Come on in for another sun-ripened episode of Next of Ken, where this week I'll wax lyrical about gaming experiences being all about what we bring with us, and review both Ghost Pirates and Dungeon Command. As a side note, this column has been completely scrubbed and is 100% free of Gamer Funk. With that in mind, join us, won't you?
Starvin' at a Feast, and All This Wine I've Never Tasted
Barnes talked last week about "Hell is Other Gamers", and honestly this is a continuation of the ever-changing discussion that's been going on since the whole "Enlightenment of the Critics" movement began earlier this year.
I've said it a million times, people are more important than games. By extension of this, games are merely the vehicles for our personalities and interaction. Quite literally, just like Luke Skywalker wandering into the Boogedy Boogedy Cave of Evil, games are precisely what we bring with us.
I rarely game with 'strangers' these days. I'm blessed to have a wife who enjoys gaming. I have two brothers who are avid gamers. We have a healthy board gaming group in my area that meets regularly and is filled with folks who are great to game with. When I'm jonesing for a gaming fix, I don't have to wander into the midst of people I don't know in order to get my game on.
That's not to say I don't enjoy that type of experience. I make friends really easily, and I'm a hard guy not to get along with. Life is good and happiness is infectious. Odds are if you sit down at a game table with me, you are going to have a good time. This is generally regardless of the game we're playing, unless the game is especially terrible--but then, that becomes an enjoyable experience all its own.
It does make it difficult to be a "Game Critic" when so much of our experiences with games are tied up in the quality of people we get to game with. It has been said in other articles but it bears repeating--unlike movies, books, songs, poems, board games are essentially pieces of in-the-moment performance art. Games are a glob of rules with thematic nudges that if we squint at them from a bare-bones abstraction level, we can sort of make out the theme...that is, until we interject ourselves into those proceedings. We do bad Nazi accents. We make explosion sounds and go "pew pew!" We laugh, we riff on pop-culture references, we sing, we cheer when we hit tha magical roll, we groan when the dice betray us...we feed off the energy of everyone at that table. What is lifeless in the box is given a jolt of energy from the participants. A movie on a reel will spool whether we fall asleep or remain riveted; for a game to progress, it requires our attention, our interaction, it requires us. For all the work of the designers, the playtesters, the publishers, without us breathing life into a game, it's just a box full of cardboard and plastic and pretty pictures.
I'm gentler on games these days than I used to be; I recognize that fact. I struggle to seperate the "interjection of us" with the mechanisms of the game, the enablers in the box, the structures of the theater that the designer has built for us to play in. It often isn't as easy a task as it should be. There are times I envy the Eurogame reviewers, who deal solely in mechanisms, stare quietly at their own player boards, and can more readily find the divide between game and person.
I do know this, though--I'll play a 12 shitty games with people I like being around before I'll play just one session of my absolute favorite game with a table full of fun murderers. I'm talking the people who say stuff like, "I'd rather walk home alone in the rain than play a game I don't like." I'm sorry to break it to you, but if you have a table full of your friends (assuming someone who says shit like that actually has them) and you'd rather walk home than sit at the table with them, chug some beer, and enjoy some laughs no matter *what* you think of the game taken on its own merits, I hate to break it to you but this reflects kinda badly on you as a person.
Does this mean you should be forced to sit through a dozen games of Fluxxxxx? That's not what I'm saying at all...though really, how many of us have friends who are dying to play 12 games of Fluxx? Friends are the type of people who understand that their favorite game may not be everyone else's. So you rotate. You take turns picking. And you continue to laugh, to joke, to drink beer, to slay dragons, to explode robots, and roll your tanks ever onward. If that's your type of fun, then you've got a friend right here who will gladly game with you, anytime.
A four-player game ANYONE can get behind
As a critic though, I am working harder to look at games more clinically, to understand that any game with awesome people can be fun, but some games can be more awesomer than others, and if you're using my words to help you figure out where to spend your gaming dollars, I owe you a higher level of precision. To that end, I'm working on it.
Screamin' Bone Collector, Soul Resurrector
Ethereal pirates doing ship-to-ship boarding battles on galleys that shift, change shape, and transform suddenly...welcome to the world of Ghost Pirates, designed by Tim Rodriguez from Brooklyn Indie Games.
In the game, each player has three cards for his ship--a Forecastle, a Main Mast, and a Poop Deck (giggle.) There is a line of sea cards seperating the two ships, and each card shows the current at each location. These locations have a small number on the bottom right, and this is the number of crew members that start play there.
All the crew are identical, save for two--each player has a First Mate who begins play at the Forecastle, and their Captain who begins at the Poop Deck (chortle.) The goal of the game is to force your opponent's Captain all the way to the Forecastle and then oust him from the ship by combat. How do you do this? First we have to talk about the other game mechanisms first.
Players take turns one after another. On your turn, you first draw a card from the central deck. Most of these are ship parts that you can add to your ship. Because these are supernatural ships, you can actually slide parts of your ship to one side or another to make room for new sections, with the only limitations being your ship cannot be longer than five cards, and you can never put cards "beyond" the Forecastle and Poop Deck (chuckle.) These new ship parts have a number on the bottom as well, and when you add them to your ship, you'll get new crew as reinforcements at that location.
Several of these locations have special abilities. Boarding planks are played between the two ships, and you'll use these to stream your pirate warriors across to the other boat to fight the enemy crew. Masts allow crew who begin their movement there to move two spaces instead of three, important for attacking quickly or reforming a defensive position. Cargo Holds will give you an instant Treasure Deck draw, but they are also more easily looted by an opponent, who may find treasure of their own there.
Cannons are special ship parts that can be fired during the Play Cards phase and target the enemy ship section directly opposite it. You roll a die, and on a 1-3, you'll inflict two hits on any crew there. On a 6, you'll destroy that section, with the enemy boat sliding back together based on the direction of the currents in between the boats. You don't need crew to fire these ghostly cannons, and they can wreak all sorts of havoc.
Once you've played up to one boarding plank and/or one ship part, and fired all your canons you want to, it's time to move. Each crew can move two spaces, and again if they begin at a Mast they can move 3 instead. Enemy crew will stop their movement on a 1-for-1 basis, "pinning" an equal number of foes there. However, once the numbers are even, the rest of your crew is free to move through that location unimpeded. There's also a rule for retreating from where you have crew that are outnumbered, suffering opportunity attacks as you flee.
Eventually you'll be done moving and it's time to resolve battles. Anywhere you and your opponent have crew, you'll fight. You get one die per crew member, but the Captain and the First Mate get two dice instead. So if you have four crew and your First Mate, you'll be chucking six dice. Both you and your opponent roll. "Skulls" (or 1s if you're using extra dice, which you'll have to as the game only comes with four) count as hits, and any non-Skull pairs you roll are also hits.
So if you rolled six dice and had Skull, Skull, 3, 3, 5, and 6, you score three hits. Results happens simultaneously, so both sides will get their full dice and inflict casualties.
Here's the part where you work to win the game--while the person taking casualties chooses who dies, if the Captain is there and you have equal to or more hits to suffer, the captain is forced to move one towards the Forecastle. He only moves once per combat, and this is in fact the only way he moves. (As a side note, his location can also be hit by Canon fire, forcing him to move as well.) The idea is you'll battle your opponent, forcing his captain forward, and eventually inflicting a hit on him at his own Forecastle, throwing him overboard and winning the game.
The First Mate as mentioned is the only other special piece. He throws two dice like the Captain, but when he dies, he doesn't go back to reserve but instead goes "Overboard" and will redeploy for free at your own Poop Deck (snicker.) The First Mate is great at helping you soak up a casualty as he'll always be back for more, but sometimes you'll want his dice and his respawn will put him too far out of the action.
The Treasure deck can affect battles as well, and you get Treasure either by playing Cargo Holds or Pillaging an opponent's ship location. Instead of fighting, if you are unopposed at an enemy ship location you can make a Pillage roll. Toss a single die and add your number of crew; seven or higher total and you'll get a treasure draw. These are playable anytime instead of only on your turn. One item is a curse knife, that will add two dice to the battle but force you to sacrifice a crew member at the end of the battle. Personally, I use that one when you're hopelessly outnumbered anyway to try and get an extra hit or two in an no real "cost." There's also a Grapple that lets you swing a crew member directly across to the enemy ship outside the movement phase, and lastly some Lucky Dice that will modify a roll up or down by 1--yours or your opponents. Useful for getting an extra hit or changing one of your opponent's paired dice to avoid extra damage.
There are four pirate captains you can play as, each with a special ability. For us this was sort of a letdown as there were only four, and two of their abilities were only barely useful--such as the guy who lets you retreat one crew for free (whee!) There is a large discrepancy in power levels, as of the two "useful" captains, one fires canons better to shred opponent's ship parts more easily, and the other can use *any* card face-down as a boarding plank, which is HUGE for letting you get at your opponent right where you want to. We've talked about either creating new powers for the two slacker captains, making up a new set of captains altogether, or just leaving them out.
Basically, Ghost Pirates is a very light dudes on a map game where you build the "map" out of cards. Instead of conquest the object is to corner and push your opponent's captain forward, until you hit the climactic battle where he gets keelhauled and takes a dive into the drink. Is it fun? Yeah, it's always fun to throw some dice and move troops around, no doubt about that. I will say that the combat math is a little off in terms of the flow of the game; it starts to feel a little "grindy" as 5-7 troops move in each turn, positions shift, a few casualties are inflicted, all gradually moving towards your goal.
Also, the first player advantage is pretty stark. We've had two games now where the first player was able to drive the opponent's captain right to the brink of the ship on the very first turn! Since only treasures can be played at any time, and your starting forces are pretty sparse, all the second player can do is watch, and hope...if the opponent gets a Canon, a Boarding Plank (or lord forbid, both) then you will be in for a rough time. Sure, it's fun to bust out a mega first turn and batter your opponent's captain, but it's not so much fun when you're on the receiving end. It's like being forced to start at your own 2-yard line through no fault of your own.
Can you come back from that? Sure you can. You'll just basically be playing from the edge all game and hoping your opponent's luck falters while you turtle up and nab some good cards. The rulebook mentions the first player's turn can be "terrifying", but just recognizing that this is an issue in the rulebook probably isn't enough.
It's not a long game, over in about 30 minutes, and it does wrap up when it would *really* start to feel repetitive. It is great that the game is super-portable, allowing you to get this sort of dice combat fix in a fast-playing game that doesn't take up a ton of table real estate, perfect for travelling. It is only two-players though, so that will put a damper on the fun if you have a lot of friends wanting to toss dice with you at the same time.
It does have its issues in terms of grindy combat and the double-whammy of luck on both cards and dice, where you'll find if both desert you, it doesn't matter an ounce how well you play. Also, the first player advantage is going to drive some players absolutely nuts.
It's basically a two-player dice-driven combat filler, so it will be nice to keep around when you need something like that for game night. We like it okay, but to be honest I'm not sure I can give it a recommendation. It's cheap, and the appeal of a half-hour bash-a-thon is great, but this game is proof positive that there is an "art" to getting dicey Ameritrash games right and it's easy to miss the mark sometimes even in the simplest rulesets.
I wish it had more Captains (and dear goodness, three of the four Captains have artwork that makes your eyes bleed--who taught this guy to draw arms?!) It really should have also included more of the dice with the skulls on it--c'mon, only four? That's a First Mate and two dudes...so far I think my max has been 12 dice in one turn. Since you're pairing dice, it's not easy to just re-roll them, either. So definitely plan on bringing along six-eight of your own six-siders. Including four in the package is kind of a joke.
Overall, we've kind of had some fun with it, but unless you just really need a game like this, you should be ok to give it a pass.
They Call Us Walking Corpses, Unholy Livin' Dead
Wizards of the Coast had a very successful run with their Dungeons & Dragons Miniatures line, but like a lot of collectible miniatures games that have come and gone over the past several years, the line was retired in 2011. What was different was that D&D Miniatures was actually still very successful at the time it ended, and there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth as players wondered why WotC pulled the plug.
While I'm not sure if there was a direct cause and effect involved, out now is WotC's new D&D miniatures skirmish game, Dungeon Command. Much like its predecessor, Dungeon Command sees two sides with pre-built "war bands" battle on a grid-based map, using their powers and special abilities to emerge victorious. Two things are radically different this time, though. First of all, players don't start with their entire army on the map, but instead draw from a deck of cards that allows them to spawn them.
Second? There's not any dice in the box whatsoever. Nope, not one. The combat is all card-based, with characters having fixed combat values, and cards that can be played to boost attacks, deal extra damage, heal. Pretty much everything you do in the game utilizes either the creatures' static values or the use of cards.
Cards have a default level and stat that they key off of, so while your low-level creatures will be able to use the weaker cards of the appropriate type you'll need the heavy-hitters to use the higher-level cards. There is a unique mechanic that will let several smaller creatures assist each other, using their combined levels to collectively play a powerful card. It encourages teamwork and group positioning, plus synergy in your warband.
Beyond the conceit of extensive cardplay and diceless combat, a lot of what you'll see in Dungeon Command should be very familiar ground. Monsters move around the battlefield based on their speed; some attack at range, some attack close-up. If a creature takes damage equal to its hit points, it's removed from the board. Last man standing is the winner, so if you ever end a turn with no creatures in play, you lose. Alternately, you have a Morale rating, and every time a creature dies it costs you some of that precious Morale. If your Morale goes to 0, you warband breaks and you lose.
Something that will shake up the gameplay is the use of avatars for the players. Each Dungeon Command starter set comes with two characters that can command your army. You'll choose one of them, and that character will determine your own personal special abilities, starting handsize, and the number of creature cards you'll have each turn. Their abilities will shape your strategy and give you bonuses. For example of the Drow's two commanders one allows your Drow and Spiders to move 2 squares faster, but the other can convert treasures into extra card draws to keep the attacks coming. So one's all about speed, the other card-churning--and either will help you shape your strategy for the battle ahead.
Each commander has a Leadership rating that varies based on the commander and steadily increases as the game continues. This determines how many levels of creatures you can have on the battlefield at once. When your Leadership is at 7, you could have a level 4 and 3 level 1s, two level 3s and a level 1, so on and so forth. As creatures die or as your Leadership rating increases you can steadily have more and more units on the board. Of course, creatures dying will cost you Morale, and the bigger the creature you lose in combat, the more it will sting your Morale. Hey, makes sense, if a heavy hitter goes down in a fight, it's going to make his weaker allies more than a little jittery.
Wizards continues to get mileage out of their existing D&D Minis sculpts, though there are a few new ones here and there. You can't really fault them for that as their minis are generally very good, and Dungeon Command's are of the pre-painted variety. Sure, you've seen several of these guys in D&D Minis, Heroscape, and the newer D&D Adventure games--but they still get the job done well. They're never going to match the loving paint jobs that the best minis painters can do, but they're also not bad for the price and for those of us who can't paint, hey, we appreciate the effort.
My brother pretty accurately tagged this as "Magic: The Gathering with tactical positioning", and that's pretty close to the mark. It even uses Magic's "Stack", where card effects resolve in last played, first resolved order. Creatures damage each other most often with a static attack value, and Leadership sort of acts as your "mana cap" for putting creatures on the board. The cards--both through card-based effects and defined damage values, really do give the game an overall Magic vibe.
The game does include components for use with the Adventure games (Ravenloft, Ashardalon, Drizzt) with Monster/Ally/Event cards as appropriate. If you are not a painter it will look a little weird having pre-paints mixed in with the Adventure games' unpainted pieces, but it's very cool to include this stuff and adds to the overall value of the package.
What do I think about it? I think it's a fast-playing card-drawing battle game that, while missing dice, uses cards and character abilities to good effect. I realize that a lot of folks will really be turned off by the dice thing. But honestly, how many games do we need with "I have Attack, you have Defense, I roll my dice to try and hit you?" They could've went that route, but if they had they might as well have just kept the Dungeons and Dragons Miniatures Skirmish game alive.
The retail price of a single-player kit is kind of a bummer, but at least you are getting a ready-made thematic warband, something you can't honestly say for random-pull skirmish games. The armies make sense, you get a nice mixture of heavy hitters and utility guys, it is everything you need in one box to play an army. I understand that from a boardgaming perspective the $$$ sounds high, but I'm not sure this is really targeted towards the hardcore boardgamer. When looked at from a CCG or CMG perspective, it's actually a relatively good deal.
Even with these nice things to say, I have to admit I like rather than love the game. The fun part comes from a flurry of cards, but you often only get to draw one Order card per turn so the number of turns where you'll have several cards played at once is relatively small. I'm not sure using the Stack was really all that relevant beyond once or twice.
I'm looking forward to the variety that will be offered by more armies and troops, but again you've got a $40 buy-in ($25 on-line) for each one. My advice? If you're interested in getting into this, find a buddy who wants to play and each of you buy your own armies. Treat it like a CMG by splitting the cost and each of you specializing in your own selections. Taken that way, I think you can each have quite a bit of fun at a fraction of the cost.
There's potential here, so keep your eyes on it. If Wizards continues to support this with new releases, as it expands it has the chance to increase the amount of options and open up more card interactions. With the ready-to-go warbands and fast gameplay, this will be my go-to for now for some quick minis action.
Another column in the books! Until Drizzt himself does battle with ethereal pirates with hideously distended arms, I'll see ya in seven.