Gamer’s Notebook August 2006

Fantasy Flight

There is now no getting away from the fact that Fantasy Flight are a major player, and I am actually pleased that is the case. After several early forays that marked them out as ‘just another American boardgame company’, they have seemingly cracked the difficult task of presenting a steady stream of gorgeous looking, hefty and sometimes rather long games. These are provided at surprisingly reasonable prices, pushed out the door in numbers, and seem to preserve a viable business plan at the same time. The latter one is key, as anyone at Eagle Games will tell you. For these achievements alone, they should be congratulated.

They also have some real winners in their line-up. As a result, even I am tempted by their prodigious output on a regular basis. There, that surprised you… But one needs to be selective, because longer American style games are not for everyone, and with the huge ‘gravestone’ games pushing £60 ($110) here in England any mistakes can be costly as well as bulky. Why? Because what they seemingly haven’t cracked yet is dependable quality of design, the value of intensive and clinical development where needed, and perhaps a sense of knowing when to leave well enough alone. In short, they are not yet consistent. In the final analysis, Big Games with a high price tag need to say, ‘You can trust me to be playable’ as well as, ‘Hey, look at all my great bits’. I think there must be a large sign in FF Command HQ saying, ‘More is More’, but as my old school chum Mies Van Der Rohe contended, that is not always the case.

It strikes me that this issue is complicated because to achieve the impressive number of releases they are using both external and in-house designers, plus they mix in a fair number of reprints. As we now know, these reprints seldom return as they were, and most become ‘enhanced’. Personally, I would have thought that in many cases a few tweaks together with improving the artwork and rules would have been enough But no, there are often major changes to be made. But what do I know? (seriously). As with Peter Jackson, I charitably assume these changes are market driven updates, rather than just fiddling with another’s work for the sake of it.

I thought this time I would take a look at a recent selection of their games, featuring Arkham Horror as the key release.

Descent: A Journey Back to the Dark Ages

Let’s start with the biggest disappointment: Descent. This one left me completely cold, as if caught in the breath of a White Dragon. Even though I should have liked it, and really wanted to, it really failed on almost all counts. Based on a sneak preview at Essen I had envisioned a fantasy Space Hulk for the new century, with spectacular pieces, map boards and scenarios; my expectations were high. What was delivered was almost painful. It must be said that there were extenuating circumstances, and I should stress that everyone else playing really enjoyed it, as did many others at The Gathering and since. Some people are using the Great word, but then some people support Arsenal, or the Cubs. So this is almost certainly a minority view, with me in the corner again. Nothing changes.

The first problem I had was that my character, a bow wielding elf thief stereotype, was pretty lame. He ended up shooting from distance into melees and missing, and disarming the odd trap. I had in mind a down at heel Legolas, yet somehow proud and aloof, sniping with deadly accuracy from cover. I ended up as incidental cannon fodder. The other characters dished out damage in multiples of my own, and seemed to take on the defence values of tanks rather quickly, while I hid behind my stout Elven cotton.

The second problem is game length, or more specifically pace of play. It drags. Even more than Doris Drag, reining drag queen of Dragenham. The action, which could be fast paced and vibrant, is actually so leisurely that it may as well be in slow motion. In all respects, it is a dungeon crawl. Sorry. I think there are too many rules, too little scope for movement, and far too many monsters. See below for more controlled but channelled ranting.

The third problem is almost philosophical. Descent is a dungeon hack, in the worst possible traditions of the form. I go way back with D&D and once we got over the initial fun and excitement some of us started to question powergaming in neatly tiled dungeons with water features, full to the brim with monsters. What do they eat?  Adventurers I suppose. How do dragons, a few minotaurs and a couple of armies of gnolls and trolls live in the same building, happily confining themselves to separate rooms, perhaps wandering around a bit for exercise? What fun is it, long term, to simply kill monsters and cart off their treasure? Those players that didn’t ask these questions, or perhaps found credible answers, lived on to design this game.

So Descent is Old School adventuring, something I have personally been trying to leave behind for best part of thirty years. Why? Because, at heart, it is dumb, formulaic and repetitive, and because there are better ways to game, and much better places and ways to be role playing. Now Old School is back, with plastic bits and an attitude, and people seem to love it. There is no playing of roles here, it is just a bash the baddies and grab the cool kit exercise that brings us quickly to the door of the much loved/hated Munchkin and all its vile spawn. The spawn live nextdoor, obviously.

In the spirit of fairness, I will come clean. Even if I am rather embarrassed. I, Mike Siggins, have played Munchkin twice, and because I could identify with the jokes, I actually had a good laugh. However, I just can’t imagine playing it again. Why? Because there is no game to speak of. Once the jokes have emerged, you are left with a vapid exercise in card play, even though this didn’t need to be the case. One presumably buys the Sci-Fi expansion to get the same jokes, warmed over. Laziness? Lack of talent? Cynical marketing? Who knows. So while the purchase, initial play and commercial success of Munchkin don’t surprise me greatly, continued play does.

Accordingly, I can’t actually track the multiple ironies going on here. Is Munchkin taking the piss, a genuine attempt to just be funny, or is it really an homage to Old School as some claim? Who cares says Mr Jackson, counting his dollars. Is Descent knowingly ironic, an attempt to go retro, or just plain bad? I am erring towards the latter. I guess all this makes me a sort of role playing snob, but please read on.

What does Descent do well? Predictably, it gives you a whole load of amazing bits and enough scope for many, many games, albeit all rather samey. Or even a campaign, if you made up your own rules… The monsters are good from the box, but I have seen these hard plastic figures painted up in a hobby shop and they can look stunning. It also does an excellent job of creating a meaningful character for everyone in double quick time – you choose a base card, you get some special skills and weapons, you are quickly painted as weak or strong or a good shot or a heavily armoured thug. You immediately think character, not playing piece. There are some interesting magic items and weapons. The combat system (unlike the cumbersome one in World of Warcraft) is also nicely done.

Unusually for a boardgame, and I wish it happened more often, one player takes the role of GM. Or DungeonMaster as we used to say. For this gamer, any game that squanders the huge potential this offers, there had better be a very good reason. The GM gets to draw secret cards and deploy monsters and reveal the map as we explore it. In fairness, he may get the best deal overall, but even his actions are restricted. We are all working to a set scenario, known only to the GM, but even the most deductively challenged adventurer can work out that we are going to progress through half a dozen rooms, collecting keys and stuff, so that when we meet the Big Bad Boss at the end, we can overwhelm him. Or ideally, for excitement, just overwhelm him with a casualty or two. Then we all cheer, say Tschuss!* to four hours, and move onto the next scenario featuring strangely familiar monsters, rooms and magic items. Until such time as we buy the inevitable expansion set, anyway.

*Orcish for “Bye-eee!”

I could bang on again about the excessive time taken, but those who like Descent seem not to mind. Apart from the criminal under use of the GM (who does, in most cases, have a brain), what really kills it for me is this single factor: The party opens a door, and a room is revealed. Not a large room, but decent square footage as desirable dungeons go. The GM then proceeds to add chests and a monster to the room. Ahhh, a Clawed Terror. Scary, but we can handle him. Hang on, there’s more coming says our grinning GM. A couple of trolls, a minor demon, several squigs, two Horned Horrors, three Hell Hounds, four Vampire Hens, five Gold Rinnnnnngs. And an Ogre. The place is packed. It is banging. Have we caught the Ogre mid-party? The room fills out even more, and a couple of goblins have to go into the kitchen for a breather. Eventually, there is barely room for the party to squeeze inside. Small talk, canapés and vicious combat ensue, and as the night goes on, one by one the monsters fall. We clean up (wine stains just everywhere!) and nick the goodie bags. Another door beckons. You can work it out from here.

It is, in essence, very silly and over the top. I suppose Siggins getting all prissy over a fantasy game, that is meant to be fun, is silly as well. I hold my hands up to that one. But I hope you can see where I am going with this. Potentially, this was a game to ice the legacy of dungeon games from the past, all of which fell short in one, many, or all departments. Let us just be grateful that I will never have to play Talisman again. Potentially it was a chance to exploit a player willing to GM and open up all the exciting free-form improvisation and spontaneity that only a human umpire can provide. Potentially it was a campaign game, with character development, plot progression and scenario variety, that one would look forward to playing regularly. Potentially, it could have handled a single session scenario in 90 minutes or less. It misses on every single one of these, and by some margin. I guess I am just out of step with the market, what they are willing to pay, play and identify as fun. Which is where I came in – I’ll get my coat.

Resurrection Shuffle

A far, far better game is Fury of Dracula. Yes, yes, I know. It is very hard for Dracula to win, and the player taking that role should ideally be a bit paranoid to start with. But if you can get someone to be the stooge, especially someone who will give it a good go all the way through, and convince them that getting caught during the day is generally a bad idea, you should enjoy yourselves. This is a game with oodles of flavour, some neat deduction, and, interestingly, is not that far removed from the lauded Games Workshop original. It is, most importantly, a game that wants you to like it. The designer, and in this case the developer, clearly cared.

The basic system, like the Hidden Hobbits device in War of the Ring, is rather clever, and gives away just enough information to make the chase interesting. The Dracula player uses hidden movement, and leaves behind a trail of embargoed clues that the other players follow. He gets to use minions and event cards to delay, distract or murder his pursuers, and the hunters get to pick up the pieces. This balance works very well indeed, aided and abetted by all the vampire paraphernalia we have internalised from movies, games and books. And Buffy.

You know it is a good game when all the hunters think they definitely have their quarry cornered, and then five minutes later they look at each other with puzzled looks. Where on earth is he? He must have been in Vienna at some point, but now he could be anywhere. You go that way, I’ll cover this route, and John can cover the South. But Dracula still gets away, and that is the fun of it. Conversely, the run of luck sometimes turns cruelly against the Count, and he will get into trouble. Not a strong gaming plus, but great for the feel of the thing.

Within Fury of Dracula there is a neat little combat system. It does feel a bit odd at times, and I think we will see this particular hat looking better on another head, but it certainly beats rolling dice. The nature of fighting with old Drac is that developments are unpredictable. What will you kill him with? Will he run and hide, or fight, vapourise, or turn into a bat or wolf? Inevitably, he fights better at night. The solution is a set of combat cards that in turn form an interesting matrix of play and counter play, timing, bluff, guesswork and tactical guile. As the highest praise I can offer, I am reminded of Football Strategy’s excellent matrix system. No gags about Dracula’s aerial game please.

For the fans of Puerto Rico and Caylus out there, you will not find much gaming meat here, but there is easily enough for the time required. One can argue that atmosphere alone makes for a poor game, but it is something I will always take in preference to a great game with no soul at all. Fury of Dracula has atmosphere and gameplay, and I think the mix is a good one. I know from my group that needing someone to play Dracula may diminish the appeal for some, and that I can understand. What this may all mean, very much as with Shadows over Camelot last year, is that it is a game that you may play once or twice and enjoy greatly, but not feel any great desire to play again. But I bet if you have Fury of Dracula on the shelf, it will come out at least once a year.

That statement probably colours my verdict on Fury of Dracula, and even I can’t see myself playing it very often, but I liked this game a lot. I think it works well, it has a decent number and weight of decisions, and it has presence, when so many recent games don’t. It undoubtedly has some luck, and it can tip heavily at the wrong time for Dracula, but like a small beer paunch, the luck is carried well. I also use it to show that Fantasy Flight can do considered and successful in-house development, even if that development means leaving some elements well enough alone.

In the world of furniture, they talk about finish being everything. Fury of Dracula has just that quality, and it is my Game of the Month this time.

Game of Thrones

An old game now (carbon dated back as far as 2003), but one that keeps getting played. I think the deal here was that the first game worked and had enough in it to make repeat play tempting, and also set aside my fears that you need to know the background. I have tried three times to read the G.R.R. Martin books and have made a maximum of thirty pages before keeling over. In fairness, apart from a slight sense that you are playing Diplomacy, and a few problems with the naval rules, this is a smooth and well designed game with some clever systems. Not stellar, and certainly not quick, but always playable. I await the latest expansion, A Storm of Swords, with interest.

Arkham Horror

You have no idea how pleased I was when this game was released. I liked the original game, to a point, but here was a reprint where the extra development work, or even a re-design, and a graphics overhaul could really pay dividends. I also love the whole Cthulhu background, being a big fan of the role playing game, Mythos the CCG, and even obscure boardgames like The Hills Rise Wild, Dark Cults and Cults Across America. Add in an environment damaging box of bits and some excellent artwork, and you have a game that has figured large in my gaming this year.

Which is very odd, because initially and ultimately Arkham Horror was quite disappointing. Something evil though, true to the Lovecraft books, kept drawing me back in – often the shared enthusiasm of fellow mythos fans to start another game, or perhaps just the desire to see what cool situations all those bits could really come up with. Like Hazienda, which flirtingly displayed some qualities but then hid them, I was waiting on Arkham Horror to show its true colours. It never did. Even so, as a disappointing game, I have played it seven times and I even chose it as my pick from The Gathering prize table. Go figure.

While unusual in structure – it is almost a non-co-operative co-operative (call the hyphen police!) – Arkham will always be inherently strong because of its subject matter. There is so much potential here that the mythos background has actually carried it forward regardless, like a running back at speed. Arkham Horror makes good yardage, but falls some way short of a first down. The basic problem is that you do essentially the same thing every turn, which may or may not be sufficiently interesting, and those turns come along far too infrequently. The other issue is that we have lost the central driver of the mythos; fear.

The core of this game is inter-dimensional gates. These regularly appear around downtown Arkham, and the local council is not happy. The players must close them as quickly as possible, and closing all of them gives you the joint win. To do this one ideally needs mucho stuff, so you submit to text based encounters specific to the town location visited. Because the characters are all different, and the gates are all over the place, this tends to be done independently, making the co-operative experience rather flimsy. In fact, taking a straw poll on one’s next action is about as co-operative as it gets. Characters may specialise (hunting books, fighting, even shopping) but for me there is little team spirit; we have the same overall aim, but we are working apart.

The encounters vary from the trivial (you are attacked by a dangerous bookmark! Seriously.) to the potentially deadly, and usually involve a skill roll. Some are banal, some are obvious, and a few are inspired. There is however no narrative linkage between encounters, even at the same location, and sadly there is no overall plot to expose or research. Importantly, there is little atmosphere and no sense of threat. One doesn’t even feel the tiniest bit scared. Just keep closing those gates, with your fists if necessary.

Scale this up to the game level and everyone is running round, killing monsters where necessary, and being generally active – just like those awful people who are always going to the gym, or doing white water rafting in their lunch hour. Whereas I would rather be studying in the library (art imitating life?). We are assigned characters with which we can identify (nun, P.I., professor etc.), so why not use them ‘properly’? You can try, and in time you may even get a spell or artefact that may help the cause, but generally it is a poor fit and there is little “keying” to help the flavour build. Too much trouble I suppose, and too much peer pressure to get out and close gates. So Arkham feels like a cross between Whack-a-Mole and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but without actually needing Giles.

The overall experience is a bit long as well as strangely uninvolving, and the end sequence is often an easy win, or conversely a cheesey ‘bash the ancient one’ that is usually doomed to failure. I am disappointed that we are even asked to go through the motions. In the Realm of Great Cthulhu, suggestion is a powerful tool. We don’t actually need to have an intergalactic elder god pottering down Main Street, we just have to think they might be. When I played the pencil and paper game, the whole point was that if you met a monster, you were in big trouble. If it was a big monster, big parts of the world were in big trouble. Whatever, it was unlikely that a Tommy Gun, a Pack Howitzer or even 14th Armoured Division would help much. That point seems to have been missed, or overlooked, in deference to lots of flavourless, tedious and usually futile combat.

But apart from these curious departures from a winning formula, there are many commendable elements. As with Descent, a player’s character is generated in minutes, and they have a surprisingly textured feel – a private detective is blah, but a private detective who is cursed, broke and rides an old motorbike is already speaking to us. The combat and sanity systems are sound enough, even if time in the sanatorium or hospital is a bit dull. The minor league monsters, of which there can be many, are flavoursome, believable and in the case of flying beasties, quite cleverly portrayed. When your character gets to do his thing in the right location, and a well conceived card is drawn, there is considerable satisfaction. The same is true when a character advances, finds an important book, or gains a new spell or skill. Countering this are the ‘other dimensions’ that one may travel to, or fall into, which are ironically one dimensional. Sorry. Again.

I suppose deep down I just really wanted to love Arkham Horror, and gave it every chance. In truth, there is much that is good, and more that really could be good if someone had sat down and improved the co-operative element, turn structure and variety. And cut back the play length. But once we swapped the unique ethos of Call of Cthulhu for Whack-a-Mole, there was no way back, even with a Gate Key. The game, like the unwary investigator, was lost in Time and Space. But even though the game is virtually solitaire, repetitive, and could take a long time to finish, it still has something. Much of that something is the decent, not great, atmosphere generated by the location, the characters and the mythos text.

Arkham Horror joins a handful of other games on death row (a small shelf above my desk), awaiting pardon. Even this dubious honour is a better fate than those games summarily sold off (cough, Attika). I have held onto the game for the usual reasons: I think the bits might be useful for a better game after tweaking; I think there is enough here for the occasional outing; because I have formed an irrational attachment to it (always a good justification) and, most of all, I am placing an unnatural level of hope in the expansions already announced.

Unlike most games, I think this one actually needs expansions. I hear rumours of missions (woohoo!), scenario theming, new towns and of course yet more dimensions, cards, skills, spells and tomes… this lot could in theory save it, transform it, or sink it for good. Whatever, it is going to cost me more money. When they arrive I can judge if they are game elements that should have been in the admittedly overflowing box to start with, and that is never a good feeling. I will let you know.

Mike Siggins