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Challenging the Supremacy of CCGs

Legend of the 5 Rings (L5R) is an old game.

Sort of.

It was just released by Fantasy Flight Games at GenCon last year. In it's current iteration it follows Fantasy Flight's "Living Card Game" (LCG) model used by it's other popular games Netrunner, Star Wars: Destiny, and a Game of Thrones LCG. You see, L5R used to be a Collectible Card Game (CCG) in the same vein as Magic: The Gathering and Pokemon. After it's release in 1995 the game soared in popularity into the late 90's and only died quite recently in 2015 - to be reborn from it's CCG ashes in the format of an LCG in 2017. The difference in the two business models is simple but profound.

In a CCG one is expected to buy booster packs of randomly distributed cards, usually with a single "rare" guaranteed inside. The result is players having to buy tons of booster packs to get the exact cards they want or buying cards individually at a considerable mark up if a card is considered tournament viable. Since I was a young boy burning lawn mowing money buying small pieces of cardboard and D&D books, getting cards from booster packs is just the way things were done. I didn't find it weird (and no one else seemed to at the time) that booster packs were essentially gambling. Plunk down your 4 dollars for a shot at the jackpot rare!

In the LCG format there are no artificial rarities created by the games publisher. Instead of buying randomly distributed booster packs, players purchase a "core" box of cards. The core set includes the rules, tokens, and roughly 240 cards. The cards included are enough to make "starter" (slightly smaller than tournament legal) decks for each of the seven clans in the game. If you are familiar with Magic or Pokemon, clans are roughly analogous to mana color or element type. There are also a number of "neutral" cards which can be played in any clan's deck.

That one 30 dollar box gives you everything you need to get a taste for the game's different clans and decide whether or not you want to play more. For those enamored with the game after playing with their starters and want to play more competitive decks, you must purchase 2 additional core sets. Why? Because each core set includes 1 copy of each clan card, and 2 copies of every neutral card. In L5R a deck can have up to 3 copies of a single card. Having 3 core sets allows you to build 2 full size tournament legal decks with up to 3 copies of your clan cards and it gives you 6 of every neutral card (enough for 2 decks to share the same neutrals). This same 3 core model is followed by all of Fantasy Flight's LCG products.

You may be saying to yourself "Hang on a second, that's almost 100 bucks to buy into this game with a full deck!" You're right. A full deck in Magic can be bought pre-constructed for around 15 dollars. You and your buddy could be playing technically tournament legal decks for a buy in of 30 dollars. Very quickly you'll realize that a lot of the cards in that pre-constructed deck are junk however. Your friend will buy a few booster packs and upgrade their deck and you will have to follow suit. In this way a new addiction to the cardboard crack of Magic is born.

With the LCG model luck is removed from the equation and extra cards aren't to be found. New cards are added to the base set of the game at regular intervals, but each new pack contains every card in that set. There is no fishing through boosters for that one card that makes your deck click together. One purchase gets you a full play set of every new card. Economically the two styles of card game take reverse approaches.

CCG's have a low up front investment cost with a high lifetime cost. LCG's have a high up front investment cost with a lower lifetime cost. Even over the life span of the average player if these two propositions even out with time the LCG offers one gameplay benefit over the CCG that tips the scale towards LCG games. By virtue of the fact that LCGs give the players who buy in every card available in the design space, a player never has to commit to a particular style of play.

In Magic, if I get bored of my current deck I have to rummage through the rest of my cards and see what I can put together. Unless you have a huge collection already worth hundreds if not thousands of dollars, invariably that deck will have some weak points that need to be shored up and then it's back to the game store for more cards.

In the LCG model if my buddy swaps in some cards that start devestating me, I have access to the exact same cards and every other card in the game to come up with a new strategy. There is no going back to the store (except to play or buy new expansions every few months). You can build the exact same deck as the one that is winning the big tournaments, without shelling out 300 dollars for a play set of mythic rares. You've already got all the pieces of that championship deck sitting right there on the shelf.

What I love about this is how it keeps deck building and player skill at the forefront of the game. The focus in a Living Card Game is heavy on the Game. The focus in a Collectible Card Game is heavy on the Collectible. Over the long term I'm not sure which strategy is better from a business perspective. As a consumer, the LCG model is far friendlier and keeps the cost of playing competitively far lower. It remains to be seen if any of Fantasy Flight's LCGs can make a dent in the lumbering behemoths of Magic and Pokemon, still by far the most popular card games of this type in the world. It is refreshing to see a new take on the card game genre and I know which one I'll be putting most of my dollars behind in the future.

New schedule, more content!

I had to hire an adventuring party to clean out the kobolds who had taken up residence in the empty corners of my blog. It's been rather quiet here for a few months owing to terrible, horrible things. Such as the holidays and my dayjob and being lazy.

To combat the entropy of these kinds of things, like a good D&D group, the writing and posting here will be a regular weekly occurrence. I'll be making sure that a new post goes up every Wednesday - except of course when they don't. But that is the plan.

There is so much I have wanted to write about: great games to review, monsters and lore to share, reports of my exploits at the LGS in search of glory.

But wait, there's more!

In addition to writing more about tabletop gaming I also intend to start putting up video content - specifically sharing my D&D groups roll20 sessions. We are just on the cusp of wrapping up the Princes of the Apocalypse campaign and will be moving into an epilogue taking their characters from 14 to 20 on an adventure to the farthest corner of Faerun. While it contains spoilers for the way that our campaign played out which in some way is similar to other PotA campaigns, the epilogue will be all new material that delves deeper into how I have fleshed out the background threats of the campaign. I think it will be a good hopping on point to the story for viewers. It's going to be epic!

I'm working out the logistics of how to record and edit that in the best way possible and I can't wait to start sharing our adventures with the wider world.

A Very Reaper Halloween

Halloween is just around the bend and as a Dungeon Master, I must consider Halloween a sacred day to celebrate monsters. Without monsters there are no valiant heroes slaying monsters, just a bunch of dopes standing around in shiny armor with nothing to do.

Some of the cooler and weirder monsters in D&D lore can be found in the adventure module White Plume Mountain. Originally released all the way back in 1979 for the very first edition of the game, it is considered one of the greatest dungeons of all time. It's been updated for every edition of D&D, most recently via The Tales from the Yawning Portal book. Someday I'd love to run it with a full suite of painted miniatures to represent all the monsters within. This halloween I continue that quest with the addition of some sea-lions to my miniatures.

Those are half-seal and half-lion by the way. Very different from your traditional Sealion.

You may notice in that picture some candy. That isn't from my own stockpile of Halloween treats, Reaper actually sent me candy with my order. Not only that but I got two freebie bonus minis. One is an undead champion looking fellow and the other a female elf wizard. Both are kitted out in some rather highish level looking gear. Free miniatures AND free candy? That's how you build brand loyalty, I don't remember any other companies ever sending me candy. Not bad!

Continuing on with the monster theme, I've been running into some trouble with my long running Princes of the Apocalypse campaign. You see the players are getting rather competent and their characters rather high level. After their last session they hit level 11. What is a dungeon master to do? Call in back up from your friends at Kobold Press.

The Tome of Beasts is a 3rd party supplement put out by Kobold Press with a whole host of new monsters for your campaign. A lot of those are higher CRs so this isn't a book I'd recommend to people just starting out. But! Eventually players catch on or spend too much time reading the Monster Manual on their own, or perhaps are DMs themselves. The Tome of Beasts gives you a new arsenal to keep those PCs on their toes.

In fact, the reason my players got to level 11 is because they managed to take down the Flame Dragon from this very book. It took the place of the most powerful creature the Fire Cult could muster in the Princes of the Apocalypse game and not only did they report having a ton of fun fighting it - but I had a ton of fun almost wiping out the party with it.

I also picked up the new iteration of the Dungeon Master's screen put out by Wizards of the Coast. I haven't had much time to go over the differences between the two yet, but I'll have my thoughts on those two screens along with some ideas about using a DM screen in general in a lengthier upcoming post.

Until then, Happy Halloween and good gaming!

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!

My First Questlandia Experience: The Island Kingdom of Chichazehski

My friend has had this weird RPG he picked up at the Penny Arcade Expo a year or two ago sitting on his shelf, occasionally thumbed through but never played. All that changed this past weekend as my wife and I with two friends sat down and created a new world. A world populated by a spiritual kingdom of anthropomorphic rabbits on a small island where every night the spirits of the dead inhabit the homes they once lived in. Everyday the rabbit people of Chichazehski work, trade, and live together on the island and at night live offshore on floating barge houses so their ancestor spirits may inhabit their homes when the stars come out. If the rabbit-ancestor spirits are not pleased and the proper carrots and cabbages are not sacrificed evil spirits will overpower the ancestors and the world will come to darkness. Does that sound weird enough for you? Welcome to Questlandia.

This is a game where in one single RPG length play session (3.5 - 5 hours) you and your friends create a setting for your RPG together. Players are prodded along by initial die rolls and card draws (more on that later) which give them some starting points to build the world from. We rolled that that in our setting, the kingdom had a religious or philosophical focus. Further card draws and dice rolls suggest character types and motivations for the player character's that will inhabit this new world. At our table this yielded results like a laborer driven by honor, a high priest bound by tradition, and a miscreant shunned by the community.

These broad archetypes are left up to the players to develop into a character with a name and a history. Here again the game assists with small mechanics in the form of traits (mine were commanding and grouchy) and weaknesses (prone to lashing out in rage).  During the setting and character creation process, players also pick aspects of the game world to have creative control over. Input and ideas can be taken from all players, but in their own respective areas the owner has the final say in answering any questions about the setting. For instance, I chose to flesh out the high rabbit priest and so took control over the aspects of the setting which determined the nature of our kingdom's religion. Other players were concerned with the geography or social aspects of our world. In this way every player can feel personally invested in the world you are playing in.

Once the world and characters have been created play proceeds scene by scene from person to person. On your turn you are the protagonist. You decide where your character is, who else is there, and what they are going to try to do in order to move closer to their character's personal goal. The remaining players, if their character's are not involved in the scene, can play other NPCs who may be present or provide commentary and ideas as the scene progresses. No stats or dice resolution come into play during the scene, player's simply role play out the proposed scenario with the game suggesting that non-protagonist players behave with the same mindset that a DM does in D&D. Keep the scene fun for the protagonist, feel free to challenge them, but don't directly veto or contradict them unless you feel it is crucial to the story being told.

Once the protagonist player calls for resolution to the scene, dice are rolled by the protagonist against the opposition forces. How many dice you get to use depend on how relevant the scene was to your characters traits and goals in addition to relationships with other player characters. The dice are rolled and compared with positive or negative story results doled out based on whether the protagonist player or opposing forces rolled higher. Positive results take the form of mastering obstacles, gaining character traits or boosts, or improving your relationships with other characters. Failures comprise reversals of fortune, a worsening or broken relationship, or even a general swing for the worse on the level of the entire kingdom.

In Questlandia, everyone gets 3 of these scenes where they are the primary protagonist. With 3 chances to drive the plot of the world and your character forward there is a good deal of potential for pushing through character arcs and seeing some growth even in a one session game like this. Our group had a lot of fun not only coming up with scenes when we were the protagonist, but in playing many NPC's who flit in and out of other player's scenes. I'm looking forward to playing again and developing a new world every time that can be as light hearted or as serious as the players call for.

It was a ton of fun rotating characters and playing different NPCs for each scene. In our game it turned sometimes into a comical Greek chorus with people chiming in as various faceless merchants and villagers. After the first few scenes we seemed to settle into how the game worked and it resulted in a lot of fun role playing. In a way, Questlandia feels more like an improvisation game with a formalized set of rules than it does a role playing game with a heavy emphasis on role playing.

That's not a bad thing, by any means. I like having a crunchy strategic system to dig into (I am a BattleTech player, after all) but Questlandia was refreshing in its insistence on constant improvised role playing. It felt like great practice for the DM's chair or role playing in any other system on top of being a ton of fun in and of itself. I've ordered a copy of the book for myself and plan on taking it out with more casual game players as a great step-in to the world of role playing.

If you want to check out Questlandia for yourself, it's available in pdf or paperback here: http://makebigthings.com/questlandia-rpg/

Part of the creation process is drawing a map as a group, and adding to it as the game goes on. Here is what our group ended up with.

High Rabbit Priest Phavrecha

High Rabbit Priest Phavrecha

First Impressions: D&D Beyond Beta Phase 1
Update: Curse has responded to early critique of D&D Beyond in their "Beta Report - The Morning After" thread including most of what I wrote here.

The very first portion of Wizard's of the Coast's fancy new digital tools to support DMs and players is out now as a beta to anybody who has a Twitch.tv account to log in with. The decision to require a Twitch account in order to use the service has ruffled the usual feathers one would expect over at Reddit. For people who don't watch any streams on Twitch but do play D&D and want to use the official tools it seems like a strange hoop to jump through. However, It is a move undoubtedly tied to the fact that Curse is owned by Twitch and WotC has partnered with Curse to produce D&D Beyond. I do use Twitch pretty regularly so this doesn't bother me, but I can see someone else asking, "Why do I have to get an account with this streaming service in order to use D&D tools?"

 

Beyond is split into 5 sections at the moment and contains only the content that is currently available for free in the SRD and Basic Rules that have already been put out. In this stage of the beta (which WotC has promised to roll out in 3 "phases" over the next few weeks) Beyond has five different sections:

1. The Compendium

This section of Beyond which contains all the rules for actually playing a game is what needs the most work to me at the moment. There is no way to search through the text of the rules. The table of contents is broken into categories and than organized alphabetically, which is useless. Right now, this part of Beyond is sadly just a worse version of something like the Roll20 compendium. Honestly, I hope this is placeholder for a better system coming down the pipeline.

2. Spell, Item, and Monster Lists

Thankfully, these sections feel much better developed. These types of searchable databanks are directly in Curse's wheelhouse and it shows. Each section is categorized logically and easy to search and filter.

Players will be able to search through spells by what type of attack or attribute save they use, spell level, casting time, duration, range, and additional tags such as "control", "summoning", "utility", etc. Easily, this is already the best interface I know for a player leveling up who wants to browse through what they have available to them - if not for the pesky fact that this currently is missing spells not in the Basic Rules. The items are similarly sortable in the same manner.

As a DM the most useful section for me right now is the monsters. Sortable of course by name and challenge rating but also by type, size, alignment, and the environment they  are most likely to be found in. For bringing up stat blocks on the fly during a game this would be an invaluable tool for me. The less time flipping back and forth between pages of the monster manual the better.

3. Forums

Suddenly, it makes a lot more sense why WotC shut down their official forums in 2015. The 5th edition had already been released and being reviewed quite well when they made that decision and it puzzled me somewhat. Well, now we have new official forums and they've been moved under the umbrella of D&D Beyond. Not much to say here, other than to note that these are now the "official" D&D forums.

What's missing?

As far as I can tell this thing is only accessible through the web right now. Why they don't have Android and iOS versions available right now makes me a little nervous about how they're coming along. It's a strange for something that is billed as an "app" showing it's use on smartphones and tablets in marketing material only to have the first impression of it through a website.

Other than that, the most glaring omission and what players and DMs alike are hungering for is a well supported and intuitive character creation program. We have been promised this will be coming in Phase 2 of the beta for us to check out. What we've been given so far is such slim pickings that I suspect this Phase 1 test was largely to see how their servers would respond to the load. There are tons of creatures from the Monster Manual/Volo's Guide to Monsters along with Spells from the Player's Handbook that really need to be available before I can evaluate Beyond as a real tool I can use.

The interface for spells, items, and monsters is on point for the functionality I want this app to have. However, until we see a pricing model for the full content of the Player's Handbook and Monster Manual I'm still skeptical. The basic rules compendium is less useful than 3rd party implementations of the exact same content and the forums are your standard forum that's been in use for decades now.

I realize this is a beta right now but I'm not too impressed. I am very open (and hoping) that that changes in the future, there is a lot of potential packed away here. Wizard's has been bungling their digital tools for one reason or another since 3rd edition - I want this to be the time they nail it.

How I Got Into Battletech

My first encounter with Battletech was listening to the excellent podcast Fear the Boot a few years ago. They described some of the encounters they had played through in this feudal sci-fi universe dominated by corrupt nobles and 100 ton walking tanks. Despite having spent a fair amount of time playing tabletop games and hanging around game stores I'd never heard of it before then. Maybe you've never heard of it either.

That is because Battletech as an Intellectual Property has a long strange history involving copyright disputes and changing hands between companies nearly half a dozen times over the course of more than 30 years. It hasn't been incredibly popular since it boomed in the late 80s, being overshadowed by other games and eventually all but disappearing from local game stores. I was able to find one store in my area that carried the books, but no store I have been to carries miniatures.

Even if you've never heard of Battletech, you may be more familiar with things like Gundam, Pacific Rim, Voltron, Evangelion, or any one of a million movies or TV shows that feature pilots flying humanoid robots with awesome fire power into battle against the backdrop of a corrupt political system. So when I heard about this tabletop RPG called MechWarrior that had a fully fleshed out tactical mech combat game to go with it I knew it was love. If any of what I described sounds right up your alley, I suggest listening to Fear the Boot #374 for a great primer on the game and setting.

Once I knew about the game I started diving in headfirst, picking up the starter box of miniatures and basic rules. While waiting for that and getting my miniatures painted I started pouring over the truly breathtaking Sarna.net wiki. The timeline of the game's lore is vast. We're talking from the 2500 A.D. up through the 32nd century and it is jam packed with war and technological development, alliances and betrayal, terrible deeds and great heroism. It is the perfect setting for both RPG campaigns and detailed wargaming campaigns.

The only "warning" I give, perhaps less of a warning and more to set your expectations appropriately, is that Battletech is a human focused science-fiction. It is not a space opera. There are no aliens, nanotechnology, nothing akin to the force. The technology they have is gritty and mechanical. This isn't Star Trek where you can zip from star to star at Warp 9, it is a setting where making a jump to another star takes a great deal of time, calculation, and fuel. Think more like Battlestar Galactica's style of ship and you are on the right track. Then imagine that the Galactica could deploy two dozen mechs from low orbit.

If you like sci-fi but you're not keen to play in a Star Wars, Warhammer, or a more Cyberpunky game like Shadowrun I would implore you to check out Battletech. It's an old game, but there is a reason it still has die hard fans and still puts out products. It fills a niche not a single other game I have heard of can fill in.

Practice

In the image below, the yellow Vindicator on the left is the first mech I painted out of the 'BattleTech Introductory Box'. The Cyclops on the right is the 24th and final one. I painted the yellow mech without thinning the paint at all and uh, it shows. I plan to strip down and repaint it, but I had to snap a picture for the archive.

What a difference practice makes. I saved this image to help myself remember that practice does actually help; it's just hard to notice improvement while it's happening. Hopefully after 24 more minis I'll be even better. Even with the difference in results, I had as much fun painting the first one as I did the 24th. That's what I love about this hobby: you can always improve but it's still fun and satisfying no matter what your skill level.