Monday, February 7, 2011

BoardGameGathering: Castle Ravenloft, Defenders of the Realm, Battlestar Galactica

1/15/11:  Four guys, and a new player in the mix, so why not take a stroll up to the Castle? Right off the bat, it didn't take long to reach a consensus that we should revisit Wizards of the Coast's Castle Ravenloft. CR is a 'light/fast' dungeon crawl. If you're familiar with it's progenitor Dungeons & Dragons, CR attempts to take some of D&D's standard character classes & monsters, and the core concept of dungeon questing, and simplify and speed things up, to make it all come together quickly and easily, and make a typical game take approximately an hour or less.

CR (and it's soon to be released follow-ups Wrath of Ashardalon and Legend of Drizzt) utilize puzzle-like tiles, and special trigger-tiles positioned at a random location in the tile stack, to stage critical plot-points. In addition, the game brings in a unique new monster-control mechanic: Rather than rely on a player controlling the monsters as a formal 'Dungeon Master', CR has a nifty card-based if/then formula for every monster that fully automates its behavior. Using this system, every player runs the monsters they drew, each of their turns. This lets everyone play an explorer. It also substantially automates and simplifies the entire process. You can pop open the box on CR, and be playing in well under 15 minutes, then play a complete scenario to completion in 30mins to an hour.

For our  part, we tackled one of the later scenarios, and though we had fun, the range of beasties and villains in the scenario roundly wiped up the floor with us; that is, between bouts of chasing us from point to point on the level. Good fun, quickly had.

Defending the Defenders: Next up was a cold run at Richard Launius' Defenders of the Realm. DotR is a fantasy board game that takes the core Pandemic mechanic ("more than 4 of a 'disease' in a single city, causes an expansion of the disease into adjoining connected cities, which may in turn regenerate outbreaks of their own") and applies it to an invasion by four different groups of nasties, as led by four different generals. As per Pandemic, the purpose of the game is to wipe out the assembling minions, and eventually amass enough strength to take on and wipe-out the Generals, before they arrive at the land's capital city.

The game has had a generally good reputation and pretty decent array of reviews (albeit generally with some reservations). And the Pandemic mechanic does make for a fun game in a fantasy setting. But I can absolutely agree with the range of opinions that the game has more than its share of flaws: For one thing, right off the bat, the game's manual is in serious need of more illustrations and better organization. For another although I grew up on and absolutely loved Larry Elmore's D&D illustrations (even had a red dragon poster of his on my bedroom wall as a teen) , the art and more specifically his font choices (Comic Sans on the cover? Ye Gods! What was the man thinking!) both looked less than ideal. Not to mention his use of a variety of detailed serif fonts in bad-contrast color schemes, left large parts of the board almost unreadable, without one of the player-developed cheat sheets for the map.

A direct impact in our group, on the manual issues, was that it took awhile to get the game in the air due to some extended time spent sorting out exactly what each of the token types actually look like, and where they were supposed to go. Yup! The manual generally lacks examples, especially on the pages that describe setup steps.

For what it's worth, I personally burnt some time the following day, to write-up my own illustrated DotR reference sheet (uploaded over at BGG). Hopefully, if I can talk the other folks in to it again, we'll be able to give DotR a better shot. I know there's a solid and FUN game hiding in there, but it takes some patience to get up the curve on it, and on to the fun. :D

 Another dance with Number Six: Round-about 8:30 or 9, it became clear that we had a quorum to take on another run at Corey Konieczka's Battlestar Galactica. No matter how much I made faces and whined. :P Yea, we have a history with BG: Three of us took a run at the game over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, and I ended up spending several hours in the Brig, reading my Blackberry, while the game ran on for 3.5 hours altogether, before it was mercifully put to death by concession at 1:30 in the morning.

It's a sincere understatement to say I'm not BSG's biggest fan - though I absolutely LOVED the TV series. IMHO the game is a light 'poison voting' mechanic dressed up with some contrived emergency decision making, all aimed at forcing the hidden 'Cylon' to reveal himself over the course of several hours. There's not a lot of 'game' there. It's almost completely a social exercise in paranoia and distrust.

So, we took a fresh run at it, with four players -- Fans say three-player BSG is guaranteed to suck, as it will often pit one 'Hidden-Cylon' and one 'Dupe' -- Er I'm sorry, I meant 'human' -- running around loose, while one misidentified other human sits in the Brig space. Wow! deja vu! Sounds like those folks sat in on our Thanksgiving outing. :P

Another pet peeve mine, regarding the game is the substantial imbalance in character abilities and dynamics. The President and Admiral roles are hugely powerful, while the remainder of character choices are on a gradient fading from meh, to absolutely worthless. After several rounds of 'character picking', I had my choice of the Pilots (characters whose raison d'etre is to wait for Cylon ships to attack so that they can climb in a viper and... well wait for Cylons to attack). Anyway, by this point around the table, it seems the political and command positions had been locked up.So I had my pick of the also-rans. At that point I decided to just throw in for some fun, and chose Boomer, the suspected cylon with a guaranteed trip to the Brig at the Loyalty Phase. Oddly enough, 90mins in, my Boomer didn't actually get Brigged: seems our Baltar player had decided use his special Cylon Detector skill to validate that I wasn't actually a toaster, which made my Boomer the only non-Cylon he could be sure of. :P

Anyway, after four hours of wrestling, we finally failed to make our final jump in time, and lost to the Cylon. W00hoo. Er. Yea. At that point it was well after 1:30am again, and I was dying to get home.

To be fair, I have it on good authority (from the BSG forums at, that our attempts at BSG have been broad tactical and strategic failures. It's not supposed to take the humans long to figure out that anyone cooling their heels in the Brig is just costing the humans the card draws, actions and votes they need to keep things moving (the human goal of the game is to survive a full series of jumps. The hidden-Cylon needs do little more than thwart that goal, to win). The Brig character shouldn't have to wheedle their way out. Once the humans can even vaguely determine that the brigged character may not be a cylon, self-interest should drive springing them. So maybe, our next outing will be different. I know that some reviewer's who's opinions I respect a lot, absolutely love the game.

Hmmm. Well I still think a game that relies on 'smart' players, to deliver fun, has huge holes in the rule set. *shrug* Pftftft.

1 comment:

  1. Follow-up: Defenders of the Realm was another trading-victim. The last time DoTR came up for discussion/play, the groups response was, "Lets just play Pandemci". So DotR went in exchange for Tales of the Arabian Nights!