The Raft Lookout

What’s recently caught my eye in the wonderful world of tabletop gaming?

critI’ve started watching the second season of Critical Role, the fabulous RPG video series where a bunch of voice actors play D&D. So far, I find it even better than the first season. Critical Role has now started a Kickstarter to finance an animated series based on the first episode. They are known for their loyal fan base, but this exceeded all expectations: so far, they managed to get over $ 7.5 Million! That is a lot of money, especially for a Kickstarter where people don’t get a ton of stuff. In fact, the animated series will be free to watch, regardless if you back the Kickstarter or not. If you want to back it, it’s still running:

mwAs you know, I like magazines. I’ve recently decided to take out a subscription to Miniature Wargames. I’ve had it for a while before but canceled when Henry Hyde was ousted. I was pleasantly surprised by the last issue. What I especially like is the regular feature by Jon Sutherland called Command Decision. It’s a series of scenarios in a similar format to the venerable Table Top Teasers. What’s original about Jon’s scenario design is that he includes a pre-game decision which will shape the scenario to be played. This gives the scenario a bit more context and involves the player into the wider narrative without having to unfurl all the paraphernalia of a campaign. A really clever idea! I already regret having missed the previous scenarios and hope that Jon might be convinced to collect his Command Decisions in a book…

OLTcolor (Small)The ever inventive Joe McCullough has recently started an interesting new wargaming format. Under the title Operation Last Train, he has published sci-fi rules intended to game the evacuation of civilians from alien-held worlds. The interesting thing is that this is a charity project: not only are gamers asked to donate £3/$5 to Save the Children when downloading the rules, but Joe will also play a campaign. For each civilian he will rescue in-game, he will donate 10 cents. This is a fascinating and – as far as I know – novel way of linking gaming and real-world issues. People are invited to join in and there has already sprung up a lively community on Facebook.

D1dAHuJXQAII1zsThere is also news from Bad Squiddo Games! Annie has been very busy: She has acquired the magnificent terrain range from Ristul’s Extraordinary Market, which is now sold under the name of Bad Squiddo Terrain. New models have already been announced – I especially like the angry tree stumps and the scarecrows. She is also continuously expanding her believable female miniatures. Next up are more WW2 models, this time women from the Auxiliary Territorial Service. Annie has posted a preview with interesting insights into the design process on the Lead Adventure Forum. I’m looking forward to seeing more of those figures.

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Booknotes – Science Fiction & Fantasy

I’ve recently finished reading one of the best fantasy series I’ve come across lately: Jon Skovron’s Empire of the Storms trilogy.

skovronStarting with Hope and Red, it tells the story of two people, a girl who grows up to be a fearsome warrior and a boy who becomes a thief. However, what could easily have become a cliché-ridden ‘team becoming couple’-story develops into a much more exciting thing. The books are set in an interesting world, namely an Empire made up of islands in a vast ocean. This alone is great, as I love nautical fantasy (and I have to admit that this was the reason I got the book in the first place). But if I came for the ships, I stayed for the characters: Skovron introduces a plethora of compelling and complex characters. Each of them has his or her own motivation and, most importantly of all, they all change and develop as things happen to them. Best of all, the changes within the characters actually drive the story and define the stakes – which, in a way, become higher than in most other fantasy novels. Highly recommended!

220px-the_lost_fleet_dauntlessI also finished another series, the reading of which was a sort of guilty pleasure. I’m talking about Jack Campbell’s Lost Fleet. Clocking in at eleven volumes, this military sci-fi soap opera had a strange pull – as soon as I finished a volume, I wanted to read the next one. It’s not that the books are especially gripping per se, and several times when I was halfway through one I decided that this would be the last. However, Campbell has what could be called an economical way of storytelling: there is lots of repetition, but in the end there are just enough new developments that I became curious how the overall plot would work out. And, for being military sci-fi, it is refreshingly free from the trashy right-wing ideology often found in this genre. Recommended if you like space battles mixed with a dose of exploration and romance.

artarcanaFor Christmas, I got myself the new history of Dungeons & Dragons, Art and Arcana: A Visual History. This is a huge coffee-table book full of spectacular artwork from all editions of D&D. The accompanying text was co-authored by Jon Peterson, who is the authority on the history of role-playing games. What I like about Art and Arcanais that it not only covers Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson and the coming-into-being of D&D – something that has already been the subject of several books – but that it delves deeply into the evolution of the game through different editions and settings. If you are a fan of D&D, give yourself a treat and get this book!

blAs I write this, I’m halfway through Nicholas Eames’ Bloody Rose, the sequel to his fabulous Kings of the Wyld. I started with some trepidation, as I really loved the first book, but was unsure how sustainable the analogy between fantasy adventurers and rock bands would be. However, Eames manages to weave an engaging story around Fable, the band led by Rose, the daughter of one of the lead characters of the first book. Again, there are great characters and as the story develops, we get a much more nuanced perspective on the world, especially on the monsters that hitherto served only as the backdrop and cannon fodder for the exploits of the bands. And now some really wild things happened and how will they get out of this and sorry I have to get back to the book…

Review: XCOM: The Board Game

Last week, Sigur introduced Virago and me to XCOM: The Board Game. In contrast to my mates, I’ve never played the computer game, but when I was a kid, I avidly watched the British TV series UFO, which seems to be the inspiration for the world of XCOM.

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XCOM is a cooperative game where the players take to role of the staff of an international organisation defending the earth from aliens. To start with, I have to say that the artwork is not my style. I was a bit surprised by the dark and serious tone, as I expected more of the cheerful camp of the TV series. But then again, contrary to what I might wish this is not an adaptation of the TV series. I like the look of the models though, and Sigur’s paint job transformed them into stunning playing pieces.

The innovative and (for me) new thing about the game is that it is app-driven. That means that an app is taking the role of ‘game master’, pacing the game, declaring events and helping to resolve them. I was first pretty sceptical about such as set-up, as I enjoy the tactile element of tabletop games and wasn’t sure if I wanted digital devices to intrude into this.

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When you start a game, you first have to choose a scenario and a difficulty level. Each turn is divided into two parts: a real-time phase were things happen (declared by the app) and an evaluation phase where you see if everything you did actually works out. This is a similar mechanic to Space Alert; however, this is also where the similarities between the two games end.

In XCOM, there are several roles for the player to take: there is an Operations Chief, who distributes the funds needed for every action, there is a Captain, who choses missions and sends out soldiers, there is a Chief Scientist who organises research and finally the Commander is responsible for space and air defence.

The interesting thing about this game is that the roles are not only very distinct, they also force you to really concentrate on your job. Conversely, you have to rely on your fellow team members to do their job, as you usually don’t have the time and the information to help them in their decisions. This leads to a kind of tunnel vision, which probably models pretty well how large organisations function. With a good team (and our team was good!) this is also a mode of cooperation that seems to agree with me much more than that of Space Alert, where each action has an immediate influence on each other’s actions and you have to coordinate basically everything all the time. However, the drawback is that player interaction is rather limited, and player interaction is what usually makes cooperative games fun as well as challenging.

Nevertheless, thanks to its strong theme and the interesting mechanics, XCOM is a fun game. With the real-time element and the clearly defined roles it is also unlike other cooperative games I know. I’m sometimes still flabbergasted by the variety of good coop games out there!

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In the end, the only thing I’m still not completely comfortable with is the app: While it works well in the game and is not intrusive, there still remains the fact that, in a couple of years, the game will no longer be playable. I still don’t like this idea. But I guess this is a topic that would deserve its own blog post…

Make it so!

Lately, I’ve been feeling a bit under the weather, so there was not much gaming (or even painting) going on. However, a couple of days ago, we had some friends over and decided to try a game I’ve had lying around for a while: Space Alert.

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It’s a cooperative game with two unique features: First, it comes with an audio-CD, which provides the instructions for the different scenarios. Second, the main part of the game runs in real-time. Basically, you play the crew of a starship and have to make sure the ship survives before heading into hyperspace. The computer voice, which is provided by the CD, gives you information on threats you have to counter. You can either shoot at them or transfer energy to the shields. However, energy is a limited resource and somebody better be in engineering to make sure that enough is available where it is needed.

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During the second part of the game, all the things you have decided in the real-time environment (and ‘programmed in’ with cards) are resolved and you can see how you have done and whether the starship has survived.

The game is great fun and demands real team work. This is not as easy when a countdown is running and information is coming in all the time. During the first game, which was a training mission, everybody was running around the ship and doing his or her thing, resulting in comical scenes were people were moving past each other without coordination. 

As the game is short – the real-time part of the training missions takes 7 minutes, after which you will need about 15 minutes for the resolution phase – we tried the training mission again. We managed to survive in the end, but considering that this scenario did not use the full rules yet and there are several more different kinds of threats to come, advanced missions are not going to be a walk in the park!

I really like the game. Real-time planning definitely adds to cooperative gaming and the experience is very thematic – it’s a game that really gives that Star Trek experience.

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