for one ship. It is not anything like enough, given the repetition. I want more baubles. If the session took an hour you might run two or three per evening. But realistically the answer is one. And if you carried forward your wealth… sorry, done that.

So as with many movies and TV mini-series, this game stands or falls on length, content and pacing. Mainly falls. Despite the overpowering need to trade and earn money, the game is about exploration and milestones at heart. You can fight, but we are adults and what you fancy is finding an island and naming it for your province. Admittedly, when I say we, I mean Captain Jack Siggins. Conversely, the regular winner and clear overall leader in our game is not an explorer but a committed trader and buyer of treasures. I rest my case!

My conclusion? It has been a long time since I encountered a game that I liked and disliked so much. If they hadn’t wasted my evening with the learning ‘experience’, sorted out the repetition, VP, pacing, resetting and portcullis problems, and used a plainer font in the paragraph book, then I could be raving. Much of Seafall is nicely done, undeniably. As of now the good parts just about outweigh the bad. If you like Source of the Nile, Blackbeard, Arabian Nights or paragraph games in general, and you are open to the idea of massively extended play length, get in there.

For all that, something is clearly not right. The game should not have these major faults, especially the painful reset. I just cannot imagine where that decision came from.  Were there deadline issues here?  It may be simply that Seafall has not been competently designed and developed and, perhaps understandably given the length, not fully tested or critiqued. Or, if by chance it has, the designer and publisher have a completely different idea of what is acceptable systemwise, gamewise and timewise. Are they aware of the German Invasion? You know, the one where games are published in good shape, and run in minutes, not weeks? We are back to Seventies wargames. I am being a bit mean, but there is no doubt in my mind that it needs a good development polish. Minimum.

Inis

Sometimes a game comes along that makes you stop and think. It will rarely be perfect, and this one certainly isn’t, but there is enough going on to knock one out of the routine and take notice.  Inis is a clever and quick little game and, according to the FLGS, is the latest in a series encompassing Cyclades and Kemet. I have played both of those, but to be honest I am not sure what the link is. So I will take it as it comes.

I refuse to say Dudes on a Map. Ever. Much as I refuse to watch Harold and Kumar Get the Munchies. But I suspect Inis is exactly what they mean.

The game is a simple one of Celtic area control. Bear with. The usual requirement for a number of areas is supplemented by an option to win by holding five sanctuaries – as often happens, you don’t have to build them if you can borrow someone else’s. The ubiquitous area control big armies are still here, but they don’t get about very well. And all troops are in short supply for each player, meaning that sometimes you want to lose battles to replenish or redeploy your forces. This adds a neat twist.

The game looks stunning and this tipped the purchase decision. Someone has gone to the trouble to make some very oddly shaped map sections tessellate perfectly. A bit of a gimmick, in truth, but lovely to look at. The card art is also attractive except that I would have gone for pastels rather than the saturated colours we are given – not quite in keeping with the Celtic theme. Average plastic pieces and some gorgeous oversize cards round it out.

The core rule, and why I liked the game, is an engaging card draft. Your army placement, building construction and combat, or indeed anything else, do not happen unless you have the right action cards. There are thirteen different cards available per round from which one is randomly set aside. As a tweak to the usual draft mechanism, you may pass from any of the cards you hold or have drafted thus far. This sounds worrying, and slow, but in practice one learns which cards to choose and which to deny your opponents.  Once familiar, it all speeds up.

The minor problem is in the mix and effect of the action cards. Firstly, there are stronger cards and obviously weaker ones, modified of course by what you are trying to achieve that turn. That I understand and the draft partly offsets the luck. But there are two cards that you rarely want, and more duffers appear when the game has developed a little. This is odd because it is the easiest job in the world to assess the cards and tweak them up and down until they are pretty much perfectly balanced. That they are the game’s main driver just makes it more puzzling.

Secondly, and worse,  one of the thirteen cards is usable only by the turn leader. It allows exploration by expanding the map. The concern is two fold: that the turn leader does not change frequently, although it can, so they get to build often but if the leader declines to take this card it is dead weight in another’s hand. This is compounded in a multiplayer game. In a two player game you will have six cards, and in a three player, four. Three times early in the second (three player) game I ended up with a card I could not use and effectively lost 25% of my actions. The dead card can be used to offset combat losses but that is it. This seems like a minor complaint but I found it worrying, in that this should have surfaced in development or testing. If it did, and it was left in anyway, I seriously question that decision.

Backing up the regular use action cards is a deck of Epic Tale event cards. These are all keyed to Celtic myth so you can expect magical effects, godly interventions and some real swings of fortune. I am conflicted on these cards. They are not consistently powerful – indeed some appear very weak –  but they add a lot of Celtic flavour, even if half the cards preclude pronunciation. They are also a must for variety given the repetition of the draft, but add even more chaos to a fundamentally chaotic system. There is quite a bit of Take That, which for me is simply tiresome in almost all games these days.

Analysing further, the game is not a positive build, snowbally, lovey dovey, co-op affair. You will sometimes want to attack your opponents and take their lands. And enjoy doing it. Even the draft is a bit spikey. The Epic Tales we have already discussed. More and more, this required aggression is an awkward issue in my groups. In recent weeks we have had reluctance to attack and half-hearted hostility, through to vicious campaigns, and even an old school Diplomacy style stab.

My theory, based on extensive research (cough), is that as we get older we are less willing to take a player out of a game, partially or entirely. Unless I misremember this was a major selling point of German Games – everyone got to finish the game, even if I was usually dead last.  But designers are still putting out games where combat is endemic, where players can have one man left, looking forlorn, and where friends can fall out.

The contrary part of the theory is that two player games, and so traditional wargames, by their nature, do not create this reluctance. You just get down and do it.  No justification, no whinging. There was a time when I actively disliked two player games. That was pre-Kosmos. Now there are so many good ones I look forward to each release, even if they, like Inis, are hunkering down inside a giant box.

But Inis has a response. Whether that response works will be down to further play. For three different reasons, the aggressive element is tempered and the result is a different feel to the usual combat based systems. Firstly there are some interesting movement, non-combat and  combat mechanisms that will often leave two or more factions co-habiting in one area. You will need to experience this to see the elegance and subtlety but suffice to say invasion and combat is not always decisive. Deadly, but not decisive. Secondly you can play defensively and turtle quite happily, which the opponent has to look out for. We believe you can build several sanctuaries in one area, which you can then defend and then buffer, and win without a single battle. Unlikely, but possible. Thirdly, once placed, subsequent army movement is very restricted. You are thinking ‘static game situation’ but it isn’t. And finally there is always plenty of room to expand (aka retreat).

So, for me, a conclusion is simple. As a multi-player game, possessed of all the usual problems – turtling, two players fighting to a standstill, big stacks, picking on the leader, kingmaking etc – Inis is a little disappointing. The limited card access problem adds to this feel as control reduces and chaos increases. As a two player game, where one needs to fight, occupy and expand out of necessity, and you always know your enemy and the cards, it is a much more challenging experience. Easily worthy of the Kosmos two player boxes. Either way, in a morass of Essen games still awaiting attention, this is one well worth a look.

Mike Siggins

Advertisements

One thought on “Gamer’s Notebook

  1. Nice post, Mike. I am delighted to see you back.

    I’ve seen a mate’s copy of Gloomhaven, even looked in the box and fondled some pieces, and shook my head. Not for me. Too much stuff. I have Andor and Doomrock to play.

    Legacy – only tried Risk and loved the first five games of “our world” as we delved into the unknown of defacing our game. Then the changing rules and evolving game put so much overhead into the mix that we limped to game eight or nine, before abandoning it to “not fun anymore”. I haven’t seen another Legacy game in the flesh since.

    Inis – that’s a new game right? Trying to avoid those, apart from a few trusted non-crowd funded sources. I’ll go back to the front door and wait for Wettlauf nach El Dorado. It may arrive today ….

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s