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