Small World (Days of Wonder)

Rating: ****

Type: Strategy/warfare/resource management

# Players: 2-5

Recommended # players: 2-5

Play time: 1-2 hours

Summary: Small world is a game of conquering empires, but with a twist; every empire must eventually fall and be replaced. Players choose from a set of races and a separate set of special powers to create a unique army with which to conquer the game map. Players score victory points by capturing and holding areas of the map. It’s a nice little wargame with a good mix of special abilities so no two games are quite the same. Plus, berserker skeletons… what’s not to love?

Gameplay: At the start of the game, the players are presented with an unoccupied map divided into territories, and a stack of potential armies* to choose from. The armies are made by combining a race card (randomly selected from the deck) and a special power card (ditto). Players choose from a stack of five available armies, adding new ones to the stack to replace the ones they pick. Each race and power has a number on it – add them together and you get the number of tokens that make up the resulting army.

Once the armies have been picked, players take turns to use their armies to conquer territories on the board. At the end of each player’s turn they are awarded victory points according to how many territories they hold. There is no element of chance to conquest, for the most part – a fixed number of tokens can be used to capture a given territory – but if you have an odd number of unused tokens at the end of a turn you can attempt one final conquest with the roll of a special die. It takes more tokens to conquer a territory than it does to hold them, so there is a tendency for each army to get progressively more thinly stretched. Further, there is only so much territory to go around, so eventually players end up attacking each other, destroying each others tokens in the process.

The killer mechanic in the game is the ability to send your army into decline. When this happens you miss a turn (bad) but you get to pick an entirely new race and special power, with a full set of tokens as if you had started the game afresh (good). Further, all the territories you captured with your last army stay captured, and you continue to score points for them (amazing). So it isn’t too many turns before you start wondering whether you would gain more points by retiring your current army, and indeed it is possible to keep starting new armies over and over if you wish. The management of when to go into decline is a key part of the game, and introduces a resource-management feel to what is otherwise a sort of light wargame.

The strategy and tactics of the game comes from the mix of special powers and races available. Each army gets two special abilities, one of which comes from its race card and one from its special power card. There are 14 races and 20 special powers meaning there are 280 possible combinations of abilities that can come up. Abilities vary from relatively pedestrian, e.g. bonuses to attack particular types of terrain, to wildly game-changing ones such as the dragonmaster power which allows a single territory per turn to be conquered with a single token irrespective of how well defended it is. To the untrained eye, many of the powers appear absurdly overpowered (though in play they are reasonably balanced, and various mechanisms are present to avoid a runaway victor). The chaos which can result from the shrewd application of these abilities make the game fairly unpredictable, and adds a lot of enjoyment to picking your army.

There is the usual effect associated with such games that if one player appears to be doing very well, s/he will often get dogpiled. The game tries to compensate for this by keeping everyone’s current victory point total a secret, but you can’t quite get away from the fact that runner-up players can be kingmakers. This is about the only gripe though and overall the game is a lot of fun and quick to play to boot.

*Note, the game rules don’t include the term “army”. Races are used to refer to both the types of creature you can choose from and also the collections of tokens which are used to conquer the map. I have used the term “army” to refer to the latter to avoid confusion.

Components: Small World comes with two game boards (for different numbers of players), a special die, 14 race cards and 20 special power cards, and over 300 tokens. The box is almost ridiculously well designed, so that the tokens for each race can be placed in separate compartments that are exactly the right size for them, for example. It’s a very nice-looking game, with cute illustrations, and the components are pretty sturdy too. The rules book is well-designed, and each card comes with a symbolic summary of its abilities on it which, once you’ve learned what the symbols means, reduces rules look-up a fair bit.

Blokus (Mattel)

Rating: *****

Type: Strategy

# Players: 2-4

Recommended # Players: 2-4

Time To Play: Up to 1 hour

Summary: Blokus is a simple strategy game that resembles a sort of competitive jigsaw puzzle. Players take turn to place pieces on a grid according to simple rules, with the key mechanic being that the pieces can block each other (hence the name). The object of the game is to be left with as few pieces as possible unplayed at the end of the game. The game is incredibly simple to learn and play, fast, and yet the tactics are complex enough to retain interest over many games. The game comes in 2 player and 2-4 player versions.

Gameplay: Each player in Blokus starts with an identical set of 21 plastic pieces in four colours. The pieces are made up of a varying number of squares arranged in a shape (see illustration). Each piece within a set is unique. Players take turns to place these pieces on a grid, starting in the corners (in the 2-4 player variant), and the continues to place each turn according to a simple set of rules: you must play each piece touching corners with another one of your pieces, and you may not play a piece touching edges with another one of your pieces.

Gameplay revolves around trying to exploit the gaps left in the board by other people’s plays, while blocking other players from doing the same. Each player ends the game when they are unable to put any more pieces down; the game ends when all players have reached that point or run out of pieces. The winner is the player who has the smallest number of squares worth of pieces left over (there is a bonus for putting all your pieces down, and a further bonus if your last piece played is the one-square piece – harder than it sounds, since this piece is extremely useful for getting out of a tight spot).

The above isn’t so much a review as a complete description of the rules. It really is that simple, which means you can pick up Blokus and start playing it inside of 5 minutes if you read fast. Play is fast, but despite the game’s simplicity the tactics have an enjoyable complexity. There is something rather devilish about (effectively) trying to complete a complex jigsaw puzzle while other people build their own jigsaw puzzles around you.

Components: Four sets of 21 plastic pieces and a plastic game board. Simple and sturdy. The game rules are simple and easy to learn. There is also a smaller 2-player version which is portable enough to be used as a travel game to rival travel Scrabble, travel chess and so on.

Speaking out

I have been roleplaying since I was ten years old – that’s over twenty years – and it has formed the core of my spare time and social life for most of that time.

It all started when a guy named Peter moved into my neighbourhood and brought Dungeons and Dragons with him. Yes, Dungeons and Dragons – much mocked, little understood. It was great. My limited social circle were basically only interested in football at that point. And I. Hate. Football. Suddenly we had a regular social activity that I actually enjoyed. Together we beat up carrion crawlers, troglodytes, dragons – whatever random monster of the week came up. It wasn’t really much more than a board game at that point, but it captured my imagination.

Since then I branched out, always creeping closer and closer to the kind of gaming I wanted to do, the kind that was about characters and epic stories, the kind that matched the exciting descriptions you heard about in the marketing blurb for virtually any rpg you might happen to read, but which were a million miles away from the games I played as a ten-year-old. Don’t get me wrong: I like beating up a dragon as much as the next nerd, but it wasn’t what I wanted the core of my gaming to be. Still, it was the thing that brought me and my small circle of friends together in secondary school (which I hated, and which roleplaying made bearable). Oddly enough, I didn’t do much *actual roleplaying* during this time. I devoured dozens of massive textbooklike roleplaying books, learning arcane trivia like what “SCUBA” stands for and the furthest distance anyone has fallen and survived.

It was when I got to university that the hobby really exploded for me. I joined the Oxford University roleplaying games society, and was united with dozens of fellow gamers, all bright, enthusiastic and energetic. They ran games. A lot. I found myself trying out LRP – stood up, in a room full of strangers, physically pretending to be my character. Really it wasn’t any different from an amateur dramatics night, I suppose, but it was very exciting for me. At OU RPGsoc I ran the first proper campaign (in the sense of one that ran for more than a handful of sessions) of my career thus far, a game about an attempt at space colonisation gone horribly wrong. I learned how to manage difficult players, how to manage a team of referees, and I saw some fantastic roleplaying.

I have dozens of friend from OU RPGsoc who I am still close to. It gave me the foundation of the next ten years of roleplaying. Because of it, I had the confidence to show up in London and recruit about a dozen complete strangers to play in First Born, an epic fantasy game. It’s funny, but I don’t think I appreciated at the time what a big thing that was. Thanks to First Born I met dozens more roleplayers, and was introduced to their strange world of 24-hour roleplaying. (Think Blair Witch Project… on second thoughts, don’t. Ask me if you’re interested.)

These days I don’t have time to run LRP events for dozens of players, as much as the idea frequently tempts me. But my entire social circle, more or less, is made up of roleplayers, and an awful lot of time I spend with them is spent playing a fictional character of one kind or another. And it is still the most fun you can have for the cost of a train fare and some snack food.

Strangely enough, my work colleagues are not aware of my hobby. For whatever reason, I have felt that talking about it with them would be A Bad Plan. Every time I go roleplaying I tell them I’m just hanging out with friends, not really doing anything. They must think I have the most boring life ever. I occasionally tell my fellow gamers that I can’t “come out” because I’m a manager and it would undermine my authority if people felt I had a nerdy hobby. Whatever, it’s probably just an excuse. I’m pretty jealous of Admiral Frax, who told her colleagues when she joined her company and has never looked back. If I told people now it would just look weird that I never mentioned it before.

Anyway. Thankyou roleplaying, you’ve been a positive presence in my life all this time and still carry on giving. And by the way, thanks to all the fabulous roleplayers I know, who have made it all so much fun.

This has been my contribution to speak out with your geek out. A day late. Meh, whatever.

Final Friday #1

It’s Friday, Friday, gotta play games on Friday… yeah. This is the first installment of what will hopefully be a series of writeups of Final Friday. What is Final Friday, you ask? Final Friday is an event I’ve started whereby a randomly-generated group of my friends come round on the last Friday of the month to play a new boardgame or RPG, or to try out an experimental game concept or mechanic – in short, to try something new.

I must admit, my first Final Friday was not exactly well-attended. It didn’t help that I announced the idea two weeks in advance. Oh, and not technically on the last Friday of the month; I’m on holiday then. What can I say, I just couldn’t wait until September. So in the end it was only Ben, Kat and me who sat down on Friday night. That was easily enough people to create a very fun evening.

We decided to try out Fiasco. For those who don’t know it, Fiasco is a GM-less roleplaying game in which, with the help of some skeletal setting material and some random tables, the players work together to create a trainwreck story on the lines of a Cohen Brothers movie.

Now I should say here, to my knowledge I have never seen a Cohen Brothers movie. And I’ve never played a GM-less game. So there was clearly the potential here for a little trainwreck of our own. And indeed, it took us a while to get to grips with the concept. But after a slow start we got into it.

We decided (against my express wishes – nobody listens to me…) to play the Ice Station playset. Ben was Archie White, an introverted trucker who ended up at MacMurdo Station when his wife Elena (Kat) moved there. Now divorced, his only real friend at the station is The Voice, a mysterious presence at the end of a CB Radio who is blackmailling him into smuggling illicit goods in and out of the base. Archie has become dependent on their relationship for human contact – he needs to hear a voice… anyone’s voice. Unbeknownst to him, The Voice is actually Gilbert Stringer, an embittered naval comms officer who dreamed of making Admiral but never made it past Ensign. The loops is closed when we learn that Elena has asked Stringer to help her move some stolen experimental material from her lab, with which she hopes to make her career away from the stultifying grip of the MacMurdo hierarchy.

Image by ~meh-301

It’s difficult to explain exactly what happened in the game. Things came to a head when Archie, already some distance down the road out of MacMurdo, gets a call from The Voice, demanding he turn his truck around and return the package to the base. Elena, who for reasons of her own had stowed away in the truck, overhears the conversation and steals the package back, heading out into a blizzard with it in her clutches. Stringer, hearing that the package has gone, goes off the deep end and comes after Archie on a skidoo, ending in a shootout, then a second shootout at the MacMurdo airstrip where Stringer tries to stop Elena leaving by airplane. The story ended with Elena flying away in her plane while both Stringer and Archie lie in pools of their own blood on the airstrip.

I really enjoyed our first outing in Fiasco-world. I really want to give some other playsets a try, in particular the suburbia playset, because I think with some of the others there’s too much of a temptation to play off the setting rather than focusing on character interaction and pure mayhem. If you don’t like the idea of having no GM and no real rulebook to fall back on, and just improvising wildly to produce an interesting story, Fiasco may not work so well for you. For this group, this time around, it worked well. We got a good mix of poignant story that we had deliberately made happen collaboratively, and random chaos that emerged through play.

By the way – epilogue to the story: Stringer wakes up paralysed in hospital. He is alone, except for a CB Radio. The last thing we see is Stringer picking up the radio to call Archie, just to hear his voice… anyone’s voice.

Condottiere (Fantasy Flight Games)

Rating: * * * * *

Type: Card game/strategy/bluffing

# Players: 2-5

Recommended # players: 3+

Play time: 1-2 hours

Summary: Condottiere is a strategic card game. Players fight battles to capture provinces in renaissance Italy. Condottiere is fast-paced, easy to pick up, and plays well. Games don’t usually take too long (provided careful players don’t take forever to contemplate each move – always a risk with games of bluff!), and the game retains interest over multiple plays, and regardless of whether you’ve been dealt a strong hand or a weak one. It is complex enough to be an interesting strategy game but simple and elegant enough to avoid bamboozling new players or requiring constant rules look-up.

 

Condottiere

Gameplay: In Condottiere, players take turns to play numbered Mercenary cards representing the forces they deploy in battle. The player with the highest total wins each battle; win enough battles and you win the game. So far, so simple. What makes the game fun – and replayable – is the other cards in the deck which interplay with the mercenaries in a variety of ways, transforming a simple slug-fest into a game of bluff and cunning.

 

Most of the other cards modify mercenary cards in some way. These cards consist of the Drummer, the Bishop, Spring and Winter. They make mercenaries stronger or weaker, remove them from play altogether, or allow you to withdraw them to your hand. The effect of these cards on play can be dramatic, taking a player from clear loser to clear winner in seconds, or allowing a player to withdraw and keep their powder dry for a future battle.

 

Other cards can have equally dramatic effects. The Surrender card, perhaps the most feared card in the game, ends a battle where it stands, with whoever happens to be in front declared the winner. The Maiden provides a powerful mercenary-like card but which is immune to all the special cards mentioned earlier. The Courtesan allows players to fight to control where the next battle will be fought.

 

Because of all this, every move in Condottiere is a calculated risk. Cards like the Bishop and the Surrender card can totally change the outcome of a battle, and players will be keen to assess whether their opponents might possess either card. Battles can turn on a dime, and in turn the tide of the war can shift through clever play, enabling even players dealt a weaker hand to potentially win. Equally, cunning players can bluff their way through a battle, keeping their opponents from knowing their true strength right until the end. And even if you think you’re winning the current battle it is always worth trying to convince your opponents to extend themselves so that you can go on to win more.


Components: Condottiere comes with 110 glossy playing-card size cards, with pleasant enough illustrations. The small game board showing the map the players are competing to dominate has the slight drawback that it never seems to want to completely unfold, so it tends not to sit completely flush with the playing surface – a minor irritation. Players’ conquests are marked using small coloured wooden counters. The game rulebook is a small 20-page booklet. Like most of FFG’s game rulebooks, it’s quite pretty but uncharacteristically, it’s reasonably well-structured so you don’t have to hunt around for rules as with some of FFG’s other products.
Condottiere components