Dispatches from GenCon #5: Sonar - Prepare to Dive!

Sonar is a game my wife calls "Battleship for Grownups". This gets the point across rather succinctly. It's a shockingly fun game with very few pieces in the box necessary to play. The basic setup is the same as Battleship, but there is only one ship you're commanding - a submarine. They recommend the game is played with 2 players per submarine. One person plays as the ships captain and the other plays as a radio operator.

With a bit of imagination, this scene will become the tense bridge room of a submarine in enemy territory,

A screen not unlike a dungeon masters screen separates the two teams. The radio operator and captain of both teams are each handed an identical map which shows the area where the submarine hunt will take place. There are four map variants in the box with more or less islands on them all the way to open ocean. Everyone also gets a dry erase marker to draw on their map. Further, the radio operators have a clear piece of plastic they can place over their map. This is used to record and predict any movements by the enemy submarine.

The submarine teams take turns with the captains calling out the maneuvers of their submarines. Each time you make a standard move, the submarine accrues one energy (to a maximum of four) which can be spent to engage a sonar ping, take a silent maneuver, or fire a torpedo. The nuances of the game are exposed when both subs are closing in on accurate positions of their opponents and tracking and carefully using energy is key to being in the right place at the right time to be able to fire off a torpedo.

I've had a ton of fun with Sonar. It's quick to teach somebody the rules and a great way to kill some time for four people. There is a more complex version of the game called "Captain Sonar" which I am unfamiliar with. That game supports up to 8 players and adds more roles to the game in addition to the captain and the radio operator. I'm not sure if I'll ever expand to that version, but give this a look if you want a casual to pick up strategy game with a surprising amount of depth.

Dispatches from GenCon #4: Monster Slaughter!

Are you tired of playing the weak human who has to gather up equipment in order to stand the slightest of chances against horrible monsters? Well, Monster Slaughter has heard your complaints and provides the solution. In this miniatures board game you play as a literal family of zombies, vampires, golems, and werewolves, The board itself is composed of a classic "cabin in the woods" horror scenario with a bunch of unsuspecting humans inside.

A real highlight of this game was the build quality of the board which is not mere window dressing for the gameplay. Doors slot over the walls, lifting off to reveal the broken version of the door. This results in the cabin changing visually over the course of the game as more doors are smashed by the players trying to get inside.

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Humans inside the building will run away in response to the actions of other players making your task of taking out certain humans first more difficult as they scurry away. Each member of your monster family has a slightly tweaked statline. The child monster is faster than the father monster who is stronger in combat, while the mother monsters are the best at searching for items in the house. All three are capable of trying to frighten or attack human characters. 

Honestly I only had enough time to get through 3 or 4 turns during my time at GenCon so I don't have a thorough read on the mechanics but it is clear from the passion of the guy demoing the game to us that a lot of love has gone into this game and it shows. The miniatures for the game are gorgeous and will look great on the board all painted up.

As a fan of the Frankenstein archetype I quite like the inclusion of golems as playable monsters.

If you're interested in Monster Slaughter they will be launching a kickstarter later this month on Halloween. Of course it's on Halloween.

Dispatches from GenCon #3: Munchkin Panic (and other panic) Impressions
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Munchkin Panic is one flavor out of  the many "Panic" monikered games from Fireside Games. The Munchkin version was the game I got my hands on at GenCon to try out but Fireside has also published a zombie themed version called Dead Panic, a sci-fi Star Trek Panic, and of course there is the original Castle Panic. I can't say for sure how different aside from theming any of these versions might be from Munchkin Panic, but the version that I played was a very casual system.

The board is broken down into four concentric rings centered around the players' castle. The first circle by the castle is labeled swordsman, then knight, archer, and finally the forest ring. New monsters enter play from the forest ring, moving inwards through each ring until they manage to hit the castle itself. The circles themselves are further divided like a pie creating three different colored sections of the ring (red, green, or blue).

Player's primary means of fighting the incoming hordes of monsters is playing attack cards which have a unit and color, corresponding to the rings on the board. For example, in the image above, a green knight would be able to strike the Pit Bull monster token. Some attacks affect multiple rings or colors, but by and large cards only effect one. In the munchkin version of the game, you are also assigned a character card such as dwarf or wizard which grants you a unique ability.

With that basic layout explained, let me just wear my bias on my sleeve for the rest of this post: I didn't like the game very much. While the premise of the game is a fun idea (defending a central castle from incoming monsters) the actual mechanical execution of the way monsters come in and the way players attack didn't sit well with me. Creatures move inward on the ring at the end of every players turn, sometimes they get shuffled around between sections as the result of cards being played. There is very little value in thinking ahead several turns and your options are extremely limited by the color and type of the card. I have to agree with the sentiments of one of my friends on this game, "It felt like a glorified candy land." If I don't feel like I have a strong handle on how the game is going to play out based on my decisions, it's hard for me to recommend.

That said however, I do think this would be a more fun game to play with kids than candyland. The rules are simple enough that kids could easily be taught the game and it's short enough that it will hold their interest for the duration. For strategy gamers? Give this a pass. Something to play with the family, kids, or casual game reluctant players? Then this one might do the trick.

Dispatches from GenCon #2: Firefly Adventures - Brigands and Browncoats Preview

Our main objective was to steal the goods in the center shack, marked by the star token.

Assemble the crew, scrounge up some coin for supplies, get the job done, and keep flying! Firefly Brigands and Browncoats (to which I will affectionately refer to as BnB from now on) is a miniatures cooperative game where players take on the role of either Mal, Zoe, Jayne, Kaylee, or Wash from the show Firefly. First, you pick a mission or "job" to take on together then the group spends funds to acquire gear to help on that job. Once that is settled, the job takes place on a gridded tactical board not unlike a Dungeons and Dragons encounter. Our job at GenCon was to steal some cargo from a locked and well guarded shipping area.

The main difference between BnB and other games of it's ilk like Star Wars Imperial Assault or the Dungeons and Dragons adventure games is that characters begin the game in "casual" mode. The designers intelligently made the jobs not just about combat but also about stealth, verbal deception, and technical skills. Each player will have not one but two miniatures to represent their character. One miniature for "casual" and one miniature for "heroic".

At the beginning of our heist, our characters started their first turns by staking out the location casually. While acting casual, characters won't automatically draw attacks from guards on the board. In addition, some characters will be able to hack terminals (to open locked doors) or engage in conversation challenges or use abilities on guards in an attempt to talk them out of watching those doors so closely. In our game, Kaylee and Wash were able to distract some guards long enough to get into one of the rooms with a terminal where Kaylee was able to hack open the door to our ill gotten gains. Meanwhile Mal and myself as Jayne engaged in some less diplomatic thrillin heroics. As Mal got in a brawl with the thug outside another room with a terminal, I popped inside and jumped the guard by surprise. Even as some characters go heroic entering combat, your entire team does not have to go heroic. Kaylee and Wash can continue to be sneaky and act like they don't know those people causing all the commotion across the yard.

Another major aspect of the game is its initiative system for determining turn order. Every action has a cost in "moments", every time you take an action you move a token representing your character up a time tracker by the appropriate amount of moments. To determine who goes next, you move whoever is lowest on the time tracker, meaning they've used the least amount of time so far. It's a very clever system which ties into the overall job system nicely. At regular intervals of time during the mission, escalations will occur. This is stuff like reinforcements being called in, alarms going off, doors getting locked down - it's bad news for Mal and his crew. It keeps the tensions of the job high and replicates that feeling of a plan gone awry from the show in game form.

Each action a character performs takes a certain number of moments, noted by the clock and number symbol next to it.

There are other ways for the encounter to escalate too. Not only did I have to try and time my takedown of the guard for when Mal had distracted the other guard watching the door, but once the enemies are downed they leave body tokens on the battlefield which if spotted by other thugs will send up the alarms. Many stealth video games over the years have used a similar mechanic, but it was the first time I saw it in a tabletop strategy game and it was a welcome addition.

Even if you weren't a fan of the shows universe (and really, why don't you like Firefly? What's wrong with you?) I believe BnB offers a unique strategy game. If you're tired of just romping around dungeons or blasting storm troopers, I think Firefly Adventures opens up a new door for the genre where non-combat mechanics are just as important if not more so than combat to completing the mission.

You can pre-order Firefly Adventures Brigands and Browncoats today, or look for it's release before the end of the year!

"I aim to misbehave."

Jayne and Zoe get the job done while Mal lies around and gets beat up like usual.

Dispatches from GenCon #1: Hellapagos Preview

Everything was going great until our yacht hit a reef and stranded us on a tropical island. Limited food and water are a daily concern. Wood must be gathered and rafts constructed if anyone is going to make it off this island before the hurricane wipes us all out for good. This is the simple premise to Hellapagos, a new game from French publisher Gigamic.

Each turn players will need to have an amount of food and water equal to the number of players in the game. If there isn't enough food or water to go around, a vote is called and the voted on player is killed out of the game. This vote and execute process is repeated until there is enough food or water for everyone remaining to drink.

The trick is to not be the player that everyone votes to kill off when supplies get scarce. You can do one of four actions on your turn to make yourself useful to the survivors:

  1. Fish for Food - Fishing is done by selecting a wood ball from a sack blindly. You catch the number of fish displayed on the ball.
  2. Collect Rain Water - Each day, a weather card is flipped which determines how much it is raining (if at all). This action collects water based on the current weather.
  3. Search the Boat Wreckage - Draw supply cards from the boat wreckage deck. These are things like extra food, water, guns, bullets, and tools.
  4. Search for Wood - Automatically collect 1 wood, but may search longer for additional wood. The more wood you search for the more likely you are to be bitten by a snake making you sick for one round, forfeiting your turn.

With the immediate threat of being forced to kill people if enough food or water can't be gathered, the primary goal that formed early in our game at GenCon was to collect surplus food and water. What makes the game interesting is when food or water inevitably run out and voting must be done, everyones past actions are scrutinized by the group. Players who feel on the chopping block begin lobbing accusations. "Why didn't you gather water when it was raining heavily? It's your fault we're screwed now that it's been dry for two days!"

You can even find and keep secret a gun and bullet cards so if you are ever about to be voted off, BLAMMO. You can take out another player. Of course, that will make you really unpopular the next time a vote needs to be called depending on who you killed and how you justified it. This game is all about keeping blame off yourself so waving your gun around should be considered a last resort.

Of course you could be searching the wreckage not for bullets but for the valuable tool cards you can find. One of our players affectionately became known as "Half Raft Zak" when he acquired the axe and was able to build half a raft by himself each turn with the extra wood it let him gather. Getting something like that can make you practically immune at the next vote when food runs out.

It was fascinating to me how this game turns a group of players who on turns one and two are cooperating very tightly into people shouting and blaming each other for this or that by the time the game is winding down and there are almost enough rafts to escape the island. It managed that feat in our game with over a dozen players and the game never felt slowed down. For that alone Hellapagos deserves some attention as a game that can be played with 16 players and keep everyone engaged with whats happening.

This was one of my favorite new games at GenCon and I pre-ordered it before leaving the convention center. It will be released by the end of 2017, check it out!

Dispatches from GenCon #0
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GenCon wrapped up over a week ago and my wife and I have finally returned from our 2 week road trip to that promised land. I obtained some nice D&D miniatures from GaleForce9, more than a fistful or two of dice, duked it out in a BattleTech BattlePod, played a ton of new games, and all of that sandwiched in between a week of cruising on the roads of America. It was a great time!

In the coming weeks I'll be writing up my thoughts on the new games I played, some of the fun experiences I had at GenCon, and eventually showing off the painted and completed versions of those shiny new minis I just got.

Games I'm gonna be talking about:

  • Hellapagos - Co-op(ish) survival on a deserted island, save the last bottle of water for yourself!
  • Firefly Adventures: Brigands and Browncoats - This game is Star Wars Imperial Assault, but for the Firefly Universe and really interesting non-combat mechanics.
  • Castle/Munchkin/Dead Panic - A casual tower defense board game where all players are defending a central stronghold.
  • Monster Slaughter - Play as the werewolves, zombies, vampires, or golems in this game of smashing doors and gobbling down humans.
  • Sonar - A one on one or two on two submarine hunting game. Similar in theme to Battleship but with a brilliant strategic layer.
The Journal of Fawkes Hamelain #4

Mirtul 4, 1480 DR

Western Heartlands, Town of Daggerford

at The Dragonback Inn

Our cups run over with ale this night! Despite the initially gloomy reception we received upon our arrival in Daggerford, the Dragonback Inn has proved a welcoming oasis in this town. We are hosted by Thali Orespeaker, a red nosed bald headed dwarf who keeps a damned fine stock of ale. He has good reason to keep us happy. It seems that aside from the local drunk, we are the first customers poor Thali has had in quite some time.

The rumors of the blight cursing the town have turned out to be more than true. No citizens of Daggerford walk the common streets openly for fear of catching the disease. When our boat first made way past the town we feared the entire population had been killed. The only sign of life was the distinct stench of an active tannery at the western edge of Daggerford by the river. We disembarked and after I knocked a few times we were met by a man who introduced himself as Arvil.

Windows boarded, doors closed, no lamp light. The eerily quiet streets of Daggerford.

He seemed shocked to see us - or anybody - coming to visit him. When we explained to him we were adventurers and here to help the town, he told us the nature of this blight which has come over Daggerford and the surrounding farmlands. They call it the burning plague. First a fever develops, the skin turns red, and finally the victim is covered in boils as the fever burns them up from the inside. It affects plants as well as men and beasts, killing much of the spring crop and cattle which was needed to feed the town. He assured us that all were not dead however, they merely sheltered in there homes only moving when absolutely necessary.

We thanked him for the information and brought our boat up river to the proper docks. It seems we had been spotted on our earlier scouting pass of the town as now a small man stood at the end of the docks waiting to greet us. At first I mistook the fellow for a halfling but upon closer inspection he was in matter of fact a gnome! His name is Raffin and he was hoping we might be traders with a boat of stocked goods ready to relieve the town. We told him what we had told Arvil: we are here to help.

He was disappointed at first, but we assured him that while we did not have food stuffs we did at least have gold to trade which he said would please the merchants in town who have not had customers since word of the blight first got out. We were able to discard our haphazard orc equipment for newly smithed gear. I am once again armored in scale and armed with my preferred weapon: the flail.

I offered to Raffin that perhaps we ought speak with the Duke of Daggerford and Raffin appeared hesitant to discuss the Duke who has barricaded himself inside and not left his manor since the burning plague began. Instead, he offered to take us to his friend Ariana Tungstan. While we walked through the quiet town to her house, Raffin explained that most of the day to day affairs of the town are not managed by the Duke but rather a council of Guild members who command prominent businesses in town. Mrs. Tungstan and her husband are heavily invested in the silver trade themselves.

Raffin also told us the sad account of the high priest of Lathander who's temple was the largest building in Daggerford. The priest had poured all of his divine magic into trying to cure the blighted men and women who came to him but no spell he could conjure could remove the burning plague. The priest himself eventually succumbed to the blight.

The priestess of Chuntea at the temple graciously accepted my offer and honored me with a prayer of favor in her name.

Speaking of the goodly gods, this town also houses a lovely temple to the great mother Chauntea. It reminded me of the shrine we keep in Goldshire, though nearly twice it's size, and before I came to rest here at the Dragonback I stopped into the temple to offer prayer and gold to the priestess there. Chauntea has always provided a bountiful and healthy harvest to the families under my protection in the dale and I mean to become the instrument of her will here to repay the debt. We must find the source of this blight and root it out.

Where was I? Ah, yes.

When we arrived at Ariana Tungstan's house she welcomed us inside once Raffin explained whom we were and why we had come. She did not know how we might help with the blight generally but her largest concern was for her husband. Mrs. Tungstan recounted how no communications have been heard from a new mine which Mr. Tungstan was scouting for their silver business. At the time he and his miners entered the tunnels they were not afflicted with blight and were regular in communication with the town via couriers until 15 days prior to our arrival.

After some deliberation it was decided among the party that our next course of action should be to investigate the mine. Not only had communication with Mr. Tungstan and his companions gone dark, we later heard from Thali that some of the first to be afflicted by the disease were in fact miners working the surrounding silver veins. I suspect we will learn the answers we seek in those dark tunnels.

For additional caution, I have commissioned an alchemist who resides in this town to silver my battle axe and flail with pure ore I obtained from Mrs. Tungstan. I once heard from a man who described himself as a monster hunter passing through the dale that a silvered blade was almost as good as a magic one for some supernatural beasts.

Let us hope that is true! We set off for the mines at the break of dawn.

~Fawkes Hamelain~

Homemade Tak On A Budget

First, some images of the final product!

Here is how I went about making a set of Tak pieces cheap. As described in my last post Tak uses only two kinds of pieces. Primarily flat "stones" which can be played flat or on their side and a capstone piece. The first thing I needed was something for the stones that I could get a lot of cheaply. It's possible to get small unfinished wood blocks ordered online of the roughly appropriate size, but this build was all about cheap cheap cheap.

My solution was straightforward: buy a set of replacement scrabble tiles. They're about 0.75 inches square and slightly smaller than 0.25 inches thick. I was able to find a pack of 100 scrabble tiles on Amazon for about 5 dollars, enough for black and white to have a set of stones for an 8x8 game. For the capstones, I ordered a set of 4 wood knobs used for drawers and cupboards. They're spherical with the bottoms cut off so they will not roll around. The 4 pack of those ran me another $4.50.

All it took once I had the pieces was a few quick coats of spray primer. Another $4 each for a can of black and white paint. After some patient spraying and flipping and respraying, the black lettering was still visible on some of the white pieces even through the primer, so by hand I took a few coats of regular acrylic white miniature paint to them.

Once that is dry the only other thing you will need is a board to play on! There are some free boards available from the publishers website along with the rules, both of which you may want to print a copy of to store with the pieces.

I have also created my own 5x5 Tak board which is marked with the ABCDEF/12345 grid notation used at playtak.com and described in the Tak companion book. It's printer friendly, feel free to print it from here:

Then I made an adorable folder with a cover I taped on to give it some character to keep all this stuff in. If you want that image for your own Tak folder or binder it's right here:

Tak: My Latest Obsession

Tak is an abstract strategy game (like Chess or Go) that was released last year after a very successful kickstarter. The game existed first as something only referenced in a fantasy series called the Kingkiller Chronicle. It had no rules but apparently the author and a designer had collaborated to make his fictional game a real one. I heard a little about it at the time they were raising funds from a friend of mine who had read the book series, authored by Patrick Rothfuss. My forays into fantasy novels haven't gone farther than Lord of the Rings and Dungeons & Dragons books for the most part so I had not heard of it and the game didn't look like much on the surface to me. To my shame, I wrote it off as a thing for fans of the book I probably wouldn't care about.

Author Patrick Rothfuss (left) and Game Designer James Ernest (right) play a rousing game of Tak.

Fast forward in time to when the kickstarter backers have had their copies delivered and my friend reminds me this game exists and he might want to play it sometime. Okay, fine. I'm always down to play a new game but I wasn't expecting much. So I started watching a few videos to learn the rules. The creator of the game goes over the basics here and there is a more detailed explanation from the channel Watch It Played here. The rules are also available online (for free!) in PDF format from the game's publisher.

So I learned the rules. They're simple and again - they didn't seem like much on the surface to me. The beautiful thing about game systems is you cannot truly understand them until you see them in motion. Once I got maybe five or six turns into my first game of Tak I realized it was much much deeper than I had been giving it credit for. The deceptively simple rules will build up very complex puzzles for both players to solve as they maneuver and stack their pieces offensively and defensively in an attempt to build a "road". A road is connecting one side of the board to the opposite side with your stones, preferably before the opponent does. The first to do so is the victor.

Tak is the Kingkiller Chronicle world's equivalent of Chess. Played and play tested for centuries with an enduring universal appeal across many cultures. It sounds stupid or braggadocios to suggest one could just design an equal caliber game. It's a concern that even Patrick Rothfuss shared on his blog when he first launched the kickstarter.

When Rothfuss was asked by James Ernest, the games designer, in his own words he responded:

Tak is supposed to be my world’s version of Chess or Go or Mancala. I can’t ask you to make a game like that. It’s like saying, ‘you know those games that have stood the test of time for hundreds or thousands of years? The best games ever? Do that, but in my world.’ So first off, it’s unreasonable for me to ask. Secondly, you can’t do it. No one can. And thirdly, if you did somehow manage to pull if off, nobody would give a shit. We’re living in the golden age of board games right now. Nobody cares about strategy games like chess anymore.

When he got around to actually playing the game his friend James Ernest had designed Rothfuss' mind was blown and so was mine. If it is at all possible to come close to designing a game equal in fun, simplicity, and strategy to those classic games I think Tak hits the mark. I still think Rothfuss is right when he says nobody cares about strategy games like chess anymore. It's obviously a slight hyperbole to say nobody but it's close. But the same way that niche communities still rally around chess there is a niche community rallying around Tak that I stumbled into while trying to improve my play.

To start with there is the Tak subreddit, /r/tak. There is a small but active community that hangs out there but most of the action seems to be on their Discord server. Where do these people play Tak, though? Well, the answer is pretty straightforward: playtak.com

Through /r/tak I was able to collate a nice little collection of resources for learning Tak made by a few members of the community:

One last thing to keep in mind if you decide to try out Tak. There are plenty of bots on playtak.com that you can practice against, I think the best of these for learning is FriendlyBot. FriendlyBot is an adjustable AI with a difficulty currently ranging from 1 (easiest) to 13 (good luck). The instructions for setting the bot's level and size of the board can be found here. You can also play against this AI on any size board from a 3x3 to an 8x8.

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention Tak can be played on a grid anywhere from a 3 to 8 squares on a side. Each size has it's own kind of strategy and adds a ton of variety to the gameplay.

If you are interested in Tak and you spend any time browsing /r/tak you'll notice right away that the community encourages building your own Tak sets. The game only requires identical "stones" that can be played flat or standing on their side and a "capstone" which typically looks like a pawn from chess. The standard Tak board and pieces from the publisher are somewhat expensive, but I was able to find a  decent way to build a set for less than 20 dollars. I'll be sharing the details of that build in my next post!