Emotionally responding to advertising directed at my specific demographic

Fantasy Flight began tantalizing us with skyscraper ads on boardgamegeek.com for the new Cosmic Encounter expansion late last week, and I must say, it’s working on me quite well.    I’ve wrestled recently with my own conclusions after hearing my wife declare, simply, that Cosmic Encounter is the greatest board game ever made.   It’s starting to become extremely difficult for me to deny this conclusion not only when faced with the jewel-like quality of the Fantasy Flight edition, but the fact that 35% of my boardgame playing in 2009 was Cosmic Encounter. This includes some of the ‘fast play’ type games like Inn Fighting and the much-worshiped Dominion.  We’ll have to see what happens in 2010: especially if anyone in my game group finally gets their dirty hands on Chaos in the Old World.

Getting Monked

Ah, Talisman…a chance for lady luck to have her way with us and endup passed out in the backseat with our underwear around our ankles most of the time–unless we draw the MONK! The grizzled veterans tell their tales and it’s well known that the Monk is  one of the top tier characters along with the Prophetess and the Astropath (from the Timescape expansion).  Depending on the expansions to 2nd edition that you have, it’s an ‘any given sunday’ situation with those three, but while the Prophetess can get stomped, and the Astropath can get a little unlucky raping the Timescape deck, the Monk has few weaknesses at any point in the game.  Having now played my 11th game of 4th Edition2.0 Talisman from Fantasy Flight, it’s become clear, with the Astropath awaiting his appearance (in some form or other) and the Prophetess nerfed (in a rather good way I might add), that the Monk– if played without the mega-nerf from the Fantasy Flight upgrade pack– is lord and master of Talismanland.  Out of the 11 games,  4 had the Monk, and of those 4, only one game did the Monk not prevail due to a late-game Toading no less.

That said, I want to explain why I think, unfortunately, he cannot be fixed in the present edition.

First and foremost, one of the major changes to Talisman 4th Edition from 2nd is the ability for characters to take Craft-based enemies as Trophies.  Trophies are the new name for when you defeat an enemy in battle and take the card and when the amount of strength (or craft) = 7, you can turn it in for a strength (or craft).  In 2nd Edition Talisman, only Strength-based enemies could be taken as trophies.  Craft was gained in other ways (rolling the mystic, craft spells, etc.).  Hence the path to victory for craft-based characters was longer and a bit more arduous– however, most had advantages over their strength-based characters with better special abilities or constant access to spells.  What’s more, the route to the crown of command was less dangerous via the craft method: the Mine route has the character face the Vampire Lord, who has the potential to be far less deadly than the equivalent on the Strength side–Dicing with Death.

The addition of allowing characters to take craft-based trophies, while logical in many respects, breaks with the original design of the game.  It allows characters to ramp up their Craft with a speed unheard of in the older editions (just a note: I don’t really count 3rd as canonical).  The traffic of characters going through the Mines-Vampire-Pit Fiend pathway to the middle as increased massively as a result (as noted above, it’s always better to hit the Vampire up there compared to the sometimes fatal Dice with Death on the Crypt side), but more importantly, it increases the Characters who start with a high craft and can attack other characters using Psychic Combat (Ghoul, Wizard, Sorceress) ability to have a whole pile of craft to crush in PVP.  While those three characters are solidly in the second rank (the Sorceress may be in the first rank) in terms of character tiers, the character this fundamental change to the game effects the most is, predictably, the Monk.

Let’s have a look at what the Monk can do other than sit there and look like a fat slob:


Str: 2, Craft 3, Lives 4, Fate: 5 (!?)

Special Abilities:

Your inner belief allows you to add your craft value to your strength during battle
After rolling the dice for praying, you may add one to the score.
You may not use any weapon or armor during battle.

So, our man here starts with one seemingly major disadvantage with his inability to us any weapons or armor in combat, a minor advantage with the praying bonus, and what has always been the greatest single skill in the game– adding your craft to your strength score in combat as if the character always had a warhorse or always had a Psionic Blast spell.   This gives the Monk an effective 5 strength out of the gate as well as the ability to increase this with an increase in either Strength or Craft– a huge advantage over all the other strength-based characters who can only increase their combat value with weapons (at most 3 strength) and Strength increases.  Given that in the old edition, Craft was not all that easy to come by, the Monk was still very powerful, but with the addition of Craft Trophies in 4th edition, the Monk is well nigh unstoppable and had to be nerfed.

The 4th edition 2.0 Fantasy Flight nerf to this power is listed in the description above.  Note the word ‘Value’ next to craft — this means that the Monk can only add his starting Craft to his strength for the entire game, regardless of his current Craft score, and that amounts to a measly +3 in combat.   This kicks the Monk from the top tier to down somewhere around the Elf for effectiveness.  Sure, the Monk has an early advantage in that he can rack up some strength Trophies along side the likes of the Troll or the Ogre Chieftain without the weakness to Craft enemies, but this is going to be short lived.  Since Talisman scales itself as characters gain in Strength and Craft, a +3 advantage has a minor effect in the mid game, when players have 6-11 strength and rather useless in the late game when players are pushing 12-20 strength.  In addition, the inability to use weapons or armor, a minor drawback in 2nd edition, becomes a major flaw for the Monk in 4th.

Now we have a character who’s original ability ported over to the new edition of Talisman is heavily unbalanced (and in a game as unbalanced as Talisman, that’s saying something!) and a nerf to that ability that makes him far too weak to compete.  What was the solution? Tack on a heavy load of Fate points!   Though characters of Good alignment cannot normally get their Fate points back, a whopping 5 really shows to me that the design team was reaching to try to bring the Monk back to parity, even to characters of mid-range power.

At this point in this post, I would normally bust out my ingenious solution to this design problem and say it’s the best (though, of course, not playtested nearly enough) and say something like’ how could the designers not thought of it?’  The solution or even good suggestions for this problem, however, I do not have.    One way would be to disallow the Monk to gain Craft or Strength trophies during the game, but then you may be back to nerfing the character so much that he’s, again, as bad as the Elf.  A second may be to change the Monk’s alignment to Neutral rather than Good.  Though Fate is good, healing for free at the Chapel any time you need to is even better and means trying to PVP the Monk early game (as say the Troll or Sorceress) is a real chore.  The third idea would be simply to increase the amount of Warhorses in the Adventure deck and (especially) add one into the Purchase deck.  This will allow most savvy players to at least attempt duplicate the Monk’s ability.  Again, none of these three ideas are what I would consider a good fix for the problem. That said, I think the Monk as printed in the original 4th Edition was a glaring, overpowered oversight due to the addition of Craft trophies, but the 4th 2.0 fix makes the Monk so weak that he’s rarely going to see play–and it’s also a terribly boring power to have.

Furiously Pumping

A certain person wanders into town during holidays that works at a certain game company we know and love.  Civilities are exchanged, some small talk and maybe a game of Cosmic Encounter or two–yet inevitably conversation devolves into pumping him for information about what he’s working on.

me: Ok, can you talk at all about what you’re working on right now?

person: I really can’t…I want to, though.

me: Is it more Fallout?

person: no.

me: is it an MMO?

person: no.

me: I’m just going to assume that it’s in the Elder Scrolls series then.

person: it’s possible.

Affixing the Bayonetta

smooth!The all-to-brief-time off during the holidays has allowed time for gaming indulgences that wouldn’t normally fit into the schedule.  Along with a marathon boardgame session last night (Dominion, Dragon Lairds and a virgin copy of Nexus Ops hit the table), I was able to take 20 minutes and wrap my fingers around the Xbox controller for a run at the sumptuous Bayonetta demo.   When one is blurting out filthy epithets like  ‘holy shit yeah’ and ‘fucking awesome’ when no one else is around to hear, it can mean a few things, but in regards to the Bayonetta demo– it means you are experiencing the non-stop climax action AS ADVERTISED.  After the short tutorial; the first conflict with the angels takes place on the surface of a shattered clock tower as it plummets off a cliff to the ground below: full on showing off the jaw-dropping visuals.  The character designs, especially the leading lady herself, are truly inspired– massive ‘angels’ with emotionless cherub faces and giant battle axes named “Beloved,”  long, flowing, snake-like dragons in an asylum mix of Eastern and Western mythology.

The controls and basic combos are extremely simple to learn, and many of the moves are conditional to your surroundings; depending on distance, above/below in relation to the enemies.  In fact, most combos will just come out with your flailing fingers button mashing, at least at first.  Much to my glee- the game has an evade button much like Godhand (which, yes, I was not man enough to complete yet), but with the added bonus of allowing you ‘Witch Time’ if you evade attacks at just the right moment.  I haven’t seen many of the torture moves yet, but the two I’ve seen (throwing someone into an iron maiden, and running another through a set of pullies and gears) were fairly impressive.

I’m fighting the urge to span some more time running through it again or wait until the full version is out.  It’s not a fight I can win.

Achieve in Torchlight

Just tell me what they are OK?
Tell me woman, is the Modpocalypse acheivement really safe?

Runic and Steam got together and had an baby over the weekend and it was acheivements in Torchlight.  With my new Destroyer, I’ve only gotten 2, so here we go– yet more reason to be addicted to this mighty fine RPG.

(Also, 10$ on Steam currently, so if you haven’t grab it up)

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen ‘Century’

who's feet are those?!
who’s feet are those?!

I completely missed the LEGC release last May and just happened upon it in a comic store over the weekend.   The initial book is set in 1910 and seems to be part of a trilogy that will end in 2008(!?).  The first issue (a graphic novel all by itself) started off slow but ended up having an amazing set of plot lines that required an immediate re-read to find the clues early on as to what was going on (and clues to what’s going to happen next).  While Black Dossier is fairly inaccessible to those who are not fans of the series, Century is highly recommended.  Kevin O’Neill’s art, always a sugary treat, is absolutely top drawer here.

A Frosty Frostmarch 4AM

Talisman 4th Edition FrostmarchSometimes, no matter how into the wee hours it is, you have to say yes to one more game even if said game takes 3+ hours.  4Th edition Talisman had a very rocky start with an abortive first version, change in publishers and the like, but with the Frostmarch expansion, Fantasy Flight yet again proves that it is not only filling in where the edition is missing compared to 2nd, but continuously improving the game.   Having played 2nd edition hundreds of times in my misbegotten youth, I’ve only got ten or so plays with the 4th edition set and fewer still with all the current expansions.  Initially I detested 4th edition but bought it anyway (just in case); detested, that is, until the puissant Dungeon expansion hit the shelves: an expansion so far superior to the original I skipped and pranced down the path of advocacy.

The first Frostmarch game we got down to featured the Monk, Gypsy and Druid.  With years of the Monk’ s standard power under our belt from 2nd Edition, we opted not to run with the erratta in 4th Upgrade that states that the Monk can only add his starting craft to his strength in combat (3 total).  The Monk, as normal, became worrisome early in the game.  Unluckily, the two toadings during the first game were both burdened upon the Monk and all his horde of belongings were procured by the lucky druid who proceeded to cast down the Frost Queen in short order.  Demanding satisfaction, the Gypsy and Monk player requested another game and the wee hours slipped away, and again the next night, and the next.

Over the course of the week and four long plays with all the current expansions, we came to some conclusions as a group as to the change from 2nd Edition:

Character death is rare due to fate points— the rerolls allowed from the Fate Points buffer your life stack.

Mobility is a premium– the ability to control your movement, either with the magic carpet, clockwork owl (probably the best treasure in the treasure deck) or even the poltergeist is a key ability for your character to have.

Roaming Death is fun, but is most often forgotten by players – while I feel the Reaper expansion is essential, the Reaper himself only once had an effect on our games (killing off the Prophetess!)

More Alternate Endings! – The Warlock’s Quest alternate is good fun, but with only the updated Crown of Command and Frost Queen to randomly get at the end of a slough to the center of the middle region, we’ve only gotten a mere taste of the possibilities.

The miniatures are terrible – the unpaintable, poorly sculpted grey plastic lumps simply do not cut it for what is still a Games Workshop game

That said, my period of abject hatred for 4th edition Talisman is long over.  FF has pulled this game out of the doldrums and while I still question the inclusion of fate points, they are starting to grow on me.

Empire of Evil Awesome

shadowfist - jade willowFittingly, the first post of a new blog about gaming should be about a game I rarely get to play these days that has, since it’s first expansion, been all-holes-filled with totally awesome: Shadowfist.  With the most recent expansion: Empire of Evil, the game gets back to what appears to be a solidly themed, well produced expansion.  While Shadowfist has a long and glorious history of rock solid playtesting, some of the thematic decisions in recent expansions have been downright questionable.  When they announced their Shirikens and Sixguns expansion I almost choked while spewing forth the word DOOMTOWN, which, sadly by the same author of Shadowfist, did the whole weird west thing to it’s rolling thunderous death.  With Empire of Evil, we get straight down to what Shadowfist is about– bands of misfit badasses with good hearts being mercilessly cut down trying to stop the machinations of one of the game’s nasty factions (Lotus, Ascended and Architechs).  The cast of characters, in typical fashion, have awesome names the belie their badassiveness: Alabaster King, Jade Willow (pictured), Iron Jim Colson and last but not least,  the bomb-crossed lovers: Jayne Insane and Johnny Amok.  What amazes me is that this is expansion 13 or so for the game, and, last I checked, it was 2009– over a decade after the CCG explosion rocked the earth to it’s core.

Given my original playgroup have all moved away, gone to jail or–well that pretty much covers it–it’s bittersweet to see an expansion come out this especially awesome for a CCG that for all statistics should be long, long dead.  What is it exactly that allows Shadowfist to live on, not necessarily thrive, but creep along with new publishers taking up the mantle every few years?  First off, it’s the game itself.  Shadowfist plays extremely fast, and has very fluid card play rules compared to other CCG’s of it’s day.  Essentially, if you have the resources, you can play most cards at any time during the game, whether it’s your turn or not.  While turn-angst is still a factor in games with more than three players, a hand full of cards and a few points in power in Shadowfist means you can actively effect the other players actions, so you are always watching the table with that special combination of trepidation and glee that comes from making difficult choices.  My original play group back in the late 90’s would play with 5+ players on a regular basis, a testament to Shadowfist’s acceptable turn-angst.   What’s more, Shadowfist is very much a social game of bluffing, reading the table and over-all skill.

That said, I have read that deck construction is only about half the game, where in other CCG’s, given average luck with the cards,  once your deck’s engine gets going it’s engine-to-engine battle and player choices feel exceedingly scripted by the confines of the deck’s card selection.  To win a game of Shadowfist, you must win against all the other players, so planning an engine that can deal with all contingencies across the card set is difficult, planning for the gamut of players that will sit behind these decks is a true challenge of skill outside sorting through stacks of cards on your bed.

Other elements in the plus column, ‘Fist has no player eliminations (it is possible through some of the crazier cards, but I have only seen it happen a handful of times), so all players lose when one wins.  This triggers a nail-biting end game, where each player, if possible, goes for the win against the wishes of the rest of the table while ganging up with the other players when it’s the next guy’s turn.  The key skill is to know how much you can expend on defense without weakening your own chance for victory, since if you hold back too much, you could be  allowing another player to claim victory.

Last, it’s Shadowfist’s fan-base, who, in many cases, have put their money where there mouth is and invested in the game’s future in more ways than just buying the cards.  There’s no way possible, however much money is thrown at a game, to get the level of playtesting that Shadowfist has a reputation for without absolutely fanatical players as well.

Once I get a stack or two of cards from the new set and actually sit down to play a bit, I’ll post a review– though, that could be after strange eons have long past.