Monday, September 29, 2008

Board Game Review - I'm the Boss

I know last Friday I said I was going to talk about Risk: Star Wars, and I hate to let down the two of you who actually pay attention, but I have to tell you about my new favorite game. I played it this weekend for the first time (I bought it over a year ago) and we loved it so much, we immediately played three more times right off the bat.

The game is called I'm the Boss, and it's not for the faint of heart. It's a game for people who don't offend easy (as regular readers might note, I do not). The level of cutthroat dealing in this game is so high, you'll hate your friends when you're done - but you won't be able to blame them, because you're doing the same thing every chance you get. And then the game ends, and you'll want to do it again, because you'll be desperate for the chance to stick it to the bastard who stole your only investor and left you holding your pecker.

In I'm the Boss, everyone is trying to make deals. There are 15 deals to be made, and each requires a different mix of investors. Each player starts the game with one investor, and you can recruit more as the game progresses. So say the deal is worth 10 million, and it needs Cashman, Goldman and Sacks if it's going to go through. Odds are, you've only got one of those people in front of you, so you'll have to split the take with the other players if you want to get the whole deal together. If the deal fails, nobody gets paid, so it's worth a little sacrifice to make sure you get your slice of the pie.

The thing is, everyone else wants to make money, and the game has plenty of ways to make sure you get your cut. Like you can recruit your opponents' investors, leaving them with no way to make a deal and you holding the balance in nearly any deal on the board. Or you can send investors on vacation and force the deal-maker to use your investor instead of Liebgeld, who has suddenly decided to go skiing in the Alps. Or you can just take the whole deal, making yourself the boss, and take the lion's share of the profits. You can't do this every time, and there are ways to stop you, but regardless, this is one game where screwing your opponents isn't optional. You either play for blood or you go home empty-handed. If you're prone to fits of mercy or pointless displays of compassion, you'll be happier playing something where you all play Catholic nuns handing out bags of rice to poor children in Somalia.

Ironically, the point of the game is not to harm the other players. The point is to make sure you get cut in on as many deals as possible. The thing is, only so many people can get their piece of any one deal, so if you don't get in there and fight dirty, you're going to end up with nothing. All your friends will laugh at you. You will be shunned, your confidence shattered, nothing more than a ragged shell of a human being. And all because you were too nice to steal the deal and get your piece of the pie. It's just a game, for crying out loud. Is it really worth your self-esteem and the admiration of your peers, just to feel a little more like a decent person? No, it's not. So cowboy up, you pansy, and send that old Dougherty bitch on vacation so you can take her cut. And don't feel bad, because your turn will come soon enough.

The game ends when a certain number of deals have been completed. It takes about 30 minutes to an hour to play a game, but the time will fly past, and you'll find yourself looking at a clock to decide if you have time to try it again, and this time, you'll remember to stock up on the dirty tricks early on to make sure you get your share when the real money starts stacking up.

For anyone who still needs a little incentive (and who hasn't left to go pick daffodils and play with little puppies while wearing a cute little jumper and maybe a baby pacifier), I'm the Boss is a creation of Sid Sackson. This old dude (well, now he's a dead dude) made a whole bunch of games before he kicked the bucket, and some of them are downright legendary. He made Acquire, which is another game with a financial theme, and Can't Stop, a crazy dice game that is one of Parker Brothers' all time biggest hits. Sid Sackson may be dead, but he's a legend of game design, and I'm the Boss proves why.

If you have the guts to play dirty, and skin thick enough to hold your water when someone cuts you clean out of a lucrative deal, I'm the Boss is a hoot. Merciless negotiation may not be for everyone, but for those who can enjoy a little stab-and-counterstab, I'm the Boss might be your next favorite game.


Awesome negotiation
Hilarious hijinks (in the form of back-stabbing and deal-making)
Easy to learn
Great art by William O'Conner, one of my personal favorite illustrators

Not very nice - Mother Theresa would not approve

If you've got the ballsack to play a game this mean-spirited, I'm the Boss is hilarious fun. Sadly, it's sold out everywhere. I can't even find one on eBay. So no link for you.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Board Game Review - Uptown

I haven't checked my back records this morning, but I'm pretty sure I'm overdue for a game roast. I need to tear a game into little metaphorical pieces every now and then, just for my own cathartic pleasure, and I've been playing so many awesome games that I just haven't been able to find anything to destroy. Thank God for Uptown.

Sometimes you find a game that is so bad, you wonder why the publishers bothered to make it in the first place. Sometimes you see a theme so worthless, you can't understand why the game has a theme at all. And sometimes you see art so generic, so cheap, that it makes you wonder what kind of production budget was spent on this thing. Sometimes all those things happen at once, and then it's called Uptown.

Uptown is another of what used to be Funagain exclusives, and since Funagain doesn't do those any more, now the game is distributed by Fred Distribution. Incan Gold is another of these games, but Incan Gold is actually pretty fun. Uptown, by comparison, is not.

The theme to Uptown is a Swinging '20s night out on the town. There are little pictures of martini glasses and flappers and stuff. It's very cosmopolitan. The game is decorated with all the best art you can find on They must have spent at least fifteen bucks on the art for this game. Maybe even twenty. Basically, my kids' allowances could cover the art budget.

There's a Sudoku-style grid on the game board, with 1-9 on the columns, A-I on the rows, and nine different blocks with pictures on them. You've got 28 colored tiles per player, each with a number, letter or picture, and you have to put them in the grid where they fit - your A has to go in the A column, and your skyline picture has to go in the center block. The idea is to get all your pieces to touch each other, and to sabotage the other players so they can't.

Only you don't have much in the way of options, so you kind of just put tiles down and then see if anyone won the game. Keeping your tiles together is more about being lucky with the draw than it is about planning or good placement. It's about as much fun as punching yourself in the asscheek - it's not that painful, but it's not something you would want to do for half an hour. Plus the budget artist who put the game together used a font that's really hard to read, so you can't tell the 1 from the I, and if you turn the I on its side it looks like an H.

To make matters worse, the colors look like they were chosen by someone who was color-blind. There's a boring blue, a bland green, a putrid yellow, a turd orange and a red that looks like an infected wound. There's a difference between 'subdued' and 'fugly', but it looks like the people who bought all the clip art for this game didn't know that.

If you like games with a good theme, Uptown should be as far away from you as possible. I don't know how they settled on a theme of visiting speakeasies during Prohibition, but the theme could have been anything. Anything at all. Find nine pictures that are somehow associated, and you've got a theme that could have been applied to this game. They could have used nine pictures of dead presidents, and then it would have been a little amusing. You could say, 'hey, you just covered my Grover Cleveland!'

So it's not a good game, but let's say you're snowed in at the cabin. You can't get the door open, the TV is broken, you're stuck with four other family members and the only game you've got is Uptown. In this case, you could give it a shot. But after one play, you'll want to switch to charades or blind man's bluff. And if you get hungry, you'll want to eat the pieces of the game before you start cannibalizing your cousins.

In order to offer a balanced perspective, and in the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that there are people who like this game. You can find a bunch of people at BGG who call it things like 'pleasant' and 'quick filler'. So apparently not everyone thinks Uptown is an ugly turd of a game, but I still say that in a market where you can buy literally thousands of games, don't buy a pleasant quick filler. Buy a good game. Hell, buy Incan Gold. It's fun. This one is not.

Well, I don't know about you, but I feel better now. It's fun to say bad things about bad games. I'll probably be back to good games on Monday (I'm planning on talking about Risk: Star Wars, which is a total blast), so soak up the mean-spirited fun while you can.


Small, so it won't take up much space in your recycle bin

Horrible colors
Cheap art
Virtually no decisions to make
Minimal opportunities for planning
Just not a fun game at all

If you want to get Uptown, get your head examined. These people can help:

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Board Game Review - Stratego (The New One)

Some of my fondest childhood memories are of playing board games with my old man. Other fond memories include punching my little brothers or being terrified of girls, but the games were better, and included fewer wet willies or painful rejections. And one of my favorite games as a kid was Stratego. My dad didn't believe in giving me freebies, so I got my ass handed to me the first dozen times I played, but I got better, and eventually gave him a run for his money. By ninth grade, I was the school champion of Stratego (I went to boarding school in Africa. We had a lot of free time).

When I heard that there had been a re-release of Stratego, my feelings were a little mixed. On the one hand, I wanted to play this with my kids. On the other hand, they replaced the Napoleonic theme of the original with a fantasy thing - beast riders and wizards and knights and dragons - and they added a bunch of new abilities. So I was skeptical, but excited to try it.

The new Stratego doesn't have a new name, but it totally should, so as not to confuse it with the old one. You can play classic Stratego by only using the special powers on the scouts, dwarves and slayer (they used to be scouts, miners and assassins, in case you're familiar with the original), or you can kick it up a notch and play with the new rules.

For the uninitiated, the rules for Stratego are pretty easy. You set up on an eight-by-eight grid, with your guys in the back three rows of your side. All your pieces are hidden, so the enemy doesn't know which guys are which. You could be approaching with a dragon, or you might be bluffing and you're about to attack his lava monster with a clown midget moonlighting from his porn job (technically, the porn is his moonlighting gig - the clown thing is his main income, but he gets a kick out of telling children that he makes adult movies).

The object of the game is to find your opponent's flag. If you can kill all his guys, that makes it easier to find the flag, but it's not the point. You can win by sneaking in and grabbing the flag while the rest of your army is becoming dog food. That's not likely, but it could happen. More often, one player will discover the other guy's dragon, kill it with his slayer, and then have carte blanche to chew the rest of the other team to kibbles.

Combat is a simple affair - you spin your piece around to show your opponent what's attacking, and then he spins his around to show what just got hit. If his number is higher, you lose. If yours is higher, you win. If it's a tie, you're both out. And if it's a trap, you're dead regardless, unless you're attacking with a dwarf, who can disarm the trap. It's all very simple, but the game's name is truth in advertising - serious strategy goes into this game. There's a lot of strategy in the setup, and you have to play well, too. You have to know when to reveal strength, when to hide your power, when to act tough and when to run like your ass was on fire and your balls were catching.

If you play the expanded version of the new Stratego, you get to add in a bunch of special powers. Elves can shoot at targets when they're not adjacent. Beast riders and knights can move twice. Sorceresses can make your opponent's guys change sides (I think they seduce them, which is inappropriate in a kid's game, but I'm OK with it). But the biggest difference is the dragon, who can now fly over the entire field as long as he can land on an empty spot, and then attack, and since he's the toughest dude in the game, that's a heck of a power. I can't emphasize enough what a huge difference these new abilities make - Stratego turns into an entirely different game. No more one-space-at-a-time strategic maneuvers or stealthy bluffs. The entire board can shift every turn, and one quick maneuver can end up tilting the balance. Oh, and it's really hard to get your slayer next to the dragon now. To accurately describe the dramatic turns of event, I would need to employ that 'In A World...' voiceover guy who used to make movie trailers, but he just died, so you'll have to take my word for it.

I'm having a hard time presenting an objective opinion on the new Stratego. I loved it as a kid, I love it as an adult, and the new stuff just makes it more fun. My son asks to play it with me regularly, and even my daughter will play now and then. This is just a good, old-fashioned great freaking game - but as I mentioned, I have a history with Stratego. Not as interesting as the history I have with loose women and cheap vodka, but that history is shorter and includes more humiliation and painful hangovers. My Stratego memories are all good, and I look forward to making a lot more now that I have kids that I can beat as badly as my old man beat me.


Same great game
New cool theme (dragons are cooler than dragoons)
New abilities let you play a completely new game that still feels like the old one

You have to put stickers on every single piece. It's a pain in the ass.

To start building your own family gaming memories, go here and pick up a copy:

Monday, September 22, 2008

Board Game Review - Mall of Horror

I've said it before - I love zombie movies. There's something about the collapse of society that makes me get all excited. Maybe I'm a twisted bastard (OK, I guarantee I'm a twisted bastard), but there are lots of zombie movie fans out there, and so I know I'm not the only twisted bastard who gets a kick out of watching movies that include shuffling undead (and I don't mean John McCain Youtube videos).

The problem is, not very many zombie games come very close to creating the feel of a zombie movie. In fact, the only zombie game that I know that does the job adequately is Last Night on Earth... and I'm not reviewing that one. I'm reviewing Mall of Horror, which is more like a Euro with a zombie theme.

Mall of Horror appears to start off like Dawn of the Dead, with the survivors holing up in a mall. Except that the mall is almost completely abstract, and your survivors keep inexplicably going to the parking lot. There's a toy store, a security office and a clothing store - but for some reason there's also a supermarket, and a completely separate bathroom. I guess the toilet at the Safeway is only for customers.

Everybody gets a team of survivors, three or four people just trying to stay alive until the National Guard sends choppers to evacuate everyone left after the zombies turn the mall into a giant food court. But instead of fighting off zombies and working together, you take turns shoving each other out of the stores to get eaten. It's like a cross between a Romero movie and a cheesy reality TV game show.

Every turn you basically do two things. First you decide where you're going to move. You have a little hidden wheel that points to each of the locations, and you have to send one person to the location you choose. And the people can't just hide - apparently the only way to stay alive is to play a desperate game of Red Rover and just bounce between the bathroom, the clothing store and the parking lot, hopefully with a baseball bat to fend off the rotting dead.

Once you show up at a place and see if you can kill enough zombies to keep them out of your location, you have to see if zombies eat people. If you're at a place where the breathers don't outnumber the undead, you take a vote, and the least popular survivor gets kicked out. Only instead of spending the next four weeks in a hotel waiting to see who wins the million dollars and who winds up with a skin rash on their genitals, the person who loses the vote gets to become dinner for the bloodthirsty zombie horde. You can almost see Jeff Probst stepping out and saying, 'I'm sorry, Blondie. The tribe has spoken. Zombies are going to eat your face.'

Mall of Horror is a mixed bag for me. It's only a zombie game because there are zombies on the box. The theme is weak, and it takes some imagination to get into it. The only reason you're invested in the blond bimbo with the big boobs and the piercing scream is because she's worth seven points. You could almost remake the whole thing like an episode of The Weakest Link. It's not as bad as a Reiner game - it's not a math game in a crappy disguise - but it just doesn't feel very much like a desperate bid for survival against an undead horde. It feels more like a voting and moving game with pictures of zombies and cards with guns on them.

On the other hand, in terms of pure gameplay, Mall of Horror is really fun. There's a lot of guessing and maneuvering that goes into the movement part, and there's a good bit of devious, underhanded conniving in the voting phase. There are more rules than I described here, so it actually has a pretty good amount of depth, and it can be really fun to see if you can kill that big-chested blond from the other team. It has a very European feel to it, so right there it's not much of a zombie movie game, but it's fun, and I think that's the most important thing.


Cool art (lots of dead people)
Planning and guessing and maneuvering in the movement segment
Cutthroat back-stabbing in the voting segment

Would make a dumb zombie movie
All the pips fell off my dice

Mall of Horror is fun, cutthroat Euro-style game that you probably don't want to play with grade-school kids. You can get it here:

Friday, September 19, 2008

RPG Preview - Eoris Essence

To finish off a week of off-beat roleplaying games, I'm going to do something I haven't really done before - a preview. I'm going to tell you all about a game that isn't even out yet, called Eoris Essence. This is not only one of the most original games I've seen, it's also just about the most beautiful game ever.

I ran into the guys who make Eoris at GenCon. They had an amazing book, plus a card game and a board game. The book was break-down-crying gorgeous, so I had to stop and see what I could do to score a free copy (I'm a total whore like that). Turns out this is a preview copy, and they're not even releasing the actual cover until the book comes out in December, so I have to wait like everyone else to get my grubby mitts on the finished product. Sometimes this reviewing gig isn't as awesome as I thought it would be when I got started.

So you're asking yourself, 'Self, how the hell is he going to review a game that's not even out yet, when he hasn't seen the finished product?' And if you were to ask me instead of yourself, I would point out that this is a preview, not a review. It says that in the title. Can't you read?

The Visions of Essence guys released a preview of Eoris Essence so you can get a feel for how totally wacky this bad boy is going to be. It's chock full of gorgeous art and enough background information to let you decide whether you want to give it a whirl. There are a few characters, some races, and a little bit about a lot of things.

The basic background is difficult to describe. There's God, see, and she dreams, or something, and that makes the world, and then that makes Sil, which are like angels, or something, and there are normal people, and there are Xylen, which are like demons, or something, but maybe not. That's not even remotely a good summary of the setting, and is probably wildly inaccurate, but like I said, this is tough to describe. It reminds me a lot of some of the more esoteric Japanese console games. In fact, lots of this art is very reminiscent of one of my favorite Playstation RPGs, Legend of Dragoon.

A quick perusal of the preview will let you see a character type who was created from scratch using the game system. This is much more than just giving your character a couple cross-class skills and making him a half-orc - the character in the preview is from a race completely created from scratch, and is an entirely new invention. I asked the designers about this, and yes, you can create entirely new races from your imagination and have them be completely playable. If you make a four-armed centaur that poops rainbows, he might have some trouble fitting in at school, but the point is, you can make that (though maybe not the rainbow poop thing).

One thing that is really interesting about Eoris is that you can play at any level. Take, for instance, an adventure where enormously powerful forces are clashing, and they're taking the world with them. You could play as the Sil challenging the enemy Xylen over control of a mortal kingdom. You could be the warrior who kidnaps the princess to force the enemy to back off (the princess may just be a pawn, but she's a valuable pawn). You could play as the diplomat negotiating for her release. Or you could be the wolf running with his pack through the forest where these two huge armies meet up. The idea is to challenge players emotionally and explore different points of view, and allow you to experiment with whatever kind of game you want to play.

The preview doesn't give any details at all regarding the system used in Eoris Essence, but I was able to wheedle a few nuggets from the designers. All the stuff you love about big RPG fights is still in there - lots of cinematic beatdowns and wild moves - but there's a possibility for 'social combat' (whatever the hell that means) that will let the less violent members of your group do something besides standing around and offering encouragement.

This is pretty radical stuff. The setting is completely unlike just about any game you've ever seen. The ability to create your own player race is just one example of the flexibility of the game. The resolution system, while completely unknown at this point, seems to offer versatility like no game before. There is so much here that is uncharted territory that it could cause some traditional gamers to wonder whether the designers can pull off such a revolutionary gaming concept. Hell, I'm wondering that myself - but I can't wait to see the game.


Jaw-dropping beautiful
High-brow gaming concepts
Incredible flexibility and versatility

Non-standard background may be a little inaccessible to your average American cave nerd

Don't take my word that this is an amazing game. Go download the preview here:

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

RPG Review - Everway

Most roleplaying games are bouts of violence punctuated with some light storytelling, unless you're playing one of those games that are bouts of violence punctuated with whining about how sad it is to be a super-powerful creature of the night. Usually, when you're discussing a roleplaying game, the first thing you want to know is how you fight.

Everway doesn't do that. In fact, anything you ever thought was standard practice in a roleplaying game, Everway doesn't do that. You don't have a strength stat, or muscles or brawn or anything else. Instead, you have a fire score, and it applies just as well to stabbing people as it does to leaping over a ravine. You don't have hit points, or life, or wounds, or any other way to track how many times you've been cut, bruised or punched in the duodenum. Hell, most of the time, you don't even track wounds. You just go, 'your dude is hurt.' You don't even roll up characters - you just sort of make them up.

Sound interesting? It did to me, and that's why I bought it. If it doesn't sound interesting to you, you're probably a big fan of games where your most important skill applies to causing as much pain as possible in as short a time frame as you can manage. When you think 'action' in an RPG, you usually mean fighting, but in Everway, you mean anything exciting, from running from flesh-eating water fowl to scaling a mountain in hiking boots and a garter belt.

Everway is basically a fantasy game, if you started with D&D and then spent three hours smoking peyote and eating psychedelic mushrooms. It's trippy, but not Planescape trippy, where you still stab stuff, it just happens to be weird. It's more like stream-of-consciousness, Depak Chopra trippy, where your character deals with karma and tries to hook up the avatar of death with the ghoul queen so they can both turn into dragons and live happily ever after.

You create a character by spreading 20 points out between fire, earth, water and air. Then you pick a supernatural ability, like having fire sweat out of his lymph nodes or flying around like a lear jet. Maybe you give him the option to cast some spells, but you don't pick out a spell book with well-defined rules, you just say, 'he casts magic that manipulates and generates fire', and that's it. You don't have spell points or mana or specific rest periods. You just make up spells on the spot and then the GM goes, 'yeah, now you're tired.'

Everway doesn't use dice. What you have is several decks of cards, only the cards don't have numbers on them, just pictures. One deck, the Fortune Deck, is a hell of a lot like a tarot deck, and when you're not sure how things should turn out, you draw a card and sort of read the character's future. Like if he's trying to persuade the dryad queen to put on some freaking clothing before she picks up her kid from preschool, and you're not sure if it will work, so the GM draws a card and says, 'Hmm. The fish. The soul prevails. You talk her into putting on a skirt, but she's too free-spirited to cover her boobs.'

To really make sure you can have some truly bizarre adventures, all the heroes are able to do what's called Spherewalking. This just means they can use gates and whisk themselves between alternate realities. It's a little like how you might feel if you eat a tray of pot brownies and then watch Barbarella - by the end, you won't even bother to wonder how Jane Fonda survives in space when she's buck naked most of the time. It's a different place, with different rules, and Hell, it's Jane Fonda having crazy sex with just about every male in outer space while floating in zero gravity. Even if you're not stoned, that's fun to watch.

I'm not going to make excuses for Everway. If this is your kind of gaming, you'll dig it whether or not I tell you how cool the character creation is. If you're into roleplaying games that act like a cross between a cross-country bus ride and an acid trip, you'll want to check out Everway regardless of me telling you that the GM makes up adventures with a deck of 90 cards with fantasy art on them, and this lets him expand his imagination in ways that Hollywood only wishes it could pull off. You'll develop your character by having him face his fate, play to his virtues and suffer for his flaws. It's interesting, completely unlike anything else I've ever seen, and a lot like a Terry Gilliam movie (obscure pop reference alert!).

So there are a lot of drug references in this review, and frankly, I think that's about right. When I read through the rules (if you can call them that) for Everway, I thought, 'this reminds me of doing drugs'. Only instead of sitting around and being an idiot for six hours waiting to come down, Everway inspires you to really stretch the ol' imagination muscles and try on something you haven't done before. If you like RPGs where you could replace the DM with a laptop computer, then just go roll up another dwarven avenger and enjoy your mom's basement. On the other hand, if you dig new experiences and want to try something new, Everway might be worth a shot.


Really creative gaming
Intense focus on story
Seriously deep characters
Crazy resolution system

Might make you think you're doing drugs

I found a couple copies of Everway on eBay, and Amazon has some frightfully overpriced copies. Other than that, I don't know that I could tell you where you could buy a copy. It's old. But you could try this:

Sunday, September 14, 2008

RPG Review - Oasis

I don't often review roleplaying games, because I don't often play roleplaying games. But I thought this week I might try something new - a solid week of off-beat RPGs. That should properly alienate my entire readership, and motivate me to take up a hobby that requires less storage space, like collecting antique cars.

I'm not going to write three reviews of D&D and its myriad clones. I think if I'm going to spend a week boring your pants off about games you won't play, I'm going to tell you about three games you don't know about already, to offer some alternate gaming concepts besides playing numerically-defined half-drow or crybaby monsters full of internal angst. And so I'm going to start off with Oasis, a stand-alone adventure and RPG in the Legends of Time and Space series from Dark City Games.

The concept behind Dark City Games is roleplaying that resemble a Choose Your Own Adventure book. These books from the 80s told lots of different stories, where you had some control over the outcome. There would be numbered entries describing scenes, and each scene would end with some choices and their corresponding numbers. Like this:

"You stow away on the submarine, and once it's at sea, go looking for a meal. The first mate catches you pilfering dry goods. Do you offer him a handy if he'll let you have some bread (turn to 143), punch him in the junk and run like hell (turn to 22), or ask him to play a game of Canasta (turn to 54)?"

And then you would decide what to do, often winding up shoved out an airlock with the bread crammed up your ass. More often than not, these books would reward you for the stupidest choices - punch the guy or bribe him with hand sex, and you'll wind up in the brig, but beat him at Canasta and you could wind up captain. Happily, the Dark City adventures don't mimic the silly decisions you could find in a Choose Your Own Adventure.

The Dark City adventures all use a similar set of rules, based almost directly off the old Fantasy Trip rules. They are incredibly simple - three stats, three skills and a couple rules for whacking people. But somehow, these simple rules are more than enough to create a playable character. You don't have to dwell on your character's back-story and motivations, or spend thirty minutes calculating move speed and resting heart rate, or flip through fifteen pages of equipment to pick out the four-piece armor suit that would best complement your choice of weaponry. You just pick your numbers, pick some skills, grab some weapons and get ready to rumble.

Legends of Time and Space is the sci-fi system from Dark City Games. It's heavy on gunfire, which makes a lot of sense, because if you could shoot someone, why would you have a sword? Creating characters takes about ten minutes and a sheet of scratch paper, and then you grab a handful of six-sided dice and jump into the game.

In Oasis, your intrepid band of space cowboys is sent to a deserted planet to recover a lost space probe. Since Richard Gere is not in the mission (and presumably did not hear about this probe thing), you can be reasonably sure that the planet is not Uranus. And since it would be a pretty retarded adventure if all you did was drive, it's a safe bet the planet isn't all that abandoned, either.

Along the way, you'll meet all manner of mutant bug and twisted monster, and then the action will move to the little hex grid that comes in the book. You'll play out your combat encounters, possibly using the cardboard chits that come with the game, and every fight will wrap up in about ten minutes. Try doing that when you're calculating range bonuses, dice pools and opportunity attacks.

The story plays out pretty easily - you can finish the whole scenario in a single evening - and there's a ton of exploration and brawling along the way. The mission can go completely south, leaving you with dead explorers and a wrecked truck, or it can go really well, leaving you with a ton of cash to spend on alien hookers and outer-space whiskey.

I was really skeptical of these games at first. They're printed at home, with mediocre art and ugly counters. The maps leave a lot to be desired in terms of being fun to look at, and the rules are drier than desert sand. Hell, the whole miserable package comes in a plastic baggy, so if you don't like the game, you could throw it away and just use the bag to carry a sandwich.

But then I played one. The writing is actually really good in the adventures themselves. And since moving from place to place or getting in a fight involves a numbered entry, you can play them solo. Add in a couple players and a creative GM, and you've got a ready-made RPG good time. In fact, these things are a huge bonus for a GM, because you don't have to spend a week reading every room description in a 64-page module before you can even play the intro.

I played Oasis with my kids. We all had a blast, and can't wait to play another adventure in the Legends of Time and Space series (which means I need to buy some more, which I totally will). If I had one complaint, it would be that the post-apocalyptic feel came off a little cheesy - giant ants and blood-thirsty mutants are so done to death. But cheesy or not, the game was a riot, a lot more fun than trying to run a four-level dungeon crawl stocked with 47 hobgoblins and no toilet.

I highly recommend Oasis, and any other games from Dark City Games. If you're not sure, there are two sample adventures at their site that you can download for free, and the rules are also posted at the site. They've got Westerns, sci-fi romps and fantasy dungeon crawls, so there's a little something for everybody. Best of all, the low-rent production means that you can buy an awesome little game-in-a-bag for like $13.

If you play roleplaying games, you owe it to yourself to give one of these games a try. If you hate it, you can come back here and complain. And I'll either ignore you or tell you to bite me.


Easy to jump right into the game
Quick and exciting combat
Fun and unpredictable - not even the GM will know how this will end
More fun than I can remember having with an RPG for years

No production values to speak of
Rules seem a little bare-bones until you use them

If you play RPGs, or even if you like them but quit because the only other gamers for fifty miles are tubby cave-troll losers, go check out Dark City Games:

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Card Game Review - Stoplights

I know I rail on abstract games with crappy themes from time to time, but every now and then there's an exception that's worth discussing. Usually, when a bland theme is pasted onto an otherwise abstract game, it's got Reiner Knizia's name on it. Maybe that's why I like Stoplights - it's not a Reiner game.

Instead, it's a little card game that basically doubles as tic-tac-toe. The 'theme', for lack of a better word, is that there are stoplights. And they turn yellow, green or red. After that, the theme is deader than Elvis, which is good, because any more would have been really forced.

Each card has three spots for lights on it. You might have two green lights and a dead bulb (not to be confused with a dim bulb, a phrase you might use when describing my children getting ready for school). You might have a green, a red and a white, or two blacks and a white, or - well, if you don't get the idea, you're not going to suddenly have it dawn on you because I describe more color combinations. Basically, you've got a top spot, a middle spot, and a bottom spot, and each one is red, green, yellow, white or black. Black is dead, and white is a wild card.

So you put down cards and try to get five in a row. The beauty is that you can also cover cards that are already on the board, but if you do, you don't get to draw new cards. You slap down cards in a grid until you can connect five lights in your color.

This isn't horribly tricky, but it does have some strategy to it. You don't want to use the white spot to get three greens if, on the next guy's turn, it will let him have four yellows. You may want to cover a card to block, but you won't be able to draw new cards. You might even choose a spot, decide that you want it, and keep making your opponents cover that spot until you're the only one with cards. For a game that takes about two minutes to learn and fifteen minutes to play, it's pretty darn clever.

I usually play my review games at family sit-downs or Saturday afternoon gaming clubs. Stoplights was different, though - I tested it at the doctor's office, waiting for my daughter to be seen for a case of strep throat. We played on the little table in the waiting room, then we played on that uncomfortable vinyl bed with the crinkly white paper in the back room while we waited for the doctor to come and tell her she was going to miss a day of school. You barely need any table space, and the whole deck can fit into a shirt pocket, so you can carry it anywhere and break off a few games to kill time.

So Stoplights has a weak theme. So it's not a great big blockbuster game. So the art consists of traffic lights. It's still fun, and I still carry it with me any place I think I might have a wait and some company. Plus it's cheap - next time you're placing an order at Funagain, just drop an extra ten bucks to add it to your basket. Then you'll have something to do in the emergency room waiting area while you wait to find out if Grandpa is going to recover this time.



Virtually no theme - so they could have done without it completely
Kind of boring art

Stoplights is a fun game that you can carry around. If you want to carry it around (all the cool kids are doing it), you can get one here:

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Board Game Review - Jamaica

Pirates are notoriously disorganized. And apparently, they're a little eccentric, as evidenced by their desire to arrange a race around the island of Jamaica. You might think they would be more interested in sinking Spanish ships and stealing their gold, but no, they just want to race. If they can pick up gold that people leave just laying around, that's just gravy.

So in Jamaica, each player picks a pirate captain, lines up on the starting line, and hauls ass around the little Caribbean island. Of course, just going really fast is not enough - these are, after all, bloodthirsty buccaneers, and not the Swedish yacht racing team - so along the way, you'll shoot at your fellow racers, steal gold, raid and pillage. In the end, you win by having the most booty, which means that if you had Jennifer Lopez on your ship, you would definitely be the best pirate ever. Unfortunately, J-Lo is not in the game, so you'll have to provide your own models from Black Entertainment Television.

Every turn, one player rolls two dice and puts them on the board. Then each player picks one of his or her action cards (there are totally chick pirates, who may or may not have their own sweet booty), then performs the two actions according to the dice. So if the dice show a four and then a two, and you choose to move and then load food, you'll move four spaces and load two crates of tasty grub (red beans and rice seem to be the most likely, if you're attempting to gain booty. And yes, I intend to wear out this lame booty joke).

The trick is that you won't be able to just run every turn. For one thing, not every card has the option to move forward, and some even make you go backward. For another thing, you may need gold to pay off port officials, or you may need food to survive a voyage at sea. If you can't afford to move forward, and you try anyway, you could wind up going backwards. Which is nice for those pirates behind you, especially if you've got great booty. The girl pirates may not be as excited, but these are iconoclastic rebels - they might dig chicks anyway, and still be happy with the view of your booty (I may have to back off this gag for a bit - that last crack was way too obvious).

Every now and then, you'll end up at a pirate lair, where some sloppy miscreant has dropped his treasure. I don't know what kind of pirates are just wandering around Jamaica and dropping their ill-gotten gains overboard, but apparently it's pretty common, because there are a lot of treasures you can steal.

The race ends when one player crosses the finish line. At that point, you get points for being close to the finish line, you get points for your treasures, and you get points for the gold you have on board. And to prove that the booty/butt joke is just a play on words, you get no points for having a nicely rounded ass.

One thing that is worth mentioning is that Jamaica is a gorgeous game (though for a red-blooded American male, it's not as great as the view of awesome booty). The art alone will make you want to play. A really great illustrator was hired to do the comical and colorful art, and just putting the game on the table will make you want to open it and flip through everything. If you line up all the action cards end to end, in the right order, you'll get one long and hilariously awesome painting that must have cost the game's publishers a huge pile of change to commission.

And it's not all window-dressing, either - this is a really fun game. It's damned chaotic, but it moves pretty quick, has lots of tough decisions, requires considerable insight, and rewards the player who plans ahead. Bad luck can sink you completely, but since it plays so fast, you won't mind losing if you get routinely kicked in the booty.

So if I've learned anything about pirates, it's that they are weird and disorganized, and that it's good to get booty. Of course, I knew that last one before I played Jamaica, but it's nice to have it reinforced.


Great art
Clever gameplay
Fast turns
Careful planning
Lots of fun

Can be extremely chaotic
More luck than many people will find agreeable

If you like booty, you should get a copy of this game:

Sunday, September 7, 2008

General Gaming Rant - Brick and Moron

I used to be an active member on a forum dedicated to the business of gaming. Retailers, manufacturers and distributors all hung out on the forum and mostly complained about how hard things were for them. Manufacturers bemoaned uncooperative retailers, retailers bitched about distributor problems, and everyone was angry with online retailers. In fact, internet retailers were blamed for everything from failed publishers to rising gas prices and war in Iraq. I even heard from retailers who banned customers - paying customers! - who suggested to other customers that they could save money by buying particular products online.

All that pissing and moaning led me to an unpleasant conclusion. Namely, people who open brick-and-mortar games stores are by-and-large misanthropic assholes. Not all of them - the really successful ones seem to be decent guys - but a huge proportion of these hobby entrepreneurs are clod-hopping assbags who think somebody owes them a sale. They can find lots of reasons to blame other people for their failures, and while a few actually do have valid excuses, traditional game stores should spend a little longer looking at themselves. A pissy attitude is actually counter-productive, because by staring daggers at the competition and blaming someone else for their own shortcomings, they miss any chance for fixing their problems.

Let's start with high prices. These whiners throw a hissy about having to compete with Thoughthammer, and then charge over MSRP. Now, I know these guys have to cover overhead, but if I could go up the street and get a game for less bank, why would I get it from them? Would it be so I can have the priviledge of having them sneer at me and tell me that their game is better than my game? Would it be so that I could be berated for having bought a starter set at Target? Because honestly, those things do not make me want to shop in your store. Those things make me want to beat you with a tire iron, steal the games from you and then sell them on eBay.

And there's the second thing - attitude. You should be nice to your customers. I'll be the first to tell you that I'm not fit to run a retail store, because I'm a dick. But so are a lot of game store managers, which makes me wonder why on Earth they thought interacting with the public for a living was a good idea. One of the only advantages the brick-and-mortar store has is the personal interaction you can provide. If people would rather avoid you, how do you think that's going to help sales? Here's a hint, jackass - it's not.

Another thing that will drive away business is if your store reminds me of your mother's basement. Just because you call your store The Troll Cave is no excuse for it to smell like trolls actually live there. Turn on some lights, for God's sake. Take a bath, shave, and maybe hit the treadmill now and then. I'm not saying you have to look like Adonis, but it would help if you and your store didn't both smell like sweat socks and stale potato chips. If you look like you're hiding a sandwich under your sagging man-boobs, maybe you should get someone who can talk without wheezing to run the register.

For some reason I can't fathom, however, manufacturers and publishers seem to think that without these mom-and-pop turd-hole game stores, they'll fail completely. They think nobody will buy the games if they can't find them at Magic Bunghole Game and Comic Emporium. They think they need to cater to these cave-dwellers whose poorly-lit stores have more in common with Buffalo Bill's kidnapping lair than with Barnes & Noble. They'll offer incentives for preorders, and then say you can only get them at the store, and then the store will drop the ball and you'll wind up paying too much and still not getting your promo figures. Offer the same bonuses to online retailers, and preorders will be off the charts.

Here's some news your average retailer is going to hate to hear - I'll buy the games I want, and I don't need to get them from you. Funagain can offer me discounts and good deals on shipping. When I come into your store and say, 'Do you have The Boring Game?', don't tell me, 'No, but we can order it.' Guess what? I can order it! And then it'll come to my house! If you tell me, 'No, it's tough to keep that one stocked. I would try Thoughthammer,' I'll know that you're secure. You know what you can do, and you know what you can't, and reality doesn't make you want to roll up another half-orc necromancer and spend every Friday night hiding from people who wash their armpits.

No, retailers need to concentrate on what they can provide and Troll and Toad can't. Somehow, places like Borders and Barnes & Noble manage to keep growing, even with Amazon drawing off book sales. And they do it by being honest about what they can do and what they can't.

First off, you can't carry everything Noble Knight Games can carry, so don't try. You don't need a huge selection of games. You don't need every new expansion to every new game. You don't need everything ever made. You don't even need to try and keep up, because gamers who know what they want are not going to make a special trip - spending time, gas and more money - to buy from a store. Your product selection should tempt me, and provide me with what I can't get online. Sure, I could buy miniatures online, but if I'm in the store, I can take my time perusing blister packs to find that one figure that I can paint to look just like Smash Crowbar, my extra-dimensional half-elven dual-class rogue/cleric.

And you have to make me want to hang out in your store. You can sell me expensive stuff if you show it to me and make me want it now. My local game store, Lone Star Comics and Games, has one of the nicest stores you could imagine, and the staff knows their games. I like to go in and chat with the guys there, and they can recommend products I wouldn't have considered. I don't know how often I've bought something from them just because it was there and they knew about it. Their board game section is a little anemic, but that's fine - anything I really want, I'm going to order online, so they only need to cater to the soccer mom trying to find something for her gamer husband's birthday present. Instead, they carry lots of D&D books, lots of Warhammer figures, lots of gift items and not much else. They carry boosters of the most recent releases for the most popular card games, so that the social retards who show up to play YuGiOh every weekend have a quick way to pick up a few extra cards, hoping they'll find that super-rare foil-plated uber-monster they read about in a pedophile's chat room.

Clean up your store, and put stuff where I can see it. A crowded, dirty, smelly store with all the lights turned off makes me wonder if the clerk is going to try to fondle my children in the back room. If you have a gaming area, don't put it in the storage shed out back, where kids can pick up new words for 'vagina' that they didn't know when he went in. If there's a single thing that keeps me from visiting Big World Comics & Games, it's the fact that I'm worried I'll catch an African disease if I spend more than ten minutes inside.

My favorite game store ever was in Orlando, Florida. It was called Enterprise 151 (or something, I don't remember the numbers, but I'm sure some Star Trek nerd can probably figure them out) and, like most game stores, had comics in about half the store. It also boasted dozens of racks of games, none higher than my head, all of which were easy to flip through and explore. But the real reason I visited that store on a very regular basis was the old games section, where I could find games and books that had been out of print for decades. I spent hours flipping through old-school D&D modules and plastic-bagged board games. If Lone Star Comics had a section like that, I would be there every weekend.

But the single greatest thing that I think is missing from nearly every game store is food. My family absolutely loves to visit Barnes & Noble because there's a Starbucks in the store. You can go in, buy a magazine or paperback, and then sit in the little cafe and sip a cup of coffee and eat a scone. That's not my bag - I prefer beer and pizza, and my mind rebels at the thought of paying $6 for a cup of coffee - but there's no denying that it brings people to the store. And I'm not accepting a candy machine and a mini-fridge with Mountain Dew - that's not food, that's ingestable garbage. If I could order a sandwich and a milkshake and then sit at a table in a clean, well-lit room while I played a game of Colosseum with a couple friends, I would spend most of my waking hours in that establishment.

So if you own a retail store and you read this column, please don't send me an anthrax letter. Instead, own up to the fact that internet retailers are not destroying the hobby. Understand that a campaign to 'support your FLGS' is stupid if you can't give me a reason to do it. This hobby can survive without you; you, on the other hand, can't survive without us. There will always be good game stores, and sadly, there will always be filthy stores where rat bites are just behind that stack of old Magic cards. Quit pretending to be the victim, buy an air-freshener and a mop, and make me want to come to your store. I'll even thank you for the opportunity to pay 20% more.

Contest Results

Wow, did we get some turnout for this one. I guess giving away actual games - many of which don't suck - is somehow more attractive than giving away ugly dice and empty boxes. So here's a list of people who are going to help me clean my office.

Brad Morton is going to get my copy of Tongiaki. Won't be sorry to see that one go.

Pete Miller scores my copy of Monster Mayhem. Thanks for taking that off my hands, Pete.

Guillermo Cantu is more than welcome to take Terra Nova. Hope you like Euros, big G, because if you like games with death, you're going to be disappointed.

The unfortunately named Endre Enyedy was kind enough to take my copy of Medici vs. Strozzi. Hopefully this wonderful prize makes up for that really weird name.

Jeff Smith actually asked for Seismic. Who am I to disappoint?

For this contest, I decided to name one additional winner. I know I said I was going to pick five people at random, and I did - these five people above won the drawing. But one guy rose above the rest, one brave soul whose game picks made me stop and read twice.

Joe Kiefer actually requested Monster Quest. And it was his #1 pick. So it is with my deepest gratitude that I will send Joe my copy of Monster Quest. Such selflessness and sacrifice should be rewarded. Unfortunately, all Joe gets is Monster Quest, so I get the reward and he gets to hold onto the game until he decides to send it to a landfill somewhere. Thanks, Joe. I owe you one.

I'll get these games into boxes this week and send them to the helpful guys who decided to get this crap out of my office. Thanks, everybody!

Friday, September 5, 2008

Board Game Review - Incan Gold

Pretend you're Indiana Jones. Pretend you're exploring some lost pyramid in the middle of the Amazon. Pretend you're intrepid, ballsy and ready for anything.

And now pretend you're scared a lot, and you could be playing Incan Gold.

The concept in Incan Gold is pretty much what I just described - everybody is exploring a pyramid, trying to retrieve artifacts and treasure and get out alive. There are five different tombs, and you run them down one at a time, picking up treasure and then chickening out before you get mauled by mummies or bitten by poisonous snakes or have to spend an afternoon with Willie.

The temples is 'built' one chamber at a time with a deck of cards. Cards show either treasure or danger, and while you can take some of the good stuff to fill your pockets, you can only keep it if you leave. You can keep going and get more treasure, or you can keep going and wind up with a poisonous spider living in your lower intestine, in which case the treasure doesn't do you much good.

Basically, the game is a balancing act between pushing one more chamber and having the sense to run back to safety. The longer you're in a tomb, the more goodies you can grab, but you also run a higher chance of getting stuck and losing all that hard-earned swag. It's fun and fast, but not terribly deep. It reminds me a little of dating in college - do you invite yourself in for a nightcap, hoping she doesn't smack you for your insolence, or do you settle for a kiss goodnight and then find out that the frat boy up the street got to see her naked after you drove away? Tough call, and for the record, I think there were lots of happy frat boys where I went to college.

The components in Incan Gold are kind of a wacky mixed bag. On one side, these are really nice cards with great color art. And on the other side, they're black-and-white and really dull. I don't pretend to entirely understand that decision, but the game only costs twenty bucks, so I won't complain much. And you get some really cool little plastic chunks of treasure, so that's probably where the production budget went.

A few interesting factoids, for you game trivia fans out there. Incan Gold used to be called Diamant, and if you take the artifact cards out of Incan Gold, then it IS Diamant. Also, you used to be able to add Incan Gold to your order at Funagain if you bought a bunch of stuff, but now it's sold through Fred Distribution (the least original company name ever) and so you just have to pay for it. Oh, and it's designed by Alan Moon and Bruno Faidutti, which makes me wonder which of this star-studded cast was responsible for the half-page of rules. Seems like a collaboration would result in more than two rules, but then, I don't make games, I just talk about them.

Incan Gold is a quick, fun game. It's especially good if you've managed to invite a non-gamer person (we call them 'squares' or 'norms') to dinner, and then after dinner they want to play a game. It's not one you schedule a whole evening around, because it will only take twenty minutes and then you either play again or everyone goes home and gets pissed that they bothered to make the drive. And while good times can be had, you will unfortunately not be able to sleep with a hot Nazi spy. At least not while you're playing the game.


Quick and easy to learn
Nice art... on one side
Really cool little plastic treasure chunks in the shape of childrens' breakfast cereal

Not very involved
Black and white... on the other side

If you need a fill-in game, or something to leave at the summer house, or just something to play with squares, Incan Gold should be perfect:

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Board Game Review - Terra Nova

If you're an American, you're probably familiar with how we settled the frontier of the American West and built our nation, one blood-soaked acre at a time. Every red-blooded American is proud of our winning the West, with the possible exception of a few thousand Injuns, who may not have been as eager to donate their land to our cause. But in the end, might made right, and we have one proud nation, under God, indivisible, complete with baseball, internet porn and Grandma's apple pie.

But I'll tell you this - we're just lucky we didn't have competition like in Terra Nova. This little pseudo-Euro has a bunch of people settling a little island, but unlike the proud US of A, these people can't just whip out a cavalry charge and send the ungrateful bastards running for the reservations. Hell, in Terra Nova, they apparently have some twisted Geneva Convention working, because these guys don't even get to kill each other at all. That's completely unAmerican. You should probably write your state representative immediately.

No, to claim land in Terra Nova, the different people have to build walls. I guess that makes sense - there are those who believe that the single most important invention for settling the American West was barbed wire, so there may be something to the creation of walls for the purpose of claiming land. The problem is, those walls don't build themselves.

So you'll start off the game by putting your wooden meeple cowboys all over the hex-grid map of the island. On your turn, you can do three things. Those things can be either moving or building a wall. So you could move twice and then build a wall, or move one guy, build a wall, and move another guy, or move and then build and the build again, or... well, that's about it. Building a wall is pretty much a function of picking a spot next to one of your wooden frontiersmen and putting a wall piece on it.

The idea is to close off areas so you can claim them. When a closed-off area contains three or fewer kinds of terrain (your inventive land speculators can build walls in the middle of lakes, across deserts, or through craggy mountains with equal ease), the little wooden guys inside claim it for themselves. The worst thing is, nobody gets shot. All these pansies just go build wood cabins and start procreating. Make love not war, indeed. Little wooden hippies is all they are.

In fact, these peaceniks are so willing to share that if two groups have the same number of wooden hippies inside a closed-off area, they split it! They turn it into some kind of commune. I'm not sure how they overcome the language barrier, but however they work it out, nobody gets killed. The settlers probably intermarry and have little miscegenated babies. It's disgraceful. They probably let the women grow leg hair, too, and burn bras.

The whole process is pretty fast. You can finish a whole game of Terra Nova in about twenty to thirty minutes, and then you and your peace-loving friends can go brew up some herbal tea and name your children after magical creatures.

Even without an American level of violence, Terra Nova is still a challenging game to play. Your brilliant moves can backfire if you don't think ahead. You can wind up surrounded in a fairly pathetic back field somewhere, wishing you could close off one more area so that your little wooden farmers didn't have to marry their cousins and have inbred redneck babies. Some planning and clever moves, combined with the ability to see what your opponents will do, can help ensure you don't finish dead last.

But if you like games where stuff happens, and you're not just abstracting a theme with wooden blocks, this might not be the big winner your game group has been hoping for. Terra Nova has one of those rulebooks that Euro fans call 'elegant', which means that even a six-year-old kid could understand the rules and be bored to tears. In the end, your enjoyment of Terra Nova will depend on what kind of games you like. If you like deep theme, fast action and tricky interplay, this isn't your bag. But if you like a simple ruleset, quick gameplay and calculating strategy, you might really get a kick out of it. You might also like incense burners and yoga.


Nice pieces and a pretty board
Easy, easy rules
Good depth and strategy
Plays really fast

If it was any more Euro, it would be designed by a moody German
Theme is a little weak

If you like Euro games, you might dig Terra Nova. You can find it here: