Thursday, 21 September 2017

X-COM 2: War of the Chosen

The Chosen,whose new album is out this week.
War of the Chosen is a massive DLC pack for X-COM 2 which, like Enemy Unknown's expansion, Enemy Within, transforms the standard campaign with new content, adding additional enemies, units and features of the strategy layer.

First and foremost are the titular Chosen, a trio of badass enforcers for the alien Elders. In a cutscene completely outside of X-COM's possible view or knowledge - a first for the series - the Assassin, the Hunter and the Warlock are tasked with returning the Commander to ADVENT custody. In order to ensure best results from their infighting underlings and promote cooperation, the Elders promise control of Earth to the one who captures the Commander (and later have the gall to get pissed at the Chosen for being competitive.) What this means in-game is that each Chosen controls an area of the world, and has the potential to show up during missions in this area and get all up in your face.

Strike a pose.
The Assassin is a bit like your Rangers, combining tremendous speed with a concealment power, a devastating melee attack which leaves all nearby X-COM operatives effectively puking their guts up in shock, a shotgun for back-up, and the ability to move after attacking. Oh, and she doesn't trigger overwatch fire, because fuck you, that's why. The Hunter is all about precision range work, bouncing all over the shop with her grapple and deploying a targeting lock which forces the engaged target to reposition or face a lethal attack in the following turn. Finally, the Warlock has some nasty psionic abilities, and they are all built like bastards, overflowing with hit points, armour and reinforcements. Oh, and you can't permanently kill them at first. And they can sometimes capture your soldiers.

Thoughout the game, the Chosen learn more and more about your operation, with an ultimate eye to attacking the Avenger and recapturing the Commander. This growing knowledge provides an additional countdown which, unlike the Avatar Project, can never be reset. In addition, they have the option to capture your soldiers for questioning, which is just... rude.

But what's sauce for the goose is sauce for the ruthless alien enforcer, and that additional strategy layer element comes into play with the covert action screen. Managed via the new Resistance Ring facility, Covert Actions allow you to seek out rare resources, but also to find information on your enemies just as they seek information on you. The primary missions of this type relate to locating the stronghold of each Chosen and unlocking a mission to infiltrate it and destroy the stasis coffin which keeps them alive, but you can also send troops to find out where they are holding your captured soldiers, and completing such a covert action similarly activates a one-off rescue mission. Completing a covert action requires you to assign one or more soldiers, scientists and engineers, and possible intel or supply resources, with most actions having a required baseline and additional assets which can be assigned to buy off some of the risks. Each action has a risk of injury, ambush or capture, which makes covert action a bad choice for getting some quick experience on the rookies.

These two are introduced as barely able not to kill each other. I think most
players probably set them up as a max-bonded kill team.
Covert action opportunities are provided by the three Resistance Factions, another addition to the game. The Reapers are facemasked, Russianish scout-snipers who look like refugees from Gone with the Blastwave and eat ADVENT troopers for breakfast; literally. Naturally, this makes working with the Skirmishers, ex-ADVENT defectors, iffy at best, and the goal of the Covert game is to get each of the factions sufficiently onside to create a united resistance. The third faction, the Templars, are psi-cultists, but lack the specific beef with the other factions which makes the Reapers and Skirmishers engaging. At the start of each month, any faction that likes you (including X-COM) can be assigned Resistance Orders, which act as powerful modifiers for the coming month, boosting income, reducing the risk of Covert actions, or making certain Proving Ground projects complete instantly, to name but a few. Each of the factions also provides a 'hero' soldier for your forces (and the Reapers at least may very rarely assign a Covert action allowing you to recruit another,) with powerful abilities.

The templar's focus is, essentially, cutting a fool.
The Reaper uses stealth, sharpshooting and explosives. Their enhanced Concealment mode, Shadow, makes them incredible point-runners for ambushes, and they can remain in cover for entire missions if correctly specced and used for picking off the injured. The Skirmisher focuses on mid-range firepower and mobility, with a grappling hook that can be used for traversal, to drag in enemies for a melee attack, or to take the Skirmisher across the map to the enemy. While the Skirmisher does have a limited melee capacity, the real close-range specialist is the Templar, who has only a machine pistol to back up a brutal hand-to-hand attack and a battery of psi-abilities which are powered by successful melee kills.

The hero units are not distinctly more powerful than regular soldiers, but they are versatile, especially with the new ability point system, which allows you to choose abilities from multiple branches of their advance tree at each level. In addition, each has the potential to inflict horrific damage, with a high level Templar carving a swathe through the enemy, and the upgraded Banish ability and a souped-up rifle allowing the Reaper to take out half a dozen large enemies in a turn on a good day. The Skirmisher lacks any such extreme manouevres, but has a number of traits granting additional actions, including the hit-or-miss potential of Battle Lord, which for one turn each combat grants the ability to act like one of Vahlen's rulers and act each time an enemy takes an action in the character's line of sight.

By this point, their guns had been named... after
each other.
Another new addition to the mix is soldier bonding. Operatives sent on missions together, especially those who spend time in proximity on the field and shoot at the same enemies (or at enemies shooting at each other,) develop cohesion, and have the potential to form bonds, which grant extra abilities relating to their partner. Such pairings can then be made the subject of an inspirational poster, as can victorious group shots and other photos taken with the new photo booth feature. Stored in our game files, these can be found as propaganda posters around the battlefields, which now include underground levels and abandoned city blocks. The last of these are home to the Lost, zombie-like rejects from the Elders' experiments that attack in hordes. Killing one grants an extra action, so it is possible to take down a lot of Lost in a single turn, especially with a good sniper.

War of the Chosen overhauls X-COM 2  with a new feeling and a host of new gameplay elements, although one of my favourite things doesn't come up until the very end, when we see the Skirmishers welcoming waves of ADVENT troopers now free of conditioning. It's rather sweet. It also expands the original game without the crippling difficulty hike that makes it hard for me to get on with the excellent Long War 2 mod. I won't say 'otherwise excellent', because it's a feature rather than a bug, but does unfortunately mean that the mod is not really for me (at least until someone with better technical skills than I creates a better aim mod that works with LW2.)

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

RPGaDAY 2017 – 'Which RPG cover best captures the spirit of the game?', 'You can game every day for a week. Describe what you'd do!', 'What was your most impactful RPG session?', and 'What is a good RPG to play for sessions of 2hrs or less?'

Here I catch up on the last four days of RPGaDAY. I honestly don't know if this is in the spirit of the thing, but...

'Which RPG cover best captures the spirit of the game?'
I'm not sure how to answer this, since honestly the best covers tend to gel smoothly with the design so that you barely notice them as a discrete element of the whole. Covers that fail to capture the spirit are the ones that stand out, usually when you get about halfway in and find yourself thinking 'why are five centuries of British history all happening at once and where the actual fuck are the pirates?'

1668? Bollocks more like.
Yes, that's right long-time readers, I'm talking about first ed. 7th Sea again, and in particular the fact that its cover very clearly promised one thing – swashbuckling adventures in the Golden Age of Piracy (1668, to be exact,) and instead delivers a mishmash of historical fantasy including the weird assumption that Elizabethan drag never went out of fashion in a pseudo-Britain where Scotland is hardcore post-Catholic Stuart and there is no Commonwealth, because after all, history doesn't consist of related events at all.

You know, it's never really occurred to me before, but I think that after the massive dissonance with the cover, the thing that stopped me getting back into 7th Sea however many people told me it was the most amazing thing ever(1) was that its world-building grated so much. Thea is a world put together from an anachronistic assemblage of each nation's 'classic' period, without regard for the fact that history is a great, interlocking machine, and that you can't just ignore those interactions and have each nation have reached their idealised historic peak simultaneously. Also, the Eisen looked ridiculous, and I turn out to have a serious twitch about a swashbuckling game with a full-fledged magic system.

Now, it's entirely possible that there is a solid fictional history behind the cultural clusterfuck of Thea, and I hear that the second edition is a very high-class piece of game design. I'll likely never know, because with my time so brutally curtailed by the demands of adulting, it's hard for me to take a chance on something new, and harder still to take a chance on something that's burned me before.

'You can game every day for a week. Describe what you'd do!'
A whole week with no other demands? Sleep?

Okay, if I am required by the terms of whatever scenario means that this can happen to be gaming, then I'm going to hire a place in the country and put together a programme, damnit.

Mornings would be fresh air and exercise after a late start and a good-size breakfast: Nice walks or visits to local parks and places of interest with my daughter, because yes I'm taking my daughter with me. Late morning we'd have board and card games out for those back from their walks.

There would be a social, but not sit-down, lunch at about one o'clock, after which we'd begin in earnest, with two hours of 'A Game of Ponies', followed by breakout boardgaming. A light dinner would be served early, followed by a large-scale boardgame while whatever kids are with us are put to bed, followed by a late supper for the grownups and the meat of the week, a five-part campaign, probably run in a relatively freeform fashion using Fate Core rules.

'What was your most impactful RPG session?'
The climax of James Holloway's long-running Unknown Armies game was a big one, dramatically reshaping a lot of my expectations of how a campaign should go when we wrapped up by running into a burning building with no real expectation of survival and called it an unqualified win.

'What is a good RPG to play for sessions of 2hrs or less?'
Wait; there are sessions of more than two hours? That would be nice.

(1) And there are a lot of them, and people I trust, although in truth a lot of the enthusiastic descriptions have served only to convince me that this isn't for me. One friend described the awesome pirate adventures her PC had while near-permanently shapeshifted into a cat. Weirdly, I would be more enthusiastic about a pirate swashbuckling game in which you could opt to play as the ship's cat, than one in which you could turn into a cat.

Friday, 4 August 2017

RPGaDAY 2017 – 'How do you find out about new RPGs?' and 'Which RPG have you played the most since August 2016'

Another twofer today.

New RPGs tend to come my way when Robin Farndon excitedly posts something about a Kickstarter campaign. I also see announcements from Onyx Path since backing the fascinating but virtually unplayable Mummy reboot(1), but for the most part that's a matter of curiosity.

This image is relevant to so much in this post.
Okay, I backed the game about anthropomorphic cats, but it's a game about anthropomorphic cats(3).

In broader terms, I get my news on game releases from social media, either because someone (not always Robin, sometimes it's Eleanor Hingley(4)) has taken a shine to something, or is pointing out a Lovecraftian thing to one of the serious Lovecraft completists on my friends list, or because Grant Howitt is releasing something new, blast his enviable blend of creativity and productivity(5).

So, before I get lost in my own footnotes(6), on to the second question.

As is well recorded in this blog, I don't get to game anything like as much as I would like. In the past year, the bulk of what I've managed to play has been the winding down of my online Fate game, Operatives of CROSSBOW, which suffered immensely from something I commented on on Ellie's blog the other day, and in an earlier post about letting other people design your character, which is the ill fit between the spontaneous, near-anarchic back and forth of Fate's core mechanics and the necessary formality that makes online video conferencing so much better for steering committee meetings than casual chat once you involve more than two people. The fundamental problem with CROSSBOW was embodied in the way the players declared their action. Seven in ten times, they would begin 'can I...?' The core concept of Fate is that yes you can, if you tell us how.

Well, that and I think one of my players had been burned once too often by GMs insisting that anything not explicitly mentioned during the planning session – like torches, lockpicks, a spy's pistol, or a hacker's laptop - wasn't there at all.

"All right, so can we get one of these?"
"Do you have an aspect called 'I'm a Spy' on your sheet(7)? Then keep going; I'll tell you when you need to spend a Fate point to have something."
"Cool. What about one of these?"

I'm not judging my players here. Learned behaviours are hard to escape, is my point, and especially when you add the social constraint of that screen and only have a fuzzy webcam image to judge other people's responses by when they're not speaking. There is simply no way that remote gaming of this sort will ever truly stand in for proper tabletopping; at least until immersive telepresencing becomes a thing.

This is basically the online gaming table and I wants it.
The only other game I've played any of is, as I mentioned last time, Tails of Equestria, with which we are introducing my daughter to roleplaying (well, that and Empire,) and that has barely got going thanks to our schedules.

(1) It joins old-school White Wolf's Wraith in the centre of a Venn diagram of 'fascinating mechanical conceit', 'mega-high concept' and 'there are maybe three conceivable combinations of people who could play this without it going off the fucking chain(2).'
(2) Not that I'm saying 'off the chain' is a necessarily bad play style, but it doesn't seem to be what they're going for as a default.
(3) I'm still a little disappointed that they went with Monarchies of Mau instead of presenting the cats as a communist collective under the guiding paw of Chairman Miaow, but I suppose a working game setting was higher on their list of priorities than a one-off pun.
(4) Very occasionally someone else, but like... 80% from that one household. 90% if you count the cats.
(5) Because envy, rather than because I want him to stop producing, although if he could slow down I might be able to afford to back more of his stuff. Or if I hadn't slipped and backed the cats thing. Oh, Kickstarter regret! Such grief you bring me!
(6) Seriously, they'll be in small type once I upload this, but right now they take up pretty much the same space as the text.

(7) Yes they did, pretty much for this reason.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

RPGaDay – 'What Published RPG do you wish you were playing right now?' and 'What is an RPG you would like to see published?'

In the game of ponies, you win, or you
try again.
I'm only really involved in one game at the moment, and that's 'A Game of Ponies', my oft-in-hiatus campaign for the Tails of Equestria RPG. The PCs managed to not-quite destroy the Castle of Friendship when entrusted with guarding the Cutie Map, received a Cutie Compass – sort of a MLP version of the aleitheometer – and were guided west, past the mountains of Griffonstone to a city on the edge of a desert. They defeated Pie-rats on the way, although my daughter has requested no more of those, but have been stalled in Koto-Kolia for a long time now, as it's hard to find time to play around LARP and life.

For the same reason – plus my general, although obviously not absolute, aversion to licensed games – I don't really have an answer to the second question. It' hard to want something that is completely undefined, especially when it would ultimately just be another thing I don't have time to play. I'm hardly going to sit here thinking 'man, I wish there was a low magic horror-fantasy game out there,' especially if I don't have a group I might want to run that for.

So, what these two questions really highlight for me is that it's hard to get hyped when you know that you aren't going to have a game. If you've just got your Wednesday night group's schedule locked up for the next five years, you can still get excited that maybe you could slot Marvel Supers in for March 2023, but it feels very different when there's no real prospect of getting a game in at all. It's not something I know how to remedy, because in the general sense I would really like to have a game again, it's just that I'm not all that mobile and Arya's much too young to leave on her own.

Maybe I should offer to run some Tails of Equestria for her and her friends on a Sunday.

RPGaDay 2017

It's that time again, when a series of quesations are asked to provoke positive discussion in the RPG community. Here's this year's sexy, sexy infographic:

823 8476 09

Wait... that's the VAT number for the University of Cambridge. Here's the infographic:

Entries to come... soonish.

Friday, 16 June 2017


Boom! I shot a red dude.
SUPERHOT is one of weirder first person experiences I've ever played, for a whole bunch of reasons. The product of a game jam, I am given to understand, it's sort of like The Talos Principle, but bitter and nihilistic. First of all, it begins with a fictional set-up where you're breaking into a company server to play a supposedly boss computer game, which is actually just - in the game's own words - shooting red dudes. Secondly, the game is basically just shooting red dudes, and in a stark, white environment filled with black objects that can be picked up and shot, thrown or swung to kill red dudes.

Oh; and nothing moves unless you move.

That's the twist of the game, you see. Well, one of them. The other is the emergent plot, such as it is, of which more below.
This is looking bad.

But, yeah. You start a level and everything is still (almost, anyway; if you hang around too long, eventually something will kill you.) Things move slowly when you turn, and full speed when you move. This includes the red dudes, their bullets, and your bullets. The action of firing or throwing lets time run a little, but then you need to go somewhere for your bullet to actually reach its target. Interestingly, this means that targeting the time-frozen red dudes is actually harder than is usual with an FPS projectile weapon, because the bullets actually take time to travel.

Also, you can throw katanas at people.

Blam! His head exploded and... Wait; is this okay?
Anyway, then there's the plot, which emerges through play, and suggests that you are being sucked into some sort of virtual world to be a disembodied, electronic agent of change and sucker others into doing the same.

On the upside, you get access to the endless mode once you shoot yourself in the head.

I should probably add that it's more designed for VR, but it's still a decent, novel little shooter.

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Tails of Equestria

Bit of a change from Hitman, I know.
I decided last week that I could economise elsewhere, and I was going to buy Tails of Equestria, the new My Little Pony tabletop RPG from River Horse games, created by Alessio Cavatore. I wanted to do this primarily as a means to introduce my daughter to roleplaying through a property which she is invested in, and which offers some serious opportunities for teaching her.

As RPGs go, Tails of Equestria is pretty simple, as you'd hope for a game aimed at children and families, but not simplistic. Three stats and an open-ended number of talents are each rated by die type from D4 to D20. Rolls are either to beat an opponent's roll or a static difficulty. Combat is there, but while a 'scuffle' can – indeed will – have consequences, they are never outright lethal. If you have a talent that applies to a roll, you typically get to roll an extra die and pick the better result; points off for removing a maths teaching opportunity, but more than made up for by the gain in pacing. In addition you get a quirk, which is a non-mechanical drawback that the GM can use to create interesting trouble for your character, which is one of the ways of regaining Friendship Tokens.

Friendship Tokens are the game's fate/drama mechanic, and tie into the franchise's 'friendship is magic' theme. You start with more tokens in a larger group, because more friends means more friendship, and players are encouraged to donate their tokens to help a friend out with re-rolls and other bonuses. Easily the best and most innovative mechanic in the game's simple system is that if two players are willing to pool their tokens, they can be counted as more valuable than the sum of their parts to represent the fact that Equestria almost literally runs on friendship. A little less successful is the last-ditch 'exploding hoof' mechanic, allowing for a slim chance at impossible seemingly impossible tasks, which is one of the more complex elements of the rules (which is, I think, its failing.)

Secret Ants Midget Mother Cheese.
Character creation is simple – we generated three characters in half an hour, including my daughter's first PC, Secret Ants Midget Mother Cheese(1) – and plays to the strengths of the series. Mechanical variation and niche protection is slight. Earth Ponies are strong, Pegasi can fly and Unicorns can do magic, but the game encourages open problem solving and represents many approaches with a handful of mechanics to let the story shine and to ensure that the characters will tend to be on an equal footing. After a few level-ups there is likely to be more distinction, but everyone levels up together so the PCs should always be equals, although some may choose specialism and others range, and everyone will benefit from doing things together.

Without testing the system to destruction, the game seems a good fit to the license and target age range. This may well be my favourite licensed RPG now, although it's not a high bar. 

I'll report further on the adventures of Secret Ants Midget Mother Cheese and friends and they happen.

(1) Her second choice for a kind Pegasus with 'The Stare' as her cutie mark talent, after I suggested that 'Fluttershy' was taken.

Monday, 27 March 2017

A World of Assassination

It makes me very sad that I haven't yet sniped anyone from this church tower.
Okay, so I am now three levels into Hitman: No Subtitle, and it's going pretty well. There are bits of it that are tougher than others, but it's never yet frustrating and insoluble. The nearest I got was trying to sneak into the Swedish embassy in Marakesh. It took me three tries to get an unconscious guard into a box unnoticed, and even then apparently Swedish diplomatic protection is unusually hot on its security guards knowing each other's names and faces. Less so on local masseurs, as they all took me for the man with the golden touch despite the eight inch height disparity, lack of hair and bar code. So it goes; in Paris I successfully masqueraded as the world's most famous male model.

For a game that is basically about killing people in inventive ways (on one notable occasion in Sapienza I just left an exploding golf ball in a box and walked away. Ten minutes later I got the kill confirmed(1)) Hitman: No Subtitle really appeals to the explorer type. The levels are huge and open, and full of people discussing things directly or tangentially related to the main plot of the game. There's this whole counter-blackmail thing going on in the Paris mission with a magazine editor trying to get dirt on the IAGO blackmail ring to keep from going under in the face of the advancing world of fashion blogging, which frankly seems reckless, but you can also stumble on her agents and overhear them bricking it, and on IAGO's models/spies discussing their assignments, some of which involve people we'll meet later in the plot and a so-far mysterious cult that seems to tie things together. None of this is essential, but it's also never discussed in the cut scenes or main briefings; it's purely there as background information that you can pick up if you want.

Well, I know what I'm doing this evening...
The other thing I've really noticed is that, for a game about an assassin, it really never wants you to feel good about killing people. Sure, most of your targets are bad people on one level or another, but even the nasty ones are pretty nuanced. The least diabolical of the six targets I've gone after so far, the least offensive are the scientists devising a genetically targeted virus designed to infect and move from person to person until it hits the one person it will kill, and one of them hired the ICA to off a local right-wing politician in one of the seasonal special missions. I guess the Wet Bandits from Home Alone maybe didn't deserve to be killed in the Christmas special(2), but you know how it is; play the gig, stay away from politics. Actually, the 'just play the gig' attitude is challenged by this game as the arc plot shows that the ICA is being manipulated into a series of seemingly unconnected hits aimed at bringing down a group called Providence. Maybe it would pay to look at the politics a little closer.

None of the targets are diabolically evil; that's the point. The serial blackmailers are on some level trying to go straight, the scientists are mostly in it for the science (evil science, admittedly.) The general angling for a coup de tat and the banker who ruined thousands of people and destabilised the Moroccan government I am less concerned about, if I'm honest. There's also just enough detail to the supporting NPCs(3) that murder seldom seems an easy option. Despite their apparent policy of sheltering wanted financial fraudsters who happen to be Swedish, there's a definite lack of relish on those occasions when I screw the pooch and just start capping off at consulate guards before reloading (although I confess, when I finally got fed up of the one guard who flatly refused to move, just stood there playing with his phone and waiting to witness you if you attacked the masseur, and just beaned him in the bread basket with a thrown hammer(4), that was satisfying.

Traversal in Hitman is definitely less satisfying than Assassin's Creed's signature free running, but the complete focus on the business of patient, meticulous assassination more than makes up for it. Played wrong it would feel like a particularly unsatisfying version of Ubisoft's occult murder simulator, but if you embrace the nature of the game it comes out more like a particularly strangley and non-judgemental game of Portal.

(1) I got two non-target kills for the level, but I don't know if that was that the golf ball got the golf coach and one of the guards, or because the box I later hid two unconscious scientists in was – as I only realised as the second one vanished in a flurry of bubbles – full of evil, biohazardous goop well above the tolerance levels of their hazmat suits.
(2) Quite by chance I ended up putting them in the same cupboard, which was satisfying.
(3) They really only ring false when they react to seven foot of cueball muscle putting someone in a mistimed chokehold by pointing and saying sternly 'you let him go now' rather than screaming for the police or even throwing things at you.
(4) Throwable blunt objects are a godsend in this game and I routinely load my pockets with hammers, wrenches, bricks and coconuts far more than guns or knives.

Friday, 24 March 2017

First Thoughts on Hitman: No Subtitle

"There's a voice, keeps on calling me..."
Thanks to a Steam sale, I recently picked up the first season pass of Hitman, a game most notable for having seasons. This is because it has been released episodically over the course of the last year, one level at a time, with extra challenges and 'elusive targets' - special assassination targets within the existing levels who must be eliminated in one attempt, and within a 48 hour realtime window - increasing the replay value and encouraging players to attempt the same missions over and over again to learn the level layouts and opportunities. Speaking of opportunities, for rookie slackers like me there are hints to lead you to particular assassination set pieces, but there are always plenty of options, including the high-risk, low-hassle option of a bullet in the head.

I stuffed up incapacitating the male model 47 bears an uncanny resemblance
to, so he was found and revived and actually walking about somewhere else
while I snatched his catwalk spot and his meeting with Blackmail Inc.
I've completed the prologue 'training' missions and the first real level so far, and it's a good balance between frustratingly difficult and insultingly easy. Enemy patrols are regular enough to predict, frequent enough to require swift action, and cones of vision finely balanced so that the guards neither seem insultingly oblivious nor utterly inescapable. Some of the opportunities seem unduly demanding, but increasing mastery allows you to unlock new staring locations and disguises which would make for radically different approaches. To increase one's mastery of each level, there are plenty of challenges to attempt, mostly relating to assassination methods, locations and disguises (including a whole set for doing the Paris mission disguised as a vampire magician,) although I suspect that some of them may be out of my reach if they require me to clock up collateral damage. I can live with a few incidental kills if they are corrupt FSB agents or PMC heavies, but draw the line at civilians.

Hitman is a game that rewards patience and observation, but does not demand long periods of inactivity and gives you plenty to look at and discover as you go through. It also, as I feel is necessary for assassination games, paints an ugly enough picture of your targets that you don't have to feel too bad lobbing them over a rail into the Seine (especially not when there's a punning achievement on offer.)

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Game of Thrones Cluedo

Bom-bom baba-bom-bom baba...
Over the weekend, we broke out one of Hanna's birthday presents: Game of Thrones Cluedo.

This game follows the essential rules of Cluedo (Clue if you're American,) but with a twist. Each player takes one of six characters, moves around a map with a number of rooms and has to work out which of the six characters, including themselves, done a murder(1), in which room and with which of six weapons. All of the variables are on cards, and one of each is placed in an envelope to define the terms of the crime. Each turn you aim to get your character to a new room, where you can 'start a rumour', calling a character and a weapon to the same room and putting it about that this is the killer combo. In turn, each of your opponents gets a chance to prove you wrong by showing you one card from their hand that matches your rumour. Eventually, when you think you know the solution, you can make an accusation, check the envelope, and either win or be excluded from the game. Because the game was made in older and simpler times, the win condition is the same for everyone, even if you realise that it was you what done it.

Is anyone significantly murdered with a battle axe in the series?
Game of Thrones Cluedo has the twist of featuring two scenarios on its reversible board: Mereen, in which you are solving a murder in one of nine major buildings; and The Red Keep, in which you are figuring out who was behind a murder plot which reached its grim conclusion in one of eleven rooms, making for a slightly more complex case. In addition, because we no longer live in those simple times, each character has a special ability and an additional mechanic allows you to collect Intrigue cards by various means, which allow you to take extra turns, see additional cards and other such things. Just for funsies, eight of the Intrigue cards are White Walkers, which must be played immediately into a separate discard pile. Drawing the eighth White Walker takes you out of the game, and the card is shuffled back into the deck to potentially kill someone else later.

Varys: Master of Modifiers
Most of the Game of Thrones trappings are just window dressing on your basic Cluedo, and even the special abilities are interesting one-shots at most, but the Intrigue cards are a radical change to the pacing of the game. Given the near-certainty of someone stealing the prize if you stumble on solution – say by guessing the weapon and room out of nowhere, damnit – an extra turn can reverse one's fortunes. With only three players the White Walkers aren't that much of a thing, but I can see that with eight the Intrigue deck would be much more akin to a revolver(2) in a game of Russian roulette. All in all, it's the Intrigue deck that makes this more than just a reskin, with Miss Scarlett wearing some sort of creepy, serial killer Cersei Lannister mask.

Also, the world is clearly ready for a Game of Thrones edition of Kill Doctor Lucky, with Joffrey as the obvious victim.

(1) Murder has its own grammar.

(2) A revolver that fires zombies.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

First Thoughts on Ori and the Blind Forest

Try not to get attached. Fail. Mourn.
Do you get tired of games that don't rip your still beating heart out of your chest within the first ten minutes of the game and stab it repeated with a blunt pencil while shouting 'this is what you get for caring?' If so, or if you like atmospheric platform puzzlers, you might like Ori and the Blind Forest.

Ori is a spirit of light separated from the great Spirit Tree of the forest and raised by a gorilla in a noh mask, until her foster parent dies of starvation because the forest is dying. Then Ori dies. Straight up, the opening sections of the game are: Ori drifts like a leaf and is adopted by Naru; Naru and Ori live happily; the forest dies and Naru starves to death while Ori is fetching food; Ori starves to death. The bit where Naru dies is bad enough, but then you have to slog slowly along while Ori expires. It's like watching the opening montage of Up.

Fortunately things pick up, as the Tree gives the last of its light to save Ori, who finds a spark of light called Sein that guides her to recover the light of other lost spirits in order to restore the balance of elements and save the forest from the rage of the owl spirit Kuro. She does this through a mixture of light combat and agile platform puzzling, retrieving various forms of key to open up new areas and explore the world of the forest. Defeating enemies and collecting light spirits allows you to level up different areas, loosely equating to combat, collecting and save management, which last is not something you often see on a skill tree.

Ori and the Blind Forest is a beautiful game, although it remains to be seen if the challenges will be varied enough to see me through the inevitable frustrating bits that come in any platformer.

First Thoughts on Octodad: Dadliest Catch

Adventures of an average, American family.
Do you get tired of games where the code takes over most of the functions of your character for you? Auto aim, context-sensitive cover and traversal, unified control of your character's limbs and body. If this is something that really grinds your gears, or if you're in the mood for some cartoon-style flailing around and burbling, then Octodad: Dadliest Catch might be for you.

In Dadliest Catch (sequel to the original, freeware Octodad) you take on the role of an unnamed octopus, who for reasons unknown (at least as far as I have got in the game,) has crammed his tentacles into clothing in order to masquerade as a human, marry a woman named Scarlet and raise her two children as his own. To do this, you switch between two modes: Legs, in which you use the mouse buttons and mouse movements to individually work the flailing, boneless tentacle pairs shoved down each trouser; and arms, in which you raise and lower, extend and retract your arm tentacle, suckering onto objects to manipulate them.

"The aisle is full of banana peels, but I'm the suspicious one?"
The game is divided into levels, each set in a different area (so far: church, home, store; and I'm at the start of the dreaded aquarium,) in which you have to complete a set of tasks and then, in most cases, escape from a chef who knows that you are an octopus and wants to turn you into a delicacy. As you go about your tasks, it is vitally important not to give yourself away by knocking things over, trampling flowers, or slipping on too many of the inordinate number of banana peels scattered about the world.

If it's not already clear, Octodad: Dadliest Catch is one weird mamajama, although for all its bizarre trappings, it's basically one long ragdoll physics puzzle. As a result, I do struggle to play extended sessions, but it's fun to dip in and out of.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Further Thoughts on Long War 2

Regions have different ADVENT strengths; currently I'm dealing with low
strengths, but I suspect it's going to get nasty once I manage to scrape together
the resources to build a radio room and reach out to somewhere I've not been
My second attempt at Long War 2 is going better; partly because I've better distributed my veterans and made serious use of the 'train rookie' function of my Guerrilla Warfare Facility, partly because I'm not attempting short-time missions(1), but also because I'm playing on easy, because I don't find getting repeatedly slaughtered fun(2). Even on easy it's pretty damned tough.

Once you get into it, two things strike you about Long War. One is the increased depth of the overworld strategic game; the other is how the way you play changes. Stealth becomes important for more than just setting up your first ambush. Whereas in the standard game it's a point of pride to get all of the aliens even if your mission is to evac a VIP; in Long War, you've never done better than if you never have to fire a shot. The first time I stealthed all the way to the cells and nipped out the back door with the prisoners without a single exchange of fire, I felt like a god; probably Loki. There's still a satisfaction - a huge satisfaction, even on easy - in a two-strong Ranger team taking on five-to-one odds to put down the guard on a prisoner transport, but it's no less a victory when you then book for evac without even stopping to see what reinforcements are coming.

Infiltration fundamentally changes human resource management.
The changes in the strategic game are simple, yet profound. Firstly, there is an overarching goal to the missions in each area. Many missions involve intel gathering, which may turn up a lead. Once you have a lead, you have a shot at Liberation missions, which reveal the location of Regional ADVENT HQ, unlocking a straight assault mission to remove the region from ADVENT control entirely (although I suspect not irrevocably.)

Secondly, infiltration completely alters your troop management. In the basic game, you get one or maybe two squads-worth and train them hard, while the bottom of the order sort of languishes. In Long War, teams spend days at a time infiltrating mission sites. Between that and healing times, you'e going to use much, much more of your roster and it really is worth cycling through to keep everyone trained up. Weapon and armour management is also once more a thing, as Long War removes the squad upgrade option; new weapons have to be built individually and supplies are at a premium. Something is nicking most of my drops and I still don't know what. Maybe if I can get the Officer corpse I need to make a skulljack(3) I can finally find out!

Finally, there's the whole question of managing the resistance. I've barely got into that, and although it mostly seems simple - each resistance member at a haven can scavenge for supplies, snoop for intel, recruit new resistance members or hide - I suspect it may become important later and I may regret not paying more attention now. Given that the havens are now persistent entities with characters who do things for me, I anticipate retaliation missions feeling a lot more personal.

(1) Attempting anything with less than 200% infiltration is a doomed venture, at least with basic gear. Once I can send a couple of heavily armoured ninjas into the field, I may spec a squad for short infiltrations.
(2) I'm basically not committed enough to break the cycle, so I never get the catharsis of victory to counter the constant frustration.
(3) Proving Ground projects don't need huge amounts of supplies, but tend to require 'parts', and since most of your missions end in evac, you don't have as many stiffs lying around. You can't pick up dead or incapacitated enemies and carry them to evac; I've tried.

Friday, 20 January 2017

First Thoughts on Long War 2

Moar choices!
Back in the days of XCOM: Enemy Unknown, a group of enthusiastic fans produced 'Long War', a massive full mod which extended and expanded the gameplay with more soldier classes, tech tiers and missions. When it came to making XCOM 2, instead of slapping these upstarts with a cease and desist order, Firaxis Games gave Long War Studios (now Pavonis Interactive) early access to the project so that they could begin work on 'Long War 2', a similarly epic reworking of the sequel. The mod was released yesterday via Steam Workshop, and it resoundingly kicked my arse.

Make no mistake, Long War 2 is not just about making XCOM 2 last longer, it makes it tough. Entry level missions have Sectoids and armoured drones with stun guns, and new ADVENT troops like the Engineer with her grenade launcher and the Sentry with her mad Overwatch skillz, and they all dodge like absolute bastards. Your hit rates are for shit and there's every chance that even a successful shot will be dodged for a minor graze. Oh, and there are a lot of them on each level, with a tendency to converge on you as soon as you go loud.

Now, it's not all doom and gloom. First, you begin the game with a few extra bits and bobs, in particular three grenade/utility slots, nanoweave vests - which provide 'protection' instead of extra health, which means that the first few damage levels don't count as wounds - and sweet, sweet flashbang grenades. Within the first mission I had come to love these little beauties, so much so that I felt betrayed the first time an ADVENT Engineer lobbed one back at me. On the other hand, regular frag grenades are much less reliable.

In addition, you begin with the ability to ship eight soldiers on the Skyranger, so you can send a hell of a lot of hurt out in a single package; the flipside is that you no longer land in the combat zone. The Skyranger drops off your squad and they infiltrate the AO, a process which takes several days, and longer the more people you send and the more heavily tooled up they are. Missions are time limited, and if you don't have time to fully infiltrate the already bastard hard opposition is increased. At low infiltration levels, the mission launch screen advises that the opposition is 'impregnable.' So, while you can send eight heavily armed bastards, unless you have plenty of time available, it may be better to send a leaner squad to face a reduced defence. As an additional factor, emergency extraction is not instant; it takes time for the Skyranger to fly in. Best not to hold out to the bitter end.

All in all, Long War 2 is a tougher, grittier version of XCOM 2, with more choices to make and much more of a feeling that you are scrabbling against the real power in the world. There's a whole extra level to the Strategic game as well, with Resistance Havens to manage and a sector control game I haven't even touched on yet on account of getting my arse kicked in the missions the whole time. Now, partly this is because I screwed up. The game assigns all of your squaddies from the first mission to a single squad - a pre-assigned group of soldiers that can be quickly selected in the load-out screen - and I didn't mix them up, so I have one unwieldy group of shitkickers and a bunch of frail and unsupported rookies instead of salting the veterans across the squads to support the newbies in leveling up. And partly it's because the game is brutal.

Monday, 16 January 2017

A Story About My Uncle

A Story About My Uncle
A Story About My Uncle is a non-violent, first person platform game that doesn't make me long for the ability to shoot things. This is no small achievement.

It's not that I'm against non-violent games, more that first-person platforming is often frustrating enough to make the most placid of players want to run off and set fire to things, just to relieve the tension the nineteenth time they misjudge the same jump. The great achievement of A Story About My Uncle is to never let you get that frustrated. You can always see what you need to do, even when it isn't easy, and your tool set for achieving your goals is simple enough that you never spend ages trying all the wrong things and flexible enough that you feel awesome.

The art of falling.
The game is framed as a bedtime story told by a father to his daughter, with narration being provided in a soft, accented paternal voice which really seems to have bothered a lot of people. He explains that he once went to look for his missing Uncle Fred, found a copy of his uncle's 'adventure suit' made for him, and got sucked through Fred's over-engineered garbage disposal system into a world of caverns and pools, island stacks and floating rocks, where a frog-like race of humanoids have created a community out of Fred's rubbish.

The player navigates this world using the adventure suit's power assisted jump, infinite ability to fall onto the ground (but not into water) and a grappling gauntlet. You leap between islands, and use the grapple more to accelerate and change direction than you do to drag yourself directly to another place. About an hour in, I've reached a pitch dark cave in the Chasms, where something large and scary is growling around and the mysterious outcast 'Strays' have left signs saying 'Beware' and 'Do Not Move When the Eye is Open,' so I'm not sure that everyone else in this game is as non-violent as I am.

The littlest Deep One.
The story itself is perhaps a little slight. I'm looking for my Uncle, who has been missing a few weeks, but appears to have been in the underground world far longer. The frog people want me to bring him back to them. It's not much, but given that the studio's last release was Goat Simulator it doesn't look too shabby. Currently I'm also carrying a frog-girl called Mady (short a,) which doesn't effect my mobility thanks to the suit, but provides chirpy commentary and translation of the Stray graffiti, plus the occasional hint such as pointing out that I can make some of the plants glow with my grapple; super useful out here in the dark.

So far, A Story About My Uncle is a fast, fun, intuitive platformer, and it's nice to play something a little calmer. I also prefer the narrator agreeing that it's getting late and maybe we could pick up tomorrow when I close a session to Wolfenstein sending me virtual white feathers because I want to sleep.

Disney Storytelling Adventures

One of Arya's presents that I'm hoping to get plenty of use out of was a double helping of Storytelling Adventures tins. Produced by Parragon publishing and largely themed around Disney products (although there is also a PAW Patrol one,) these are basically a kind of child's first roleplaying set, or perhaps an introductory version of the card game Once Upon a Time. Each tin - Arya has the Disney Princess and Marvel Avengers sets - contains a set of storybooks and a few cardboard models, and more importantly a set of character cards and storytelling dice (one each for feelings, actions, props and locations.)

To play the game, you pick a card and role one of the dice and use the combination to tell a part of a story. The next player can either pick a new card or use one that's already out, then rolls another die. Arya's not bad at it, although she has does tend to want to sort out the Tangled characters from the deck beforehand and roll the feelings die exclusively. Honestly, I think this is okay as long as we're telling stories together.

Friday, 13 January 2017

Pandemic: Iberia and Red November

Farewell to Catalonia.
Over the Christmas period, we played a few games. There were Disney's Storytelling Adventures sets, which I'll discuss in another post, as well as Andrews Christmas present, Pandemic: Iberia, and my birthday present, Red November.

Pandemic: Iberia takes the basic principles and gameplay of Pandemic and transplants them to the Iberian peninsula (that's basically Spain and Portugal,) where members of the Second Royal Philanthropic Expedition seek to philanthropically expedite research into the diseases ravaging the region. Unlike regular Pandemic, in which the diseases are non-specific but typically assigned to any two major diseases of recent memory, plus bird flu and the zombie plague, the threats are specific here: malaria, typhoid, cholera and scarlet fever (and not, to many people's surprise, Spanish flu, which was an early 20th century pandemic.) There are new roles, and a few new rules as well, including the unwritten rule: For the sake of us all, someone play the Nurse.

In vanilla Pandemic the Medic is often considered a must-have, but in Iberia the Nurse is essential. The cities on the map are connected by travel lines, as in the regular game, but in this case the lines are deemed to encompass regions, with a number of rules using not the city nodes but the regions to define their effect. The nurse, for example, has a token she can drop in any region adjacent to her current position. No city touching that region can then have disease cubes played into it. This is not quite OP (you can get at most five cities,) but it's still a bit of a game changer. The same is true of the Railway Man, who can build railways at an accelerated rate to make up for the fact that you can't take charter flights in this game. Ordinarily you can move one city or jump from port to port with cards, but once the rails go down you can move any number of cities that are connected by an unbroken railway. The other roles each have their uses, but these two are almost certain to see the most play.

With the lack of modern medicine, diseases in Iberia can not be cured, only researched. You can, however, prevent diseases by purifying water in a region. Purifying puts down tokens which are then removed instead of placing cubes; a potential game saver in a region about to go boom. Purification needs a card that matches one of the cities in a region, or a card of one of the researched colours. You also need to work local: Researching a disease requires a hospital to be built in a city of the appropriate colour.

Other than this, the game is identical to its predecessor, but the small changes make for a surprisingly different paying experience. It's definitely more than just a reskin.

Two gnomes are dead in the water; two have escaped.
Red November is the second edition of the game of peril aboard the eponymous sinking gnomish submarine. The core mechanic of Red November is that your gnomish sailors run around fixing things to keep alive until rescue arrives. The problem is that everything takes time, and as time passes more things go wrong. You track your turn by moving your timekeeper around the track on the outside of the board, and when you've made your move and taken your action, you draw event cards based on how far you've moved, which cause things to break. You can all die because you run out of air, boil alive, get crushed by the merciless pressure of the deep, or when the missiles go off, the reactor melts down, or the Kraken shows up and eats you(1). Individually you can die if trapped in a room that is full of water or fire.

The second edition has slightly bigger cards and a slightly bigger board, and I think there are some rules tweaks which seem to have significantly upped the difficulty. We've had individual deaths in previous games, but the chance of a TPK seems much higher in this version, with a number of instances of the two halves of the sub being completely separated from one another by blocked hatches, floodwaters and/or fire.

Red November is a game that seems extremely fiddly at first, but the timekeeping quickly becomes second nature and the game runs quickly once you get going. It's definitely at its best when things are frantic; the early stages tend to feel a bit too easy, but it's all fun and games once someone loses an eye, a few rooms start catching fire and you need to get into the flooded pump room to stop the fire using up all of the oxygen.

(1) My one sadness about the game is that in multiple playthroughs of both editions, we haven't yet been eaten by the Kraken.