Monday, 11 January 2016

Confessions of a Dormant Gamer

I really miss gaming.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not completely gameless. There's No Rest for the Wicked, which is great, and my online Fate game 'Operatives of CROSSBOW' is a lot of fun, but there's something about hanging out, sharing snacks, cooking giant pans of pasta and making endless pots of tea that I really, really miss (and it's not really the tea.)

Obviously, the golden age of tabletop roleplaying is at University. Your time is largely your own, you all live close together and you have somewhere to game where you generally won't disturb anyone else (especially not if, like me, you end up spending two out of three years living next to the noisiest room on campus and directly above the bar.) After that, work is a bit of a shock to the system, but in the end it was my increasing involvement in IoD LARP that did for my tabletopping. I just didn't have any more time for writing games or in many cases for playing them.

Since then, I've had some success with skype games, but they always seem to fade out more easily. Something about the disconnect means that people see them as less of a commitment, and it's harder for the rest of the group to have a separate conversation - whether planning your next moves or just shooting the breeze - if one or two PCs are monopolising the action for a time. As a result, although I love 'CROSSBOW', I do find myself hankering to add an in-person tabletop game to my roster.

Sadly, I live in the middle of nowhere and I don't drive, and I and all my friends are now - as much as we might wish to deny it - middle aged professionals*. At my last attempt to pull together a tabletop game, I couldn't find one night a month to assemble more than two people at once. I'm also very bad at meeting new people, so finding a group in Littleport would be a massive source of stress for me.

I wish I had some grand conclusion, but I don't. I just really miss gaming.

* Okay; some of them are young professionals, but for the most part we have jobs and the other things that keep a body from hauling an hour and a half across the country to play an evening of Pathfinder.

Friday, 8 January 2016

We're Going On a Bear Hunt, Room on the Broom and Go Go Dragons

Oh no! Sticky mud!
This Christmas, we introduced our daughter to board gaming, with the help of her grandparents. I bought her one game, they bought her two.

First up, we played We're Going on a Bear Hunt, the game of the children's classic from former Children's Laureate Michael Rosen. It's a reasonably simple chase game with a twist: Roll the die, move around the board, sometimes skip a go or draw a card which may allow you to roll again. The twist is that once a player wakes up the bear they start rolling two dice while the bear rolls one die to chase after them.

Room on the Broom is likewise based on a children's classic, and is a combination chase and set-collecting game, with an exciting sort of overlapping Moebius loop course and a dragon podding around trying to catch you. The course has two rings and you cross from one to the other each circuit, which actually confused the hell out of Arya. She also found the spinner a little more challenging than the dice. The set collecting just baffled her; the idea that she would just take the top card instead of sorting out the one she needed was clearly alien to her, and when I didn't get the card I needed to beat her, she went through the deck and found it for me, which made me very happy.

Finally, Go, Go Dragons is a race game. A scatter of discs on the table have dragon footprints face up and dragon faces in one of four colours face down. Turn up a disc, move the dragon shown one space forward. Each player 'supports' one dragon, and is supposed to wave their card excitedly when they move. As the last-place dragon reaches each line of the course, another disc is flipped and that dragon goes back a step. It says it's for older children than the other two games, but in a lot of ways is simpler.

The games are all pretty simple, but they delight Arya, which is lovely to see. She's a little wobbly on counting out her moves, but that will come in time.

Thursday, 7 January 2016

X-COM the board game

This Christmas, I got my metamour a copy of X-COM the board game, another box full of pieces from complexity merchants Fantasy Flight Games. It's designed for 1-4 players filling four roles between them:

  • The Commander places interceptors to shoot down UFOs, but more importantly oversees X-COM's funds each turn.
  • The Central Officer controls the placement of satellites to shoot down orbiting UFOs, and controls the digital app which provides UFO placements and random events.
  • The Squad Leader controls the deployment of soldiers to complete missions and to defend the X-COM base from alien assault.
  • The Chief Scientist assigns research projects and researchers to provide all roles with additional assets in order to do their jobs.
The three marshmallows standing in for
UFOs are a sign that things are not going
So, the key words you may have spotted in there were 'digital app'. You can't actually play X-COM without a tablet or smartphone to run the free companion app which provides random and plotted events and also contains the rules (there is no paper rule book.) But don't let that fool you; there are all the usual cards and tokens you'd expect from Fantasy Flight, and little plastic models to boot.

Each role has a set of accompanying asset and reserve cards. The assets have abilities to aid in the performance of the role, while the reserves are resources to be assigned: Interceptors, Satellites, Soldiers and Researchers. The Commander also gets a stack of credit chips to represent X-COM's money each round. The Chief Scientist gets a deck of technology cards, which can be researched to grant new assets. The Squad Leader has a stack of mission cards, each including three tasks, some or all of which may be filled by drawing from the alien deck, with defeated aliens becoming salvage, which can be spent by the Chief Scientist. The Commander gets a stack of crisis cards which make bad things happen. There is also a set of success tokens to track how well a task is going, and the dice. The game includes five blue six-siders, each with four blank faces and two X-COM symbols, and a red eight-sider.

Each game has an invasion scenario, which determines the base location, one of the Commander's assets, the final mission, the selection of aliens and the shit that goes down when the base gets dinged up.

Each turn begins with a timed phase, in which the app is king: research projects and defence assets are assigned, while aliens are played into base assaults, UFOs placed on the world map and Crisis cards drawn. Each time a crisis turns up, the Commander has a matter of seconds to choose between the top two cards. Similarly, the Squad Leader gets to draw two mission cards and play one, and the Chief Scientist chooses between a hand of six tech cards to fill three research slots. At the end of the timed phase, you count up assigned resources and audit against the available funds. If you've overspent, one of the continents gets more panicky. If there's an underspend, you can get more soldiers or interceptors, and believe me; you'll need them.

When base defence goes wrong, or rather, just before that
The timed phase is followed by the resolution phase. First, all crisis cards are resolved, then each player in turn runs through their tasks: Research, orbital defence, global defence, base defence and the mission. Resolving a task involves rolling a number of the blue X-COM dice and the red alien die. You can roll as many times as you like, but each time the threat level rises, and if the alien die comes up equal to or lower than the threat level, you lose your assets. Satellites and researchers are disabled for a turn; interceptors and soldiers are glooped.

Guess who's coming to dinner. Just FYI,
those are stacks of four UFOs, not single
If there are UFOs left on any continent, that continent gets more panicked. If any aliens attacking the base aren't killed, the base takes damage. As the base takes damage, more bad shit happens. As panic rises, funding drops (and the chances of getting yet more panic from overspending rises.) It is incredibly easy to enter a spiral of failure, as we discovered in the game where we ended up having to use marshmallows for UFOs because we ran out of the little plastic ones. A key part of that was that our Chief Scientist had a run of terrible dice rolls, so were were shoring up the dyke with no tools. Research really is the key to success, it seems.

Victory comes when - or rather if - you unlock the final mission and complete it, but you can lose by having the base destroyed or too many continents crash into total panic. It's tough; almost Pandemic tough.

The main strength and weakness of the game is the app. It provides a lot of pace and variation, but until you get into the swing of it it can feel a bit mechanical, as if you're just a process not a player. The rest has a fair bit of the old X-COM flavour, from the tech cards which mirror advances from the game to the crushing sense of inevitable doom that creeps over you as a play through becomes untenable and the marshmallows close in.

There is also an issue with the size of the game. The board and additional cards are the absolute limit of what my table can hold, leaving me feeling that my hardware may no longer be adequate to run a modern board game.