Archive for June, 2013

Board Game Capsule Reviews: Pre-Origins Plate-Clearing

Today I’m talking about a few board games whose only connection is that I’ve first tried them at Origins, and had the chance to play them more since, but haven’t yet written an official review. With the Origins convention happening again later this week, it seems like a good time to catch up on these.

20th Century box

20th Century

20th Century

20th Century intrigued me right away: A complex engine-building game whose driving design goal seemed to be to include as many types of auctions as possible. Despite that, though, it’s become obvious that this isn’t an “auction game”. Normally, all the bidding would act as an equalizer, guaranteeing that no one would be able to grab a resource for less than anyone else was willing to pay. Here, though, it’s common for people to get blocked out of auctions when they would have been happy to outbid someone else. This happens mostly because players can choose when they drop out of a round. The rewards for doing this early make dropping out into its own auction, but that means that the player will miss out on later bids, and the items might go way too cheaply.

Instead, the draw of 20th Century is the system you’re building. Everyone makes their own tile-based kingdom of cities, railroads, and, if they aren’t careful, pollution. It’s fun, but it does get repetitive. Despite the elements that are supposed to vary from game to game, they started feeling the same to me quickly. This is a fun one to try, but its best if you’re the type of person who intends to sample a bunch of games without playing them over and over.

Grade: C+

FITS box



This Tetris-inspired game ended up living up to its potential: It’s fun and accessible for non-gamers, but interesting for more serious gamers as well. Admittedly, it gets a little repetitive. About half the time I feel bored with it before its four rounds are over. The games are always interesting at the start, though, especially if there are new players to get excited over the possibilities of the system. It is fun as long as it only reaches the table occasionally.

Grade: B

GOSU cover



I got to play this only once more, so I still don’t feel ready to review it. However, I definitely have more context to add to my initial impressions: Based on two three-player games, I thought the system seemed interesting, but the strategy was lost in the chaos. Since then, I’ve tried it again with four players, and it was exactly the same. It was long, unpredictable, and while there are supposed to be strategic reasons to drop out of a round early, anyone who did so always had to sit out a for long time while the situation on the board completely changed. Also, this made three games in a row in which someone won using a special victory condition on a card that someone else had played!

One of the people with me was a big fan of the game, but he was shocked by the way this one played out. Apparently, it was the first time he had tried it with more than two players. I can see how that would make a difference. Having only one opponent would cut out most of the chaos, and would also mean that when you’re ready to end the round, the other person probably is as well. So at this point, I feel confident saying that Gosu is a complete mess with more than two players. However, it was designed with two players in mind, and it seems to be completely different like that. I’ll withhold judgment until I get to try it the “real” way.

Box images are from Board Game Geek. Follow the links on the images for details and photographer credits.

Kickstarter and Fake Excitement

Yesterday, Zach Weiner (aka Weinersmith; he seems to use both names interchangeably) posted his Kickstarter campaign for Trial of the Clone 2: Wrath of the Pacifist. Of course I want it. Trial of the Clone was a hilarious book, and if anything I underrated it with my B grade. But still, there was something that I found really annoying about this campaign.

Trial Of The Clone Stretch GoalsWeiner explained that they were starting with six illustrations in the book, but “we’re letting you decide how many illustrations go into it”. As the funding passed milestones of $1000, $5000, $10,000, and so on, he added more illustrations to the budget. They were “stretch goals”, using the common Kickstarter term. The only problem is that the funding goal was set at $20,000. It had to hit five stretch goals just to get funded, so the real baseline was eleven illustrations. This way, though, Weiner got to send out updates every few hours yesterday announcing that another goal had been hit and he was “amazed by what a freakin’ awesome audience I have”. Even though his previous book raised over $130,000, Weiner claimed surprise that he could get a fraction of that this time. Perhaps he just thought his last book had driven his fans away, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that he was faking enthusiasm to encourage more supporters.

This is something that’s starting to irritate me. When Kickstarter first launched, the big success stories were projects that unexpectedly went viral, or people who had quietly built up fanbases for years but hadn’t yet asked for money from them. In those cases, the surprise and excitement is perfectly appropriate. But now that Kickstarter is mature, a new kind of project is dominating: Products by established creators, who can predict fairly well what results they’ll get. That is fine; Kickstarter is for everyone. But we shouldn’t expect them to follow the same model as the unexpected successes.

Right now, everyone seems to believe that you have to go through the excited motions of “the indie project that could” when crowdfunding. In fact, projects like Weiner’s are raising it to the level of (unintentional, as far as I know) parody: Acting amazed that a sequel is on track to do as well as the original, and pretending that we’ve donated enough to unlock stretch goals even before the planned minimum funding is hit.

Stop it. Tell us why your project will be awesome, send regular updates with jokes, production images, or whatever’s appropriate, and otherwise just get to work. Don’t act like your fans are easy to mislead.

Party of One (RPG Gamebook Review)

Party of OneKobold Press has a series of single-player RPG adventures released as Party of One. They’re simple gamebooks based on the Pathfinder system (a D&D spin-off), with all the stats, battles, and die rolls that that implies. However, they explain all the needed rules in the text and keep them streamlined (with no initiative, critical hits, or similar items). Presumably they’re aimed to bring new people into the Pathfinder world, though I don’t know how many people out there are interested in a Choose Your Own Adventure dice-fest but don’t already know the basics of D&D.

I’m reviewing all three as a single item, since each costs $3 and can be completed (with some time peeking at other paths) in about a half hour. They’re sold as downloadable PDFs, and average only fifteen pages each. That page count includes a title page, a page of legal details, and two different character sheets – even though the game explains all the stats needed without referring to those character sheets, and even contradicts them sometimes. Obviously, that doesn’t leave much space for the game.

Each one casts you as a low-level (pre-made) adventurer, faced with a crisis that can basically be resolved in one scene. Your chances of surviving all the battles seem to be about 50-50, and the choices seem fair without arbitrary death or sudden plot twists. However, your decisions do matter: Two of the scenarios have multiple endings, depending on what you did while playing. (The choices it offers frequently depend on past events, so the paths can keep merging together and then branching back off when appropriate.) The real challenge, though not a difficult one, is to figure out how to get the different endings.

These are simple fun, and I never felt like I was being jerked around by unexpected consequences of my decisions. They really are like playing through a story, and are more successful than I expected. They’re still very slight, though. I wonder whether these worked because they were so short that they didn’t need to offer many branches or hard decisions. I’d definitely be interested in longer-form work by author Matthew J. Hanson, but as far as I can tell he’s written no other solo gamebooks. Though these are decent, each one is like an introductory chapter that ends quickly. I’d expect more from a $9 book, let alone a PDF-only product.

The one I’ll highlight is Kalgor Bloodhammer and the Ghouls through the Breach, which features the best and worst of the series. It has the least linear storyline. Once your Dwarven hero discovers his city is threatened, the choices are based around a central hub with options that the player can do in any order. It does matter which ones are chosen first, and that lets the story proceed in a natural way. Of course, I’d prefer a longer story with a few more choices, but it’s still a good structure. On the other hand, it could have used some editing. A supporting character’s stats change without reason (another story has the main character’s damage change as well), and if you choose not to do an important task and later return to that location, the book assumes that you had previously tried and failed. Even stranger, all of the endings give the impression of being “bad” ones, but there really isn’t one where the hero is satisfied with the outcome. Normal linear stories can get away with unhappy endings, but when the reader is an active participant in a challenge, there needs to be a chance to win.

Party of One is very different from the last gamebook I tried based on an existing RPG system. Unlike Tunnels & Trolls, this doesn’t expect the player to be an expert in the rules and it keeps the player on a fair path through a coherent story. It provides a template for RPG gamebooks that feel like a satisfying story experience. Being very short and a little rushed, it is only a template, though. I’m still looking for a completely successful one.

Grade: C+


Recent IDW Series (Comic Review)

I went for several years reading almost no IDW comics. They were expensive, and as the company drifted towards more and more licensed properties, I lost interest. But after a decade of holding their prices steady, IDW’s comics are now no more expensive than most DC and Marvel ones. Even more importantly, over the past year they’ve been bringing in more writers and artists who I really like. I tend to follow talent more than I follow specific characters, so this was enough to get me checking out series that I never would have expected to buy. I’ve already talked about the modern Popeye series, and here are reviews of the others I’ve been reading over the past year.

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Two From Frightened Rabbit (Music Review)

Sing the Greys cover

Frightened Rabbit – Sing the Greys

I picked up Frightened Rabbit’s Sing the Greys recently, and I was immediately disappointed. Not that it doesn’t still have the charisma and emotion I expect from the band, but it’s a bit simple compared to their other albums, and the slightly rougher production is a problem for songs that should sound effortlessly soulful. Also, it doesn’t even cross the thirty-minute mark once you take out a few forgettable instrumentals and the live bonus track. I soon realized my mistake, though: I’d thought I was buying Frightened Rabbit’s new album, but I accidentally chose their indie debut instead. In context, Sing the Greys did demonstrate the band’s early potential. Today, though, they’ve lived up to that potential so well that this sounds fairly pointless. It’s not bad, but the only track that really stands the test of time is “The Greys”, a song about how “the blues” isn’t an accurate description of depression.

Pedestrian Verse cover

Frightened Rabbit – Pedestrian Verse

Fortunately, I corrected my mistake and bought Pedestrian Verse, Frightened Rabbit’s actual new album. It lived up to my expectations, and even assuaged my concerns that the band’s emotional style would start to lose its charm. They evolve here, with a fuller, even orchestral, sound. They’re on the path to becoming the Scottish Arcade Fire, but it’s hard to say how that’s a bad thing.

Most of the other elements are the same: Scott Hutchinson’s voice is rich and confessional, with a confidence and honesty that lets him get away with lines few people could (“a knight in shitty armor” or “the slipped disc in the spine of community”). The songs are beautiful but full of pain, portraying consistently bleak lives, and casual obscenity is common. (In Hutchinson’s world, “fucking” is the most soulless and emotionally numb thing one can do.)

After a few albums, Frightened Rabbit’s basic style is no longer as surprising as it used to be. But the decision to double down on their sound is an effective one, especially since the songs are as varied and well-conceived as ever. They are creative and evocative in their depictions of shameful regrets (“Backyard Skulls”), distant families (“December’s Traditions”), and even doubts about the band’s quality (“The Oil Slick”). “Holy” is notable not because the narrator rejects religion, but because of the way that the believers around him make him dwell on his own empty life.

Yes, the lyrics are as unrelentingly bleak as those descriptions make them seem. But the sound is smooth and uplifting, while Hutchinson’s Scottish accent provides nonstop vocal hooks. This is as easy to play on repeat as a simple pop album, but it’s also thoughtful and full of meaning. That’s a wonderful combination.

Sing the Greys: C

Pedestrian Verse: B+