Friday, September 22, 2017

Learning to Love Shadows of Brimstone

The more I play and immerse myself in the world and game of Shadows of Brimstone, the more I love it. We are still playing with a slew of house rules, and we are loving the hell out of the game. There's just so much variety, so much to explore, and so many amazing moments. The game generates stories through emergent narrative as good as any of the great Games Workshop games did before it.

I still wish that aspects of the game were better, and I'll continue to work on fashioning the best set of house rules I can for it. But right now, this thing is just killing it. It might be the only dungeon crawl on the market to rival the King, Warhammer Quest.

I'll write up a full review soon. Until then, enjoy some shots of my fully dipped set of minis.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Secrets of the Lost Tomb - A Dungeon Dive Review

I judge books by their covers all the damn time. 

Same with board games. 

And more often than not, my judgement rings true. 

In 2016, my wife and I took a day trip to a small college town in the Pacific Northwest for my birthday. I wanted to check out an unfamiliar game store; I wanted a small adventure. While there, I picked up a game that I had never seen before, never even heard of before. The front cover made the game look adventurous, and the back cover showed stacks of modular tiles, piles of loot cards, monsters with stats, and all kinds of things that screamed AMERITRASH!

My kind of game.

I bought it without even looking it up on my phone. 
It is now my favorite all-time game.

 And that game is Secrets of the Lost Tomb, from Everything Epic Games.

For ease of comparison, Lost Tomb is a co-op dungeon-dive game combining elements of Betrayal at House on the Hill and Arkham Horror, with a strong pulp fiction narrative. While it lacks unique mechanisms, it is overflowing in character and well-executed ideas. Originality is, I’ve often said, highly overrated, and Lost Tomb proves this sentiment true.

The game is played over a series of turns in which the players (1-6) use action points to explore a Lost Tomb, looking for clues, discovering narrative elements (read from a quest book), fighting monsters, gaining loot and treasure, and visiting the Soul Monger (a mystic shop keeper at which experience points can be spent for blessings and items), all while trying to stop the Big Bad from doing bad things. There are also opportunities for your character to level up, gaining bonuses to states and other abilities, and, if playing with some of the expansions (more on those later), there is even more character progression; one of the expansions adds an almost RPG-like element to this aspect. All-in-all, it’s a classic dungeon-dive / fantasy adventure game.

However, what Lost Tomb does really well, better than just about any game I know of, is create a tangible sense of adventure and an exciting narrative-driven experience with a real dramatic arc. Even though many of the elements are random - you will be drawing random tiles, fighting random monsters, and encountering random non-combat events - the theme is so strong, and most everything is so well conceived, that, more often than not, all of the random elements combine into a cohesive and exciting whole. Lost Tomb has an uncanny ability to create dramatic thru-lines out of piles of random encounters and elements. 


A lot of this has to do with how the quest book plays into the adventure. At certain points, when certain clue symbols are discovered, the players will read a passage from a book detailing a narrative element that will usually have some impact on the adventure. New things will be introduced, and new obstacles will present new challenges. The narrative adds drive to the game that pushes everything toward a climactic ending. A game of Lost Tomb has a defined beginning, middle and end, all of which follow classic pulp fiction structure.

Unfortunately, the UI and graphic design elements are not nearly as accomplished as the thematic and atmospheric elements are. To be frank, the game looks like a mess. To be more frank, it’s ugly. The colors are garish, the UI is amateurish, the iconography is elementary, and the art is only mostly passable. It looks like a first game, made on an old computer, by a designer not versed in modern graphic design. And while some people my balk at this, especially in these days of games brimming with great art and design, the garish, awkward nature of Lost Tomb’s aesthetic adds to the pulp nature found in its narrative influences, and only further enhances the Ameritrash label.

Lost Tomb is not an elegant Euro, or a finely tuned hybrid. No. It is a big, loud, bold and audacious game in which you will roll piles, and I mean PILES (seriously 20+ at points) of dice, with characters armed with dozens of weapons and artifacts, surrounded by mystical allies, all while fighting mythological creatures, avoiding deathtraps at every turn, and being thrust face-first into a world of pulp adventure more adventurous and more pulpy than any game that has come before.

And I love it. It has everything I look for in a dungeon-dive / fantasy adventure board game.

But, I’m not sure I can recommend it, at least not right now.

 You see, these kinds of games live or die based upon the variety of encounters and stuff to discover. These games thrive on the their ability to offer up unique encounters and the illusion of anything being possible. As you play these games more and more, and you start to run into the same encounter cards over and over, the allure can vanish. Luckily, there were a bunch of great expansions released for the game, expansions that added tons and tons of cardboard - more loot, more artifacts, more creatures, more allies, more encounters, more traps, more tiles, and more adventure! Unfortunately, most of those expansions are entirely out of print (at least all the ones with all the great content are).

This sucks.

I have all of the expansions, and so it’s hard for me to imagine just having the base game. I’m not sure if there is enough there to justify the price. Maybe there is. There might be enough there to satisfy a group of gamers who don’t need or want to have everything available. Personally, if I love a game, I want everything for it, and if I know there is something out there that I don’t have, I will do whatever I can to get it.

 So if this review has enticed you, just know that you might only ever be able to get the base game. The base game is great, and there is a lot there, for sure, but I enjoy the game as much as I do because of all of the extra stuff that the expansions have added. If the expansions come back into print, I can and will and do recommend this game to absolutely everyone who loves Ameritrash games, dungeon dives, and fantasy adventure games, without a moment’s hesitation. If they don’t come back into print, take my enthusiastic love tempered with the above-mentioned caveat.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Shadows of Brimstone – Making a Good Game Great (or close to it, maybe)

Shadows of Brimstone – Making a Good Game Great (or close to it, maybe)    
Shadows of Brimstone is a good game.

Wait.  Let me rephrase that.

Shadows of Brimstone is an OK game that has a lot of really cool stuff in it.

 I love all of the things in this game. SoB has a lot going for it in terms of plastic and cardboard. It’s got tons of loot, treasure, special items, tiles, creatures, monsters, heroes, demons, tokens, and cards. It might possibly have more stuff than a fully expanded Arkham Horror. I can’t say for certain if this is true, but if it’s not its really close (and as a bonus, all of the cards are full size!).

I also love the theme – the weird west is one of my favorite settings, and a great sub-genre of fiction (look for a future article on Weird West Lit). SoB’s theme, along with all the things in all the boxes, goes a long way to getting my imagination all fired up, ready and willing to send my posse of lawmen and outlaws on wild adventures.

Unfortunately, the game itself is only OK. All of this stuff deserves to be in a better game. Now, this isn’t a full review - that will come later. This brief article will detail some of the house rules I use, rules that I think make SoB a much better game, rules that make SoB an almost-great game. I don’t think it’s there yet, but it could be soon, with a little more work.

By the way, I won’t be mentioning the Hexcrawl fan-made campaign system here, at least not in any detail. It goes without saying that the Hexcrawl campaign is a must have for SoB, and I’ll touch more on that at a later time.

Advanced Exploration

Exploration in SoB is pointless. Because of the way the Exploration tokens work, you will always simply be exploring in a straight line. There is never a reason to choose one exit over another. This simple Advanced Exploration system takes the system from Warhammer Quest and applies it here (seeing as how SoB is pretty much a re-themed WHQ, I’m surprised this wasn’t already implemented).

When a branching path is reached:
1. Divide Encounter tokens evenly among the available exits, dealing from the bottom and creating new stacks of tokens, a stack for each exit.

2. Pick which path you want to explore.

3. If the route picked does not complete the quest, Backtracking occurs.

4. Backtracking is different than normal exploration.

5. The party Backtracks towards the first tile with an unexplored exit, moving from tile to tile, not space to space. It’s probably easiest to simply remove all heroes from the board during Backtracking.

6. No rolling for darkness during Backtracking.

7. On each tile moved onto while Backtracking, roll a D6. On a 1, the party is ambushed – draw threat as normal. Set party up as close to the center of the tile as possible.
8. Resume normal rules for movement and Darkness once the tile with an unexplored exit is entered, thus ending the Backtracking.

Advance Hero Actions

This is a way to spice up your turns, add a little more in terms of choice to your game.

      1. Move up to 4 spaces and roll for grit, or roll to move/grit – your choice.

2. Choose from one of the following:

a. Run – move an additional 4 spaces, or up to your agility score

b. Aim – forfeit all movement above (don’t roll for grit) – this allows you to reroll any/all attack dice on your next attack.

c. Throw/pick up an item. You can throw a one-handed item to another hero. That hero can catch the item as long as they have one hand free. Throw using dynamite rules. Range on throwing is STR +3.

d. Search / Scavenge / Look through door – normal rules

e. Attack – normal rules

f. Push / Pull – still working on rules for this option. You should be able to push aka Kick enemies into holes, or physically manhandle enemies. Haven’t fully developed this yet.

g. Capture – I think the rules for this are stated in the Hexcrawl campaign.

These advance actions give you a little more to do in order to help make the turns more dynamic. 

That’s all for now. There will be more SoB stuff in the future, that’s a promise.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Why I Play – Part 2: Escalating Escalation

Why I Play – Part 2: Escalating Escalation

After my introduction to Basic D&D, the next two games to pave my hobby-path were TSR’s Dungeon!, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Other Strangeness. Dungeon! showed me that it was possible to capture a bit of that RPG spark in a more traditional board game setting, and, in 1986, T.M.N.T  proved to me that there was more to RPGs than just wizards, warriors, magic and dragons. 

BUT more importantly, It was also during the mid ‘80s that I discovered Ian Livingstone’s and Steve Jackson’s Fighting Fantasy series and Joe Dever’s Lone Wolf series of RPG books. These two series created a solo gaming experience nearly as good as a cooperative or competitive one; these were RPG-like games that I could experience at any time, even late at night, safely under the covers in bed, armed only with my Lightsaber flashlight! These advance Choose Your Own Adventure books took over my life and imagination for many years. One time I discovered an error in one of the books, one of the choices had a misprint on which section you were supposed to turn to. I wrote to Livingston and Jackson detailing my discovery, and they wrote back, along with a box containing dozens of free books! This is still one of my favorite memories.

HOWEVER an even bigger change came in 1989, when I switched to a new High School, and met a whole new group of people into all kinds of games. This was a watershed year. It was through these new friends that I was introduced to RoboRally, Steve Jackson’s Illuminati (and subsequently Robert Anton Wilson), Awful Green Things from Outer Space, Champions, Ninjas and Superspies, and many others.  We spent hours during lunch at school and at a local community center on the weekends playing all manner of imaginative games, exploring the theater of the mind, rolling dice, and creating adventures.

 AND THEN (this is the final escalation, I swear!) I was introduced to Games Workshop through two incredible board games: Talisman: the Magical Quest Game, and Space Hulk. Next to D&D, these two games stand as the most important in my life.

Talisman: the Magical Quest Game

  I know its super hip and trendy to hate on Talisman now (and Games Workshop in general for that matter). Yes there are better games with better tactics, strategy and difficult choices to be made. But remember, that’s not why I play games! I play games to create stories, and Talisman is nothing but a story-creating machine; everything about the game facilitates an emergent narrative. It’s all about taking your hero and roaming the land, killing monsters, getting loot, and surviving all kinds of (mis)adventure. The game is simply overflowing with beautiful art and fluffy flavor text – there isn’t a game producer around that creates better lore and flavor text than Games Workshop. I played dozens of games of Talisman with my Odyssey of the Mind team in high school, and continue to enjoy the game today (although with a multitude of house rules, which I might touch upon in a later article). 

And finally (not really) there was Space Hulk.

 Being a child of ‘80s meant that the Alien franchise was a pretty huge deal. And here it was – a board game that simulated almost perfectly the best parts of Aliens. But Space Hulk actually made it even better and more evocative, by incorporating the bafflingly-complex and seemingly-ancient lore from Warhammer 40K. GW injected the marines-fight-aliens genre with a backdrop of political intrigue and religious warfare. These weren’t just space marines; they were Inquisitors, exploring the universe to bring the might and power of the great Emperor to the uninitiated! These weren’t just aliens; they were cultists performing all manner of chaotic and inhumane gene-slicing experiments! 

And like all things with GW, once you start it’s hard to stop. Weekends were spent playing Warhammer 40K, Talisman, Space Hulk, Heroquest, and Warhammer Quest. Soon I was spending every dollar I could get on models and armies, paint and tools. This was my foray into what we now call the Lifestyle Game, a hobby that encompasses much more than simply sitting around a table and playing the game; these games require you to reach deep into your soul (bank account) and spend an (unhealthy?) amount of time (to be fair, as far as hobbies go, gaming is actually on the more affordable side, and entirely healthy so long as you ditch the soda and chips)!

And that brings us to this blog, and the first post – an unboxing of an almost-new copy of the original Warhammer Quest I recently purchased. A lot of time passed between my introduction to Games Workshop and now – nearly 30 years. I’ve been in to and out of the hobby a few times in those three or so decades, and only now decided to write about it.

Learning to Love Shadows of Brimstone

The more I play and immerse myself in the world and game of Shadows of Brimstone, the more I love it. We are still playing with a slew o...