June 28, 2014

Lord for a Day

I tried the board game Lords of Waterdeep for the first time recently.

In this board game, produced by Wizards of the Coast, players assume the role of a lord of Waterdeep—“Waterdeep” in this case being the key city in Ed Greenwood’s Forgotten Realms setting, as most D&D players would know.

I’m not going to provide a full synopsis of game play here, merely my impressions of the game and how play went. (You can find more detailed info on the game here.)

Style and Theme: The theme here was good. The art and maplike board affect a good fantasy feel, and any fan of the Realms will betreated to many familiar characters and place names. Our group had at least one player completely unfamiliar with the Realms, and the theme didn’t put him off any.

It is important to note that, at heart, this is really a more “economic” or “resource allocation” style game, and gameplay here has a very Eurogame feel.
Cubes—your main resource—are color coded to represent fighters, clerics, wizards, and thieves (D&D’s four food groups) that you, a hidden lord of the city, can dispatch on quests. Although the cubes represent adventures, they’re still basically just colored cubes similar to those in many other eurogames, so the theme there was a tad like for me. White cubes for wizards and black cubes for thieves seemed apropos, but orange for fighters? (Maybe red would have been better?) After while, I didn’t play thinking “I need two more wizards to complete that quest” but rather “I need two more purple cubes.”

A sample quest might require, say, two gold pieces, three purple cubes (or, ahem, wizards), and two black cubes (thieves) to complete. Completing a quest earns you victory points, key to wining the game, and sometimes earn you other fringe benefits as well. One relatively minor quest I completed early on granted me a bonus Intrigue card every time I received purple cubes, which was often, and I soon found myself rolling in Intrigue cards! The aforementioned Intrigue cards spice up play, granting bonuses or hampering other players, so even though this is primarily a eurogame in feel there is some “take that!” element present. The game is not combative in feel, however, like the various RISK offshoots and such, which makes it very approachable to mixed group play.

Components: The components were top notch. The art was nice, the components and board were well produced, and the box tray was carefully designed to hold all components and cards. The card wells even have those wedges beneath, so a tap of a finger pivots a deck upwards for easy grasping—well done, WotC!

Lords of Waterdeep

Overall play: Overall play was fun, and made me want to play again soon. We played with five players, the maximum number, and everyone seemed to enjoy the game and everyone agreed they would happily play again. We had a mix of players with different game preferences at the table, so this is not insignificant. Moreover, it was a close race to the finish. We had a clear leader when points were tallied, but different players led in victory points at different times and it had the feel of a balanced, close game. The game’s first (only?) expansion Lords of Waterdeep: Scoundrels of Skullport is also now being sold, and what I’ve read about it sounds extremely promising. So some longevity of play is there.

I’d recommend this game to anyone who likes lighter resource management games, such as Puerto Rico or Settlers of Catan, or lighter fantasy games. And any Forgotten Realms fan will appreciate the theme and names dropping therein, to be sure. Lords of Waterdeep solid thumbs up from me.

Those interesting in seeing the game in greater detail or getting an excellent overview of play should watch the video here, hosted by one of the game designers, Rodney Thompson.

Components: A
Theme: B+
Gameplay: B
Overall: B+

March 30, 2014

R.I.P. David Trampier

It is with profound sadness I read about the death of David Trampier aka "Tramp"—an individual that, with a few other key artists such as Dave Sutherland, Caldwell, Elmore, Easley, Fields, and Parkinson, really established the look of Dungeons and Dragons.
Certainly the duo of Trampier and Sutherland, or Dis & Dat, set down the 1st Edition style that so many have come to recognize.

Trampier’s work was always my personal favorite. His iconic work that adorns the cover of the original Player’s Handbook (below) is emblematic of D&D itself to me. Surely, his unique woodcut-like style, featuring heavy ink lines and bold characters, helped define a number of Monster Manual critters for generations of players and RPG adventure writers such as myself for years to come.

Whatever the tragic circumstances that led to his mysterious and abrupt departure from fantasy illustration (which I think is well-known and need not be repeated here), be it drugs, mental illness, or simply bad feelings toward the industry, the loss of this artist will now be felt two-fold. Greater still is the tragedy, given that he was rumored to be returning to art in recent years. Wherever you are, Mr. Trampier, you enriched and inspired this gamer with your work and I’m forever thankful.

February 03, 2014

The Lost Lair of Drecallis

Well, well, it's out! The Lost Lair of Drecallis is an OSRIC adventure for levels 4 through 7, published by Expeditious Retreat Press (XRP). I'm very happy to have completed my first project for XRP, and I hope it's but the first of many.

Troglodytes? Check. Caves? Check. 1e vibe? Oh yeah.

So if you're looking to re-live a bit of that old school magic, check it out & let me know what you think. (Not familiar with OSRIC? You can read about it here.) You can pick up an electronic copy here at RPGNow, or read about it at Joseph Browning's blog. Here's to 1e style action!

December 08, 2013

Examing RPG Player Types

Has it been that long since my last post? Yikes. Sorry, gentle reader; occasionally life gets in the way of blogging. Now back to our semi-regularly scheduled program...

I've been considering player breakdowns I've seen. There is, of course, the classic Bartle breakdown, which separates players into the camps of Killer, Socializer, Achiever, and Explorer.

Wizards of the Coast did their own player surveys in 1999 and they broke players down into the categories of Thinkers, Power Gamers, Character Actors, and Storytellers (see more information here).

I've created my own, albeit flawed, chart:

I breakdown player types as follows:

Powergamers: For these players, it's mainly about "winning" the game. Min-maxing, or exploiting the rules legally for maximum gain, is seen as the challenge. Character "builds" and optimization are the main pursuit here, a sub-game to itself, and the demonstration of the resulting build's success in play provides enjoyment. These players may feel constrained by roleplay-heavy scenarios or games wherein the GM limits access to magic items and additional player/character options.

Tacticians: For these players, the rules are viewed in a tactical sense, much as in a wargame or certain boardgames. Enjoyment typically comes from combat and tabletop figure actions, movement, and defeating the opposition via strategy and shrewd moves. These folks can get restless if combats are spread out too far apart, and they often enjoy sub-games within the overall game, such as bargaining sessions or gambling games. Skill challenges via dice are preferred to the roleplay only style.

Thinkers: For this player type, the game is often about figuring out puzzles or mysteries, and campaigns or adventures that contain an element or plot to be deciphered is key to the enjoyment. Battles are enjoyed, but ultimate enjoyment comes from the steady unravelling of the plot, providing of clues, a d the success of one's hunches. Character builds are viewed as less important to this player, as they trust their own (real life) brain power more.

Storytellers: For this player type, the overall game goal and enjoyment stems from advancing the overall narrative, and in line with that establishing memorable scenes, NPCs, and an "epic" story. These players enjoy longer campaigns more that one-offs, and long advancement of levels and character growth is valued for the narrative more than the acquisition of power(s). Short, less meaningful battles that do not advance the story may be accepted but are not valued as much as key set pieces.

There are some subsets to the above. The Storyteller quarter could actually be broken, subdivided, into halves—one half of which might contain an Actor subtype that focuses exclusively on the roleplay aspect, enjoying the game for the person-to-person (or PC-to-PC) conversation, the "be another person" escapism, etc.

Unlike many charts of this type, you'll notice the dividing line between the blue and yellow boxes. This chart is more an arc than a square, truth be told, with the player type ranging from the pure "role"-player to the "roll"-player.

I must think more on this, but here are my early impressions on a cold winter day.

September 22, 2013

M.A.Y.B.E a good time? Nah, definitely.

I spend much of the day and evening today with an old friend at the Maybe Games event: MAYBE (Metro-Area Yearly Boardgame Event). It was a lot of folks sitting around playing boardgames, and it was a great place for me to both try out new games and meet new folks.

As it turns out, every game I played was my first time with that game, so I certainly got exposed to a number of games I had been curious about. Here's the line-up, and some quick thoughts about each:

1. Race for the Galaxy (Rio Grande)

Pros: Lots of options, and lots of expansions. No two games will be alike. And it's a fast game—truly a race, as my friend Dave said. The cards were nice illustrated and evokative,

Cons: All those symbols! They make sense, but my eyes were still bleeding after the first game. Even without the expansions, this is a game that's probably going to take several run-throughs to get down, and I don't see into being very approachable to the more casual gamer.

2. Battlestar Galactica (Fantasy Flight)

Pros: An enjoyable, “who’s the traitor?” style game. Resource management and teamwork are both key here, and it’s more thematic and involving than, say, Pandemic. Slowly realizing the identity of the traitor (or traitors!) is a blast.

Cons: I found myself wishing there was more to do, or more room options. I sometimes found myself making repeat visits to areas and wishing I had something else to do. Combat my starfighters outside the ship also felt like more of an afterthought to me—fun, but hardly engaging or tense.

3. Dominion (Rio Grande)

Pros: Finally I see what the fuss is about. Play was fast and fun, and lent itself to tat “just one more game” vibe. The overall rules area easy to grasp, but you can take different paths or strategies to victory. I found myself thinking about card combos, much in the way I would if I were playing MAGIC: The Gathering. And of course, lots of game expansions await the newfound fan.

Cons: Play was somewhat clinical, and very theme light.

I played other games as well, and I’ll try to add my thoughts of them as well when time allows…

July 24, 2013

Zombicide: A Brief Review

Last night, at long last, I gathered a group of friends and we opened up Zombicide. The game was one of the initial Kickstarter success stories, raising $781,597 against a $20,000 funding goal (3900% of target ain’t bad).

Here are my thoughts.

Components: The components are top-notch. Detailed plastic figures are included for the human survivors (all individuals) and the various zombie types: Walkers, runners, fatties, and abomination. The plastic is tough, harder than the D&D figure style. The common zombie type even featured three or so different designs, so  a horde of “walkers” didn’t look identical to one another—a nice touch.

The board components are gorgeous, and the cards, although small, are full color and nicely illustrated. The entire game carries a distinctive, humorous style that helps set it apart. This is a game that’s about bashing in zombie skulls and not about greater World War Z –style politics or issues.

Grasp: Complexity is medium, or on the lighter side of medium. You won’t have much trouble grabbing the basics, though some rules require repetition to get down solid. The rulebook, which is pure eye candy, could have been clearer about a few things however.

Gameplay: Gameplay was fairly fast. Rules for trading equipment and building weapons help to encourage cooperation; the survivors that work together stand a better chance of success. We often traded battle plans in an attempt to inflict maximum damage on the undead or “clear out” a particularly crowded intersection. 

Theme and atmosphere: I found the theme a bit lacking at times, despite the art. All the proper notes were touched on, but at the end of the day the theme felt thin compared to, say, Last Night on Earth. Shooting a target didn’t particularly feel like shooting a zombie, but just shooting an opponent. The zombie could have been criminals or bandits or goblins … it didn’t really matter. The theme is purposefully light-hearted, but it still felt thin. Horror effects or random events with proper description might have added to the experience.

Final thoughts

We played once, and we had to cut out game short after about two hours, so my reflections are based on but one experience and one game scenario. That said, Zombicide is an enjoyable game. Based on my limited experience (and I intend to play the game more in the near future), I prefer Last Night on Earth in terms of theme but Zombicide is a fun romp.

I like the fact that no “bad guy player” or referee is needed, but that means the accompanying problems are there. The rules address this by having the zombies hone in on audible and visual cues, but it was still confusing at time determining where so zombies went.

I also found the game kind of easy, even when the danger zone amped up. The zombies hit characters in their zone automatically, but because they follow an attack-move pattern rather than the reverse, there’s rarely a situation where a character gets boxed in. Indeed, we had four survivors with only one wound after two hours of play, despite the presence of 40+ zombies on the board. I never felt panicked or threatened or cut off—which I feel is vital for the zombie experience. After all, a good zombie movie doesn’t feature heroes on a hilltop sniping zombies in the distance, it features heroes that barely stay out of the zombies’ grasp. Would the threat level have increased? It seems so at the rate things were progressing and after a while the zombies really litter the board. But again, we reached the “orange” danger level and I still didn’t feel a real sense of urgency.

I’d rate Zombicide the following:

Components: A
Theme: C
Gameplay: C+
Overall: B–

If you’re looking for a deep experience, dislike cooperative affairs, or dislike the zombie genre, it isn’t for you.
If you’re looking for a lighter affair and just want to put down some zombies after long day, you’ll probably like Zombicide. The art design is fun, and the game doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s probably one of the better zombie-themed board games out there.

July 07, 2013

Renting Software

This blog has always been about gaming, and rarely other things such as popular media or holiday-related stuff. I try hard not to stray from that.

But recently one of the largest software companies, Adobe, has changed their overall software marketing plan to something I find greedy in the extreme, and damaging for most creative folks and self-publishers. So I'm going to chat about it here. I'll be back to the regular program next time, promise.

You've probably heard about Adobe—it's hard not to. Photoshop is the image modification program. Likewise, InDesign is now one of the most popular (if not the most) desktop publishing software out there. 

This May Adobe announced Creative Cloud, an online-only suite of their programs. Going forward you either pay a monthly fee—forever—or you stop using the newest version of those programs. So you're no longer buying software and updating to the next version if or when you like, or using those software disks as long as you like. Now you rent the software, and when you stop, you can't open all files you've make with that software. Period. Create a cool RPG book using InDesign (something many small RPG publishers do)? Well, you best keep kicking in that $50 a month, Mr. RPG man, because the month you stop your files are worthless. A glade at Adobe's Creative Cloud (CC) Facebook page or forums reveals the passionate negative response from their customers to this choice, as does a recent online petition against CC that garnered over 35,000 signatures in a few weeks. There's been lots of market speak about free cloud storage, exciting new features, and connectivity with ones peers, but most everyone sees this for what it is, a bold move to get their loyal customers on the gravy train forever. After all, why hope your customers will purchase each software update or your whole suite when you can force them to.

Imagine if the most popular car companies made leasing the only way to purchase a car. That's it in a nutshell.

So why should you care? For smaller RPG publishers that often depend on Adobe products to produce their books and websites, the economics are damning. Even programs as expensive as Photoshop can be purchased when a business budget allows and used for a long time, for years without updating, if things get tight. Whereas a monthly bill is unrelenting and cuts into the bottom line on an ongoing basis. It can never be paid off or paid down, it just goes on and on and on (which is the point). 

Below I'll address some of the BS—and there's no other way to phrase it—solutions offered to the disgruntled loyal customers (often called "haters") by the Adobe fan-boy crowd. (And I suspect it's a small crowd.)

Adobe is a company, they have a right to make money and do as they please. It's their software.

Fair enough, even though this has become a standard fan boy response every time a company makes a dumb call. ("WotC is cutting off the print versions of Dragon and Dungeon just when Paizo is doing great things with them—well hey, it their decision!") What amazes me is that people will say this, but not understand my right to bitch. A company has the right to do anything that might drastically impact their customers but those same customers can't utter word about it? Owning something doesn't mean you can't make stupid or greedy mistakes, or that people shouldn't notice them. 

If I purchased the Mona Lisa tomorrow for 5 billion dollars and then chopped it into firewood, hey it's my property, but I'm stupid if I think more than a few art lovers learning about it won't (or shouldn't) complain.

As far as making money goes, I'm pretty confident without consulting their private records that Adobe is doing okay. They employ roughly 10 thousand people. Their CEO's salary jumped from $5 million in 2009 to 12.2 million the next year (I wish I could get a raise like that!) and I'm fairly sure it's only gone up since then. 

There is making money, and there's raking your customers over the coals. I should needn't to explain it here, it should be common sense. If my store normally sells bottled water for 1 dollar a bottle and then a natural disaster strikes and I'm the only store in the area with any water, and I raise the price to $20 a bottle it's totally my decision—supply and demand, baby—but I'm also being a cretin. And a 5-year-old could see that. 

Don't like CC? Use another program! 

How very helpful. I've spent the last decade learning Adobe's suite of products, with their unique feel and interfaces. Most employers expect proficiency in these programs and recognize them. So your solution is for me to toss aside my years of study, books, seminars, and practical use to learn a different program that a potential employer may not use or have heard of. Perhaps I'll just study dolphin training and look for a job at Sea World while I'm at it.

The 'haters' are just pissed because they can't pirate Photoshop any more.

First off, it's insulting to assume that every unhappy person is a pirate. I've never pirated Photoshop, and have no intentions to.  Just because I'm complaining doesn't make me a pirate.

I believe Photoshop is widely pirated because of the cost. Even now, Photoshop CS6 retails for $700 or more online, and I do believe that charging extremely high prices for your software—and Adobe charges some of the highest prices I know—encourages some folks to pirate what they feel they cannot afford. This is why Apple's song sales helped kill off Napster. When record companies were greedy, forcing folks to purchase a CD for $12-18 for the few songs they wanted, people quickly turned to Napster, despite dodgy song quality, quasi-legality, bad downloads, etc. But once a quality song file could be downloaded for a dollar, people raced to buy from Apple, who sold their 25 billionth song this past February. The moral of that for me is that it's all about price point. Would people bother to pirate Photoshop if it retailed for $250 instead of $700? Some probably would but I'm betting most wouldn't. And I'm betting Adobe would still be racking in the profit.

Lastly, Adobe themselves have said that the CC decision wasn't about combatting piracy. And I've read the system was cracked two days after launch. (And if I was a pirate, wouldn't I probably be taking advantage of that breach rather than moaning here? I'm writing and complaining because I want to legally be able to afford Adobe's software.)

Don't like CC? Just keep using your current version (CS6 or older). Adobe won't update it but they promise to provide bug fixes.

Oh great, so I get to use the latest version—for which I forked out over $700—while watching Adobe focus their efforts on the rent-a-model. Just how much energy will they channel into all those bug fixes? I wouldn't hold your breath. And will my software still work with the next major Apple or Windows OS update?

Adobe says: "Adobe is currently planning to support Creative Suite 6 on the next version of Mac OS X. As Apple releases more specific details about the next version of Mac OS X, we may adjust our plans." If you missed that second line, it amounts to "We might just abandon it."

The thing I hate most about this, and the general trend by movie studios and video game makers who want to adopt a cable TV model is that it's not sustainable. My cable TV bill climbed to over $150 this year. Adobe now wants $50 a month to use their suite, with no promise the price won't increase after the first year (and they'll bump it up, never fear). Other software companies are likely to jump on this bandwagon; Microsoft is already adopting a similar model with Office 365. So even if I deem $50 reasonable (and I don't), what happens when we add another $10 for this program per month and $50 for another suite per month? We'll all end up paying out $100+ per month just to use our software in 5 years, enough money to purchase a new laptop every year otherwise.

So much for the potential solutions.
This rent-a-movie, rent-a-game, rent-your-software trend stinks. It reeks of greed, and it takes control away from the customer. And we need to fight it at all costs.
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