Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Card Game Review - Seven Dragons

How much do you have to change a game to make it a new game? I mean, assuming you're not Reiner Knizia - he just changes the art and sells the same game two or three times. But I mean if you're someone else, someone who is not in a position to mastermind an overthrow of the German government, how many new rules do you have to put into a game to make it something different?

If you're Looney Labs, the answer is one. One thing changes, and you've got a new game. Make one new rules, swap out the art and just like that, you've got a new game. That's what they did with Aquarius when they made it into Seven Dragons. I really like Aquarius, though, so I'm just fine with reskinning it and calling it something else.

Both games work the same way. You've got a bunch of cards showing five different pictures, and you have to chain together seven of them. Some cards show just one picture, some have up to four different pictures, and when you match them up, you have to put matching pictures next to each other. With me so far? I hope so, because I'm kind of getting lost. I probably should not drink vodka when I'm on vicodin.

Anyway, in Aquarius, the pictures are elements. In Seven Dragons, they're dragons. That's probably where they got the name. The dragons are all recycled Larry Elmore art, which means they're really cool. And unlike other games using outdated art, these don't look like they just jumped out of a time machine from 1983. These look cool, because dragons don't wear leg warmers or get giant perms.

Just like in Aquarius, there are also actions you can take that mix up the game. You can switch goals, shuffle up your hands, and otherwise screw up the natural order of things and hose your friends who thought they were about to win. These are cool, and add the missing piece to the game. Without these actions, the game would be pretty boring.

But I did mention that Seven Dragons has a new thing, right? And the new thing is the silver dragon. This color-changing dragon matches the color of whatever action card was last played, which is unlike Aquarius, where the start card is always wild. This adds a little more interesting play, because you might play an action just to change the color of the silver dragon. So that's a little more interesting.

I really like both Aquarius and Seven Dragons. I have to be honest, though, if you have one, you don't need the other. If you really like the chameleon start card, you can get a card from Looney Labs that does that. Surprisingly, it's a dragon. Shocking, I know. And it only costs a buck, so it's even affordable.

Seven Dragons is not a particularly complex game. It's not hard to play. It's not full of strategic counterplays and tactical maneuvers. It doesn't have player elimination or area control or deck building. It's just light and fun. It will make you think enough to keep you interested, but you could still play it with a five-year-old and have fun (except that then you're playing with a five-year-old, so it may not be fun, after all). I love the art, and while I can't see a reason to own Seven Dragons if you already have Aquarius, I definitely think you should own one of them. Both are a breezy good time. They have a lot in common, primarily because they are actually the same game.


2-5 players

Great Larry Elmore recycled art
Just like Aquarius, which is cool because I like Aquarius

Just like Aquarius, which means you don't need them both

If you like easy-to-play games that you can finish in fifteen minutes, you should go over to Noble Knight Games and get Seven Dragons:

And if you like easy-to-play games that you can finish in fifteen minutes and that have a VW bus, you should go over to Noble Knight Games and get Aquarius:

But only get one of them.

Monday, June 27, 2011

RPG Expansion Review - Blood in Ferelden

You can tell a lot about a roleplaying game by reading through its premade adventures. Lots of games don't have published adventures at all, and those games are most likely created by lazy people. Honestly, if you can't think of a story to tell in a world you made yourself, you're either boring or you're just not trying very hard.

Other games have adventures that are about as interesting as a plateful of sawdust and mattress stuffing. Those writers are at least not lazy, but they are frightfully dull. Their games probably also suck.

In my experience, however, the best games have plenty of published adventures available, enough to hold you for months of serious gaming. Deadlands (my favorite RPG) is a great example - if you don't ever want to write your own stuff, you don't have to, unless you play the same game with the same people for three years.

Another example of a company serious about producing a high-quality game is Green Ronin, the publishers of the Dragon Age RPG. This game is ridiculously easy to run, full of great atmospheric potential, and more to the point I'm making right now, has some of the best prescripted adventures I've ever seen. There's one adventure in the base game, another in the GM's kit, and a seriously impressive pile of them in the adventure book Blood in Ferelden.

Blood in Ferelden contains three full-length adventures with a shocking amount of depth and detail, plus there are three really excellent adventure seeds tacked on as an appendix. Assuming your characters make a level at the end of every adventure, and given that the Dragon Age game currently only goes through level five, you could play an entire campaign and never have to write your own material. That's a pretty serious load off a GM.

The first adventure, Amber Rage, has the heroes tromping around the wilderness, trying to find a cure that will head off a zombie apocalypse. This is not a bad adventure, all things considered, but the writer has a pretty heavy hand. You can almost see him cackling to himself as he writes another moral conundrum and saying, 'Ha! Gotcha! Bet you feel bad now!' I like the overall story that plays out, but it seems every time the heroes wander into the woods to take a piss, they're having to choose between saving their families or exterminating a race of lovable magical bunnies. It gets old, and a good GM is going to have to weed through the blunt-force morality lessons to make the adventure enjoyable.

Where Eagles Lair is the second adventure, and it is a whole hell of a lot better than the first one. For one thing, it avoids the obvious 'this or that' morality choices and plays on racial stereotypes and preconceptions. This adventure shows a lot more intellectual complexity, and provides plenty of options so that nobody has to feel like they're being railroaded. A good gamemaster is going to have a ball with this one, and the players are going to have a great time, too. It's still dark, with all the subtlety and depth the creators of the game were trying to accomplish. Where Eagles Lair gets a big fat thumbs-up from me.

The final adventure is the piece de resistance, the cream layer on top of the fruit-on-bottom yogurt cup. It's called A Fragile Web, and while the GM will have to read the whole thing four times to understand all the different angles and potential pitfalls, this is how really good RPGs are supposed to play. In fact, if I were doing it all over again, I would play the intro to this adventure first, then tie it into the entire campaign, periodically dropping little hints and elements here and there and giving the whole thing a fantastic big finish. It would be like wrapping up a season of really great television, except that you don't have to wait six months to find out what happens next unless your GM has open-heart surgery. I can't remember a time when I read through a published adventure that was this good.

If you need a little more material and don't mind doing some legwork, the three adventure seeds at the back of the book are remarkably robust and full of potential. Granted, they don't hit every detail, but they're quite original and show just how much fun you can have with a fantasy RPG when you're not just roaming from room to room, killing everyone you find, then stealing their crap.

It's remarkably refreshing to find a roleplaying game that combines an easy-to-play system with a deep and interesting setting. Granted, Green Ronin didn't create the background world for the Dragon Age RPG - that was BioWare, for their video game. But they took the world BioWare created and built it into one of the most enjoyable, challenging, and interesting fantasy roleplaying games I've ever played. It's amazing to me that a game this fun was originally a video game. That's almost always going to be a recipe for disaster, but with Blood in Ferelden, Green Ronin proves that they've got mad chops (that's what all the kids are saying. Or they were at one point. I think).

If you're considering the Dragon Age RPG, you should get all three Dragon Age RPG products at once. I know that's kind of a big chunk to bite off, but all three pieces go together seamlessly, and your game will be better and more cohesive if you have them all right from the start. This is one heck of a fun game, and these are some really great adventures. As an added bonus, you won't have to sit through another evening of home invasion disguised as roleplaying.


Three very good adventures that can be tied into an overall campaign
Brilliant writing (mostly) full of complex decisions and subtle depth
Enough material to hold you for weeks
The third adventure is absolute solid gold

The first adventure is overblown with moral quagmires
The second writer is really fond of flowery language, which gets old pretty fast

If you're going to buy Blood in Ferelden - and if you're playing the Dragon Age RPG, you should - do me a big favor and get it from Noble Knight Games:

Friday, June 24, 2011

Card Game Review - War of Honor

Sometimes, as a game reviewer, it's interesting to look at the games I haven't played. Legend of the Five Rings is a good example. The game has been around almost as long as Magic: The Gathering. It has a huge fan base, and is still going strong in a market where most other collectible card games go belly up within three years. And yet I never so much as bought a starter. Probably I never tried the game because I don't much care about the theme. Call me a heretic, but medieval Japan never really appealed to me, probably because Japan holds the worldwide trademark on Seriously Bizarre™. I mean, what other nation offers its male citizens the right to buy soiled womens' underwear out of vending machines? Just Japan. Because Japan is weird.

War of Honor was finally an excuse to give it a shot, though. Alderac packaged up four decks, whipped up a few customized rules, and called it a board game. There are a few rules that they left out, but as far as I can tell, War of Honor is just Legend of the Five Rings, but slightly simplified (and I do mean slightly). I kind of thought it might be a bit more streamlined, but I read the part in the rules about playing with the full rules from the CCG, and basically, you have to add in the honor requirement. I don't know what that means, by the way.

What I do know is Legend of the Five Rings is one busy game. There's so much going on that you would need to be either incredibly experienced with the game or a forensic accountant to be able to track everything that could happen in one turn. I'm not sure if we played correctly or not, because frankly, we had one hell of a time trying to remember when we were supposed to do any particular thing. We had to refer to the turn order reference throughout the entire game, because we kept forgetting when we could play particular actions, or pay for land, or otherwise do all the stuff you can do. You would think that in a three-hour game, we would have been able to remember what we were doing by the end, but there was just so much to track that we fell prey to information overload. I think our brains started melting.

The overall objective of War of Honor depends entirely on how you want to play. For instance, if you can destroy five provinces by marching off to war, you can win a military victory, but if you can play five rings, you win an enlightened victory. There are also victories from winning lots of honor and for causing massive dishonor among your enemies. Like if you can catch your enemies buying used panties out of vending machines, you can cost them honor. This is kind of how the Scorpion Clan likes to win, because they just run around showing everyone how you were caught sending pictures of your wiener to your employees and proving that yes, you did have sexual relations with that woman.

There are a lot of things about War of Honor (and by obvious extension, Legend of the Five Rings) that are innovative and really interesting. For instance, you have two decks. One is the cards you'll play, like tactics and weapons and spells, and the other gives you the land and people you need to wage war. You'll draw from the one deck every turn, but the other one gets dealt out into your provinces, four spaces that sit between the two decks, and you can buy these cards if you can afford them. It's actually quite brilliant, and unlike anything else I've played. Managing these two separate elements is a key to playing the game well, and this dual-deck element sets Legend of the Five Rings apart from the hundreds of card games that float around for six months and then go up in smoke.

Possibly the most interesting thing about War of Honor is how battles play out. Losing a battle can be very painful - everyone on your side will die, and that can leave you with a pretty big hole in your defenses (not to mention how much honor you'll lose if you don't have an open bar at the funeral). So to help you when you're in trouble, you can invite other players to help you out. The thing is, so can the other guy, and when your opponents jump in on the other side of a conflict when you thought they were going to help you out, your gasps of shock and rage will make everyone at the table giggle delightedly. If you can manage to win the fight even when everyone comes out to beat on you, though, you'll get the last laugh. All these shifting alliances and deadly battles make Legend of the Five Rings a fascinating and enormously fun game.

Unfortunately, some things suck that fun right back out again. Mostly, we were dismayed by how long it took to play War of Honor. I concede that experienced players could probably go much faster, but the 90 minute play-time quoted on the side of the box must have been assuming a two-player game between grown men who had been playing since they were in junior high. We had one battle that took thirty minutes all by itself, and the whole time, two of us had to just sit there and watch. Maybe if you decide to play War of Honor, you should have a second game off to the side that you play when it's not your turn. I suggest Nightfall. I love that game.

War of Honor uses most of the rules for the CCG, as I mentioned before, but it also adds in fortresses, which determine who gets a bonus for attacking which enemy, and give special abilities to the players who have those fortresses. When one of your provinces is destroyed, you also lose a fortress, which means smart opponents can trash your most dangerous abilities to keep you in check. This is just another example of a cool thing that makes the game better, and yet manages to slow it down and make it take too long.

I can't point to anything in War of Honor or Legend of the Five Rings that I didn't like. But I really wish they could have streamlined the game a lot more, because while I enjoyed the parts where I was playing, I grew incredibly tired of the slogging pace. We had epic battles and huge land holdings, but that meant there was an insane amount of downtime and we ran out of room on the table. If War of Honor had trimmed a lot more off the CCG, I think it would have been a resounding success, because there's a lot here to like. But I won't be buying any more cards, even if I could use them to play War of Honor, because I just don't have the patience to sit for hours barely doing anything. I can see why Legend of the Five Rings is so popular, but I also think that avoiding it for the last ten or more years was the right call. I think I'll go back to avoiding it, and if I feel the need to engage in some wacky Japanese action, I'll just buy some dirty drawers out of a vending machine.


2-4 players

Innovative ideas set it far apart from other CCGs
Player alliances make this one of the best multiplayer CCGs ever designed
Several different ways to win
Beautiful art and nice pieces

Lots of good parts creates an overload
Takes a very long time to play

If you have the patience and determination to play a game this long, you can get yourself a copy of War of Honor from Noble Knight Games:

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Taxi Driver of the Apocalypse - The Whole Damned Story

It's about time I got back to writing game reviews, before I have to change the heading at the top of the page to read, 'random articles about whatever is crossing my mind right now,' and then I'll just be another inane blogger telling nobody in particular about my pets and recent bathroom visits. While Taxi Driver of the Apocalypse was handy, and gave me something to post until I could recover from pneumonia enough to play some games, it also would have taken another three weeks to finish the story.

I've got a game played and half the review written. It'll be up here Friday. But I didn't just want to leave everyone wondering what happens to Winston Creed (except for those people who don't care, and really just want to know if Castle Panic is any good), so I turned the whole thing into a PDF and uploaded it. You can read it right here:

Enjoy! Or don't. Not everyone likes stories about hookers and gunfights.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Taxi Driver of the Apocalypse - The Hook

Part One: The Intro
Part Two: The Setup

The Hook

The first notion I had that something wasn't right was when a hand grenade went off in my ballsack. I sat straight up, gasping for air, trying to scream, and realized that there were two very unpleasant men in the room. One of them had just punched me in the nuts.

I curled up in a ball and cradled my wounded jewels, trying hard not to throw up. My gun was under the bed, but theirs were in their hands. Even if I hadn't been sucking wind and naked under the sheets, I couldn't have grabbed my piece before my visitors added a couple unwelcome holes to my chest cavity.

From my fetal position in the middle of the bed, I lifted my head to look at the two heavies. One was skinny and short, almost a runt. He looked especially small next to the mountain of meat standing next to him. Both wore faded suits that might have been expensive fifty years ago, but their hand cannons were plenty clean.

"Where is she?" asked the small one, which was kind of funny, because I was wondering the same thing.

I gulped in a mouthful of air and tried to respond. "She... oooooh..."

The little one nodded at the big one, who holstered his pistol in a shoulder rig and pulled on a pair of thick black gloves. The odd bulk at the knuckles told me it was probably loaded with sand. I put up one hand, feeble with pain, and tried to speak again.

"No idea," I gasped. "She... she was here when I fell asleep."

The big guy leaned over and punched me in the side. I grunted in pain, sliding halfway off the bed from the force of the blow.

The little one spoke again. "You understand, we have every reason to believe you're telling the truth. Unfortunately, we can't be certain until, well, until we're certain. It's unavoidable, really." He nodded at the big guy again, who pulled back his fist for another swing.

"Wait! Wait!" I put up one hand and tried to scoot back onto the bed, working clear of the sheets wrapped around me. "I'll tell you what I know!"

The little thug put his hand on the big guy's shoulder, which bought me a second to think.

"She told me I could stay the night," I said. "She told me she would make breakfast, and wake me up when it was ready."

"So the fuck what?" The runt waved at the big guy, who hit me across the face so hard that fireworks lit up behind my eyes. It took me a second to shake clear, and then I stammered again.

"So she probably went to the store! She should be right back!" I spit a wad of blood onto the bed, along with a tooth that was going to be very expensive to replace - assuming I had a chance to find a dentist.

"Hold on," said the little one to the big one. "That kind of makes sense. We'll wait for her here."

I had the sheets pulled out from under me now, and my bare ass hanging off the bed. The little one holstered his piece and pulled a frighteningly huge knife from behind his back.

"Let's kill this loser and see what's in the kitchen."

That was all I needed to hear. I pushed off the bed and dropped to the floor, then rolled under the bed. Both men started shouting curses, and the big guy threw himself across the bed to try to grab me. Lucky for me, the bed was pretty high off the floor, and years of living on canned rations and veggies hadn't let me bulk up around the mid-section. By the time the little one ran around the bed, I was almost out the other side, with my gun in one hand and my clothes in the other.

The big bruiser dropped down to the floor to reach for me. His eyes flew wide open when he saw the barrel pointed at his forehead, but he didn't have time to do much else. I shot him in the face, his head snapped back, and then he didn't move at all.

The little one swore again. All I could see was his feet as he retreated, firing into the bed. Bullets ripped through the mattress and into the floor beside me. I ignored them and shot him in the ankle.

Sadly, he didn't fall. I was kind of hoping he would, but I was happy to settle for his screams of pain as he leapt out of the room. He bit back his yelps of agony, and a moment later, I heard the apartment door open and then slam shut. I didn't waste any time pulling myself out from under the bed.

I suddenly realized that, dead body on the floor or not, those blows to the kidney were partnering up with several bottles of locally brewed beer to cause a pretty intense pain in the bladder. I needed to piss some blood, and I needed to do it in a hurry. Dragging my pants behind me, I hobbled into the bathroom and dropped unceremoniously onto the toilet. I groaned in pain and finished my business, then stood up and looked in the mirror. Time was working against me, but I knew it would look odd if I left the apartment naked and bleeding from the mouth.

I ran some water and rinsed my mouth (one of the many privileges of the wealthy elite - and their female escorts - was running water). As I turned off the water and spat blood into the sink, I heard scratching and muffled whining coming from the wall.

My heart froze in my chest. It was too soon – no way was I ready to face anyone else. Hell, I still wasn’t wearing any pants. I was certain the goons were coming back, or worse, security was on its way up. The gigantic thug was bleeding all over the bedroom floor, and my pistol matched the hole in his forehead.

When I heard the scratching and crying again, I realized that I was being paranoid. This noise was inside the apartment. Come to think of it, this noise was in the bathroom with me.

I pulled on my clothes while I searched the walls. It took a minute to find the false panel behind the shower, and then another couple minutes to slide it sideways and reveal the hidden room behind it. A space big enough for a person to sit down was jammed half-full of towels and a bowl of water, with just enough room left for the bundle of fur that tumbled out into my arms as soon as I set it free.

It was a dog. Specifically, it was a puppy, a girl, but she was a big puppy, and in a few months, she was going to be a very big dog. Yellow and black, with feet the size of teacups and oversized floppy ears. She squirmed in my hands until I had to hold her closer to keep her from falling, and then she licked my face.

It’s worth interrupting the story here for a quick aside about dogs in Dallas. Most places, dogs were either wild pack animals that raided caravans and ran off with babies, or they were food. But in Dallas, dogs were rare and pretty damned valuable. They made great alarm systems, and no burglar was going to break into your place if they heard a dog barking inside, at least as long as you had neighbors who didn’t have dogs. They would eat you out of house and home, though, so the only people who tended to have dogs were usually doing well enough to have running water.

Another thing about dogs in Dallas is they were hard to steal. Once a dog was old enough to know where it called home, owners would train them to rip limbs off anyone stupid enough to get close without an invitation. And if the dog itself didn’t stop you from stealing it, the owner was likely to fill you with holes if you tried. Rich people got pretty attached to their dogs, and the smartest thing you could do if you found a stray was to get it back to its owner, or get very far away.

I paused a second and thought back to the cab ride. My gorgeous fare from last night had been whispering to her purse all night – and the purse was big enough to hold this puppy. Not only that, but a whole lot of gun-toting bruisers had been willing to put a whole lot of bullets in her, and they didn’t much care if they got me in the bargain. It didn’t take a gambler to figure out where this dog came from, or why she was hidden all night.

I put that dog down in a hurry. I was already in farther than I wanted to be, and it was time to make tracks before someone came to ask about the gunshots. I ran back to the bedroom and pulled on my shoes, did a quick check for anything I might have left, and headed for the door.

And there was that dog. She was sitting in front of the door, looking up at me, as much as asking me for something to eat and a place to sleep. More than anything, I think the damned varmint just wanted me to scratch her behind the ears. I was starting to panic a little, though, because time was working against me, and besides, there was no way I wanted the hassle that came with this puppy. Hell, I lived in a concrete shack that was just big enough for a bed, a tub and my car! What was I going to do with a dog?

So I stepped around the puppy and opened the door. A quick glance both ways down the hall told me the coast was still clear, at least for a couple minutes, so I made sure my gun was hidden in a coat pocket and stepped out. I turned to shut the door, and there was that damned dog again.

I wanted to leave. I wanted to walk away and get back to my life and forget about gun monkeys and expensive hookers and stolen puppies. But for no reason I could explain, my feet wouldn’t move.

The girl was gone. If she had any sense, she wasn’t coming back any time soon. The goons who had shown up at her place might have been looking for a party, but the odds were pretty good they were here for this dog. They might come back for her in the next few hours, but they might also be a couple days – and by then, this cute little pooch was going to be eating the corpse cooling in the bedroom.

Even while I was telling myself that I had to get out, I had to run, I couldn’t afford the extra baggage, this was a horrible idea, I was bending over and picking up the furry little beast. I tucked her inside my coat, crossed my arms to keep it in place, and headed for the stairs. The puppy, now cradled in warmth and darkness, panted a couple times and fell asleep in my arms.

I somehow managed to make it down the stairs and out the door without being stopped. I waved to the doorman as I headed out, amazed that I wasn’t being searched. I guess if you were invited inside, the staff had to trust you, at least enough to let you go. I double-timed it all the way back to my garage, and when I finally got inside and locked the door, the puppy was starting to wake up.

I turned on the lights and pulled the little ball of trouble out of my coat. She squirmed until I put her down, and then she ran over to a pile of dirty clothes I had left on the floor and pissed all over them.

I slapped my forehead. Not home five minutes, and this dog was already a pain in the ass.

It would get worse before it got better.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Spoils Contest - Results

And now, the moment almost none of you have been waiting for, the winners in The Spoils contest! I know that you are all dying with anticipation, waiting impatiently to find out what happens on some television show you're watching. Well, I don't know, because I'm not watching that show. But I do know who won The Spoils contest, so that will have to do.

There were a bunch of entries, but my favorite in the batch was one I got right at the start of the contest, because I was still chuckling at the name three weeks later. And the winning card name, the one that will get four preconstructed decks of The Spoils, is...

Malefic Canoodler!

Every time I think of that, I get this crazy image of a very poorly behaved teenager who makes out with chicks at parties as part of his master plan to destroy the world. And that makes me laugh.

So Kevin Purring is the grand prize winner. The runners up, who were chosen completely at random and who will receive two precons each, are Shawn Pate, Alex English and Stephen Simon. Congrats to all the winners. To my other three readers who didn't enter, you totally should have.

Thanks to everyone who entered, and thanks to everybody who reads this goofy blog.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Taxi Driver of the Apocalypse - The Setup

In case you missed it, here's a link to the first part of this story.
Part One: The Intro

Part Two: The Setup

It was a gray day in North Texas. Grayer than normal, and that's saying something. I was in what was left of Sundance Square, which used to be a bar-hopping tourist trap in Fort Worth but was now a handful of barricaded buildings and burned-out storefronts. My last fare had been unusually accommodating, and left me a fat tip on top of the hefty fee it had cost him to get a ride through the wasteland of the Mid Cities. Maybe he was just feeling guilty because we got attacked by drug-addled bandits outside Six Flags, but I didn't much care why. I was just glad I was going to have enough cash to fix up the bullet holes.

So there I was, idling outside a diner offering seriously overpriced chili that was almost certainly made of diseased cats, and trying to decide if I should go inside and grab a hot meal before I had to fight my way back through Grand Prairie. Motion in my rearview mirror made me look up, and I saw a six-foot-tall, long-legged pile of trouble running right for the car.

She was stunning. Long red hair bounced in curls around her head and shoulders, and her clothes would have been stylish and expensive even before the oil shortage shut down international trade. Her slinky tight dress showed off every curve, highlighting the parts I knew I wanted and hiding them just out of sight, all at the same time. How she ran in those heels, I couldn't begin to guess, especially since she was also carrying a big oversized purse in both arms. For a couple seconds, I couldn't think at all, just stare at this incredibly unlikely vision as she ran toward me, yelling at the top of her lungs.

I finally snapped back when I realized she was hollering to hail my cab, and she was pretty intent on it. I unlocked the back doors just as she reached the car, and she slid in and pulled the door shut in one liquid move.

"Dallas," she panted, "and step on it."

I turned around and fell right into her eyes. She was gorgeous, alright, the kind of girl a guy like me could only hope to spot on the cover of some pre-crash fashion magazine. Green eyes, wet red lips, and a smoky look that said mayhem followed this girl around like a fan club. Even through the bulletproof plexi, I could see she was the hottest female I had ever met.

"Can we drive?" she asked, a little insistent. She broke my gaze and glanced behind her, nervously clutching her giant bag and scanning the street.

I came to my senses. "You got money? This ride ain't free, sister."

She turned back and looked at me with a stare that could melt steel. "No, I don't. But I can pay in trade."

That figured. A dame this gorgeous was likely to do just fine selling the one thing she did better than everyone else. And from her clothes and jewelry and makeup, she was pretty damned good.

I shrugged. What can I say, I'm a man. It was this, or kick her out of my cab and drive home empty. Besides, this was the best offer I was ever going to get for a woman this hot. I turned around and killed the 'available' sign on the top of the car.

That's when I saw the heavies rounding the corner, tugging guns from inside their camo jackets and yelling for me to stop.

The girl saw them, too, and let out a little shriek. "Oh God Drive!!!"

For just a second, I thought about throwing open the back door and kicking her to the curb. No sex was worth a bullet. Maybe, just for a second, I had a premonition of how bad things were going to get. Maybe, for that split second, the universe slapped the back of my head and said, "what are you thinking?" as if to let me know that the leggy package in the back seat was more trouble than I ever wanted.

But then she whimpered a little and said, "Please," all quiet and scared, and suddenly I was furious at the two gun-toting thugs rushing my cab. They weren't getting my prize! This girl was going home with me! I shut down the voice in the back of my head that told me how stupid I was about to be and dropped the hammer.

My foot slammed to the floor, and while one hand was busy twisting the wheel away from the curb, the other was flicking the switches to drop steel shutters over the windows. Sure, the windows are bulletproof glass, but that stuff still chips like a bastard, and it's nearly impossible to replace. I was just in time, too, because bullets started spattering off the shutters and body armor as I pulled away, tires smoking.

"I hope you're worth all this, lady." Looking through the little slit in the windscreen, I could see a couple more goons running out into the road with two-by-fours. I didn't need to get close up on them to know there were nails sticking up through them, and while my tires are armored against gunfire, driving over a pile of rusted nails was going to leave me riding on the rims.

"If you get me out of this, you can spend the night," she replied, and that was enough for me. I pulled a lever under the dash, and the pointed armor on the front of the car lowered to scrape the asphalt. I barreled past the roadblock as the tire traps went skittering past, caught and thrown by my improvised snow plow.

After that, it was pretty clear sailing. A few more bullets pinged off the armor, and I invented a few new curses as I thought about how long I was going to spend banging the dents out of the metal slats. Then we were clear, on the freeway, headed for home. I retracted the shutters and settled in for the drive.

She didn't talk much on the way, at least not to me. Every now and then she would open her purse and mutter something I couldn't hear, and I wondered what she might have stolen that got the locals so riled up. But it didn't really matter to me - this was a business transaction, and that purse was none of my business.

The drive home was a lot smoother than the drive out. I looped north through Irving, and only had to stop once at a toll booth set up by a few enterprising survivors in the middle of the freeway. They were smart enough not to overcharge, making it worth more to just pay a few bucks than have to replace the underarmor if they happened to blow a claymore under the car. Aside from that, the drive was delightfully uneventful, and after an hour or so, we got through the western gate and into Home Sweet Dallas.

"Where to?"

"The Adolphus," she said, and now I knew that this dame had some pull. Before the crash, the Adolphus was a swanky hotel, and after Waites took over, he turned it into the most expensive high-rise apartments in Dallas. He didn't live there - he had his penthouse at the Hyatt Regency - but the Adolphus was the highest-rent address in the city. I had dropped lots of fares outside, but never been through the doors. I would have been tossed on my ear if I tried to deliver flowers.

We pulled up outside the hotel and a doorman stepped up, opened the back door, and offered his hand. I turned around, wondering how we were going to work this. I couldn't exactly leave the cab on the sidewalk, and I was damned sure not planning on having her over to my bombed-out garage.

She pulled out a card and passed it through the slot in the plexiglass. "Give this to the doorman. He'll bring you to my apartment." The card just said, ‘Eva’, and had her apartment number.

She stepped out of the cab and waltzed into the hotel as if nothing had ever ruffled her feathers, casually holding that huge purse under one arm and swinging her hips with a motion that would make grown men break down and cry.

I didn't waste any time getting back to the garage. I parked the car, washed up with the fastest bath I ever took, and double-checked all the locks before I waved down a rickshaw and headed back to the Adolphus. The card worked like a charm - the doorman waved me inside and walked me up to the eighth floor in an elevator so plush, you might never know the world had come to an end. He took me down a hallway and knocked on a door, and when the door opened, there she was again, smiling and inviting me in.

I don't need to bore you with details, and I never was a kiss-and-tell kind of guy. I'll just say it was a hell of a night, and when I finally passed out between her silk sheets, I slept like a dead man.

Which, it turns out, was almost an ironic turn of phrase.

Come back Monday for the next piece of Taxi Driver of the Apocalypse. I'll announce the winners in The Spoils contest Sunday.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Taxi Driver of the Apocalypse - The Intro

The apocalypse finally came around, and nobody really noticed.

Sure, there were a few loony bastards who started screaming about the End Times when that flu epidemic came across the Pacific and starting killing people in San Diego. And yes, a couple armchair prognosticators told anyone who would listen that the high price of gas meant the end of civilization. But even when the war for South American oil fields spilled over into Mexico and as far as the southern bits of the US of A, most people just sort of shrugged and said, 'what are you gonna do?'

The thing is, if the apocalypse had happened in a day, everyone would have run around in a panic and started stockpiling canned goods. But when it takes fifty years for civilization to slide into the toilet, people just don't really notice. There's an analogy in there about a frog and a hotplate, but the point is, the end of the world kind of slid past, and left the survivors wondering what happened. Or, in most cases, it didn't leave survivors at all.

There are no records about this sort of thing, and it's not like there are conscientious historians out there recording everything for posterity, but the common number you hear is that, over that fifty-odd year period, the population of the world was thinned out by something like 80 percent. That means if you knew five people at the beginning, four of them were dead when it was all over. And it's not really all over, it's more like we quit counting.

Diseases still kill people, and since all the free clinics have been looted, burned, or turned into armed bunkers, people die from Tokyo Flu even faster than they did before. But without as many people to carry the disease, it doesn't spread like it used to. When we see someone with yellow eyes and blood coming out of their ears, most people shoot them and burn the body, just to be safe.

Same goes for the fallout. Sure, when those Salvadoran radicals blew a nuke in Denver, a few million people bought the farm. But now we all know to stay away from the Rockies, and when a radioactive storm cloud blows through, there just aren't enough people clustered up to lose a whole bunch at a time. Mostly, when it starts raining, we all get inside and stay there until the roads dry.

So things were bad all over, but it was so gradual that we just adapted. When gas hit a hundred bucks a gallon and biker gangs took over all the fuel reserves, we bought solar cars. When entire neighborhoods were crawling with sick people half out of their minds, we moved out of the suburbs and into militarized buildings in the city. We learned to shoot, to brawl, to steal and to kill, but it happened so slow that we never even realized that the world had come to an end.

Probably the biggest indicator that we were the ragtag remnants of humanity was when the government closed up shop. The president died from corn flu, and took half his cabinet with him before he went. New elections were scheduled, but never really happened, and then when some asshat terroristas nuked DC, I guess they just threw in the towel and went home to their families. That didn't happen until the end, though, and it was only possible because there was no jet fuel, no National Guard, and our communication networks had been reduced to the occasional radio show. Basically, while it caught a lot of people flat-footed, nobody was really surprised when Uncle Sam decided to call it a day.

Now, I don't really know how the rest of the country looks, outside what I hear from the occasional traveler passing through town, but down here in Dallas, we've got it pretty good. At least, we're pretty good compared to California, where a handful of gun-toting thugs steal whatever they want and kill whatever they don't, or most of the Midwest, where the corn flu made everyone who survived it crazy as a shithouse bat, until they're all running around with lawnmower blades, caving in heads and eating each other.

Here in Dallas, we've got a shred of civilized order. There are lots of gangs, and lots of crime, but we've also got a wall around the center of the city, and folks eke out lives in high-rise buildings where investment banks used to have cubicle farms and call centers. People here are street cleaners and food vendors, message couriers and scavengers. The sheriffs boot anyone who can't make a living, which sounds a little harsh, until you consider that there's just not enough to go around if we take in every panhandler and sob story looking for a free meal.

Me, I'm a taxi driver. The name’s Winston Creed. I inherited a solar-powered car from my old man, and live in a little garage at the edge of town, not too far from the Wall. There's enough room for the car, a gun locker, a tub and a lumpy mattress on the floor. The building used to be bigger, but half of it burned down in food riots thirty years ago, and it's never really been worth fixing back up again. It's easier to put concrete barricades on the exterior walls and steel reinforcement on the doors if I don't try to expand, and besides, I've got everything I need.

Of course, the biggest thing I need isn't even in the garage. It's in the Ross Building downtown, where Arlen Waites holds court. He saw the end coming, and got together with a few hundred of his closest friends and set himself up as the local ruling authority. He took over a water refinery in South Dallas, set up convoys to get water from Lake Ray Hubbard, and now he controls all the drinking water for everybody who lives inside the Wall. The sheriffs work directly for him, and while he recognized the value of law, he also recognizes the value of being the only guy in town who can burn down your house and kill your family if you steal his bread. He's a gangster and an extortionist, a thug and a villain, but he's also the only reason people in Dallas can sleep without a gun under their pillows and a dog the size of a piano.

He's also my boss.

Well, technically, he's everybody's boss. If you run a business in Dallas, you do it at his leisure. You pay your dues when his boys come to collect, and if he decides you need to open an hour early, well, you better get used to being a morning person. When one of his boys wants a ride from me, he gets it free, and in return, I get to keep whatever fares I pull down on my own. It's a rough life, and it sure isn't fair, but it beats fighting off raiders or starving to death.

We hear rumors every now and then that things are better in Europe, but I don't put much stock in them. For one thing, it doesn't matter - it's not like we can hop a 747 and take a red-eye to London. And these kinds of rumors are everywhere - Canada still has a government, France has farmland, Russia has airplanes. People like to think about how much better it is somewhere else, but not me. Arlen Waites might be a bastard, but he's saved a lot more lives than he's taken, and if you ask me, things could be a lot worse.

And then, sometimes they are a lot worse.

Come back Friday for part two of Taxi Driver of the Apocalypse.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Movie Review - Zombie Strippers

I went back to the doctor Saturday, and found out that there are two kinds of pneumonia. One kind is the normal kind, the kind where you get a shot in your ass and take some antibiotics and get better. The other kind is where you get more shots in your ass and take more antibiotics and maybe get better, but not for a couple weeks. Turns out, I had the second kind. So instead of playing games this weekend, I slept for about 30 hours. Then I woke up and watched Zombie Strippers on OnDemand. I really should have kept sleeping.

I should have known I would hate this movie, but there were so many upsides. Zombies are awesome. I love zombie movies and zombie games and zombie stories. Also, I love strippers, and this movie stars Jenna Jameson, who is a very accomplished actress in her chosen field (some actresses excel at art-house movies, or period pieces, or romantic comedy. Jenna Jameson is really great at porn). But if you think about it, 'zombie' and 'stripper' are not two things that go well together. Like, you might be really into holistic medicine, and you might really love bass fishing, but that doesn't mean you're going to like a fish hook high colonic.

The plot of the movie is incredibly absurd, as you might expect from a film called 'Zombie Strippers' that stars a big-name porn starlet. A government experiment goes awry, and an infected guy gets away from the testing institute. He runs a couple blocks and gets to the illegal strip club up the street. Because if you're going to run a massively classified government experiment on reanimated soldiers, it only makes sense that you do it close to an adult entertainment venue.

The zombie bites one of the strippers, and she dies, and then she is also a zombie. This is, traditionally, how zombies work. What's new here is that apparently, when a hot-body dame is zombified, she comes back as a really good stripper. The guys go nuts, throwing huge wads of cash at the zombie stripper, and so other strippers decide that being zombies would help make them money and also become zombies. Everything would probably work out great, except that private dances with these particular strippers generally end in unfortunate bloodshed (except that the guys are probably douchebags anyway, so it might not be that unfortunate). Also, the strippers are rotting.

There are so many things wrong with Zombie Strippers, but many of them I completely expected. The acting and writing were on par with what you see on late-night Cinemax shows about singles retreats at vacation resorts where nobody owns clothing. They obviously couldn't afford to hire a firearms expert, and instead sent someone down to Toys R Us, because the guns aren't even normal-sized. Even the gore effects were lame, and if there's one thing you should get right in a zombie movie, it's the gross parts.

But let's be honest here - if you're watching Zombie Strippers, you're not hoping to discover a rare indie gem. You're hoping to see some naked girls, and you're hoping to see zombies. And there are definitely zombies.

What's missing, however, is naked girls. You've got a movie about strippers starring a girl famous for having sex on camera, and yet for no reason I can deduce, they're shy about full frontal nudity. Sure, there are plenty of topless scenes - Jenna Jameson is half-naked for most of the movie - but in the entire film, you get about five seconds of full-on naked, and even then it's back lit and silhouetted. Boobs are only edgy if you're 15. Adults want to see some genitals.

I'm not a full-blown horn dog. I can enjoy all manner of entertainment that does not contain sex or naked bits of any kind. I don't require adult themes in my entertainment. But if you advertise your film as being about strippers, and then add in that it's got zombies, I go into the film with a certain level of expectation. I do not expect good acting. I do not expect good writing. I don't even expect good effects. But put in a porn star and an illegal strip club, and by God, I expect to see some promised land.

All things considered, however, it's probably just as well that the girls kept their g-strings in place. Because by the end of the film, only two of the girls were even still alive. The others were literally falling apart. Superpowers or not, there's nothing sexy about yellow teeth and bloody gums, and I have absolutely no desire to see naked chicks if they've got liver spots on their areolas. I don't know why I thought I would be amused by a movie about naked dead people. It doesn't matter how smokin' a chick was in real life, once she's dead, she ceases to be sexy.

I guess when I decided to watch Zombie Strippers, I was really hoping for some cheesy grins and some completely unwarranted nudity. But it wasn't funny, it wasn't entertaining, and it wasn't even hot. It was gross and stupid and absolutely foul. I can totally understand wanting to see a movie like this - after all, I did want to see it, until I saw it - but unless you are actually aroused by necrotic flesh, just rent some porn. Or stay up late for those Cinemax movies.

OH YEAH REMINDER: One week left before the end of The Spoils contest!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Not a Review At All - Rain

Pneumonia is still keeping me from playing games. So instead of a review, here's a short story.

The rain in this part of the city never cleans anything. It stirs up the filth in the dumpsters, streaks the soot on the walls of the dive bars and strip joints, and gathers in greasy puddles in the parking lots and gutters, making miniature lakes with islands of discarded fast-food wrappers and cigarette butt canoes.

I'm standing outside The Last Chance at closing time, just out of sight, listening to the strains of Frank Sinatra on the jukebox leaking through the cracks in the windows. My coat is soaked through, sticking to my skin like a layer of plastic wrap. My hair is pasted to my scalp, rivers of tepid water dripping down into my eyes. I keep my hands inside my coat and wait for the last drunk to stumble out to his car.

Then I move. The bouncer is pushing the door shut, and when I kick it, he jumps back, an alarmed yelp escaping his throat just before I pull my forty cal out of my coat and put two slugs in his chest. He goes down in a wet gurgle.

I don't waste any time. I'm rushing into the bar now, drawing my second gun and firing at the two thugs jumping to their feet. My twin forty cals hammer out their staccato rhythm. The first guy doubles over, shot in the belly and chest before he can pull his own piece clear. The second manages to snatch a Mac-10 off the table, but my own bullet smacks him in the face, blowing out the back of his head like a smashed cantaloupe. He squeezes the trigger by sheer reflex, and fires a stream of pointless flame into the ceiling tiles as he falls backwards over a bar stool.

Nobody else offers a target now, so I run for the double doors in the back. I'm halfway there when I hear the dry double-click of shotgun racking a shell. Without looking, without even thinking, I dive for cover behind a table.

Not quite fast enough. A mule kicks me in the shoulder, throws me headlong over the table, taking it with me to the floor. My left-hand piece flies away at the force of the blast, and my right hand is tangled up in the chair that bounces off my forehead when I fall. I'm dazed and hurting, trying to roll onto my back and get my gun hand clear.

The barkeep jumps over the bar and sights down at me. I roll the table in front of me, and the next blast shreds half of it, showering me with splinters stinking of stale whiskey and sweat. The rest of the table falls right on top of me, pinning me underneath the wreckage.

He jumps off the bar, a shaggy biker with a black bristly beard and a skull t-shirt. He can see I'm stuck, so he's moving in to finish me off once and for all. Guess he's tired of blowing holes in his bar.

He's standing over me now, the barrel of that shotgun like a long tunnel of doom. "Say goodnight, asshole."

I twist my wrist free of the table and fire. My bullet takes him right under the chin, tearing out half his throat and sending him reeling over backwards, his beard catching the remnants of his shredded neck like a gory sieve. His last shot tears the air over my head and blows out a window as he falls.

It takes me a few seconds to push out from under the ruined table and stagger to my feet. My left arm is hanging limp, and blood runs down the inside of my coat sleeve, mixing with the dripping rain water to leave pink drops on the concrete floor. For a second it's quiet in the bar, and all I can hear is Frank singing how he's sure cocaine would bore him. That, and the rain drumming on the roof and coming through the shattered window.

I turn toward the back of the bar again. I still have one good arm and one good gun, and I'm not leaving before I'm done. I'm six steps from the swinging door when Johnny Brucco shoves through, dragging the girl in front of him, a Saturday Night Special shoved up against her forehead.

She's cute. The profile mentioned she was fifteen, blue eyes, freckles and red hair. Seeing her for the first time, the description doesn't do her justice. I can see why Brucco grabbed her. The Turks will pay top dollar, ship her across the Atlantic in a cargo ship, and have her turning tricks in Morocco by this time next month. Unless some skeezy old man decides to buy her and keep her all to himself.

Of course, the only way that happens is if Johnny can drop me before I drop him. My forty cal whips up and levels on his left eye.

"Let 'er go, Johnny. Only way you walk out of this bar."

"Screw you, Savage! Get outta the way, or I blow her freckles out her ear!"

"Quick death beats hell out of her other option, if I let you take her. Drop your piece or I drop you."

Johnny doesn't have a reply. He just stands there, pistol jammed up against the girl's head, staring at me with bloodshot eyes full of cheap liquor and raw hate.

It's quiet again. Just us and the rain. The girl is choking back her fear and making noises like a strangling kitten, tears streaming down her freckled cheeks. Sinatra croons on, not getting a kick on a plane. Water and blood drip noisily to the floor from my left hand.

I could shoot now. He's close enough, I could put out his eye without any chance of hitting the girl. But if I do, and Johnny's finger twitches, he'll blast those pretty eyes to pudding and take her down with him. And if that happens, I will have wasted this entire evening, when I could have just stayed home with take-out Chinese and a bottle of bourbon.

"When this songs ends," I tell Johnny, "I'm going to kill you. Make up your mind, and do it fast."

He keeps staring, but Frank is winding it up, and he's getting nervous. His eyes give him away half a second before his gun sweeps away from the girl. I shoot him and he shoots me.

Johnny's bullet grazes my neck, tugs at my collar, and leaves a scratch. My bullet catches Johnny in the eye, takes out the back of his head, and leaves a Rorschach pattern in gray matter on the wall behind him. He crashes into the jukebox and it starts to skip. Frank stops singing and just keeps saying, 'Get a kick - get a kick - get a kick.'

The girl is on the floor, Johnny's blood spattered over her face and sticking in her hair. I holster my piece and help her to her feet.

"Let's get you home, Amber. Your parents are worried sick."

I wrap her in my coat and walk her out. The rain washes most of the blood out of her hair on the way to the car.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Pathetic Excuse - Pneumonia

I didn't play any games Saturday, unless 'blowing my nose into a hand towel for twelve hours' is a game. And if it is, I don't know if I won or lost.

It started Friday afternoon, when I started to get a little tickle in the back of my throat. It sort of feels like when you get a piece of popcorn stuck halfway down, and you spend the whole afternoon trying to clear your throat. Only it's not really popcorn, it's actually a teensy weensy infected spot that's about to leave you bedridden all weekend.

I woke up Saturday morning feeling like I snorted a belt sander. My throat was raw from my nostrils down to my belly button. I couldn't consume anything except hot tea and chicken soup, and I could only have those when I was awake long enough to warm them up. This tends to put a crimp in game-playing plans, because aside from being potentially communicable, it's tough to play a game when your brains are continually attempting to escape your head via your nasal cavity.

By Sunday, the throat problem was gone. But I was not out of the woods - the throat was better because all the pain hooligans had packed up their camping gear and headed south. They set up camp in my lungs, and tried their best to make me cough up soft tissue. Breathing was difficult, and I once again found myself unable to keep my eyes propped open without the use of toothpicks or very small alligator clamps. And since I'm not going to put either of those things in my eyes, I spent most of Sunday in bed, too.

Waking up Monday morning, I decided that I must have slept with my mouth open, and during the night, a band of overweight porcupines had crawled in and set up shop deep in my chest. It reminded me of being a smoker, because every time I tried to breath, my lungs wanted to implode and shards of glass would stab into my soft inner parts. I decided it was high time that I visited a doctor.

The doctor began by listening to my symptoms, and then asked me if I had been exposed to tuberculosis. I don't think he actually thought I had that. He only asked about tuberculosis so that when he told me what I really had, I would say, 'Oh thank God!' rather than the 'son of a bitch!' that should normally accompany an unpleasant diagnosis. He was one tricky bastard.

So they took the x-ray, and then the doctor came in and said, 'you have pneumonia. This is a thing where your lungs have an infection or something, and they fill up with blood.' And then I said, 'Oh thank God!', because I was just happy I didn't have tuberculosis.

The absolute worst part of the whole ordeal was that the doctor ordered two shots. One was a steroid shot, and the other was antibiotics. And both had to be delivered into the softest, fleshiest part of my body - my ass. I would argue that my belly is quickly growing to be a contender, but I think they just play it safe. Also, I think medical professionals get a kick of making a grown-ass man drop his pants halfway down his ass-cheek and then sticking a needle in his rump.

It would have been a lot better with a different nurse. I was hoping the nurse would be middle-aged, maybe with crow's feet and a wart on her nose. I don't care if some ugly old battleaxe nurse looks at the top half of my full moon. But the girl who came in with the needles was like 26, and cute as a bug's ear. It's bad enough having a stranger put her hands on my flabby glutes. When that stranger could be a calendar girl, the end result is me feeling like balder, fatter, grayer and older than I already do. And that's saying something.

Anyway, after all those shots and the prescription pills I'm taking besides, I'm feeling much better. I'm still choking up a Grayhound bus every time I cough, but I'm not coughing near as much, and I may have managed to evict the porcupines. However, since I did not play any games this weekend, it seems that you'll have to settle for this moderately entertaining story of respiratory infection, instead of a review. Hopefully I can bribe my family into a game tonight, and then I'll have something interesting for Wednesday.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Expansion Review - Nightfall: Martial Law

For just a second, I was thinking about deliberately misspelling the title of the new Nightfall expansion. Not because it's bad - on the contrary, I love it. More like poking fun at myself for screwing up the last one. But then I remembered, that would be stupid.

So instead, I'll just tell you how much fun Martial Law is, and not call it Marsha Law (I once knew a girl named Marsha Law. Her parents must have been dropping acid while listening to Nine Inch Nails). And here it is - it's fun.

The one thing Nightfall has needed since it came out was more cards. So many of the cards in the base game do essentially the same thing - damage opponents or hit minions. And that takes away from the strategic deckbuilding, because everybody is essentially making the same deck, unless some really wacky stuff hits the table, and then you're probably ignoring the wacky stuff because you need stuff that will whack your enemies.

Plus, you need more cards because of how crucial it is to chain them successfully. There are not enough blue cards that chain to green, and green cards with blue kickers (that's just an example. I didn't make a spreadsheet to analyze the chains. That would be obsessively retarded. And I'm pretty sure someone else did it, someone with too much free time). More cards means more chances to chain. I mean, you still only have the ten cards to choose from, but there's a better chance that you don't have to buy that lame Flank Attack just so you can have a yellow moon.

But just having more cards isn't enough. To really kick ass, Martial Law needed new ideas that added new options. Sure, more cards was great, but if all they do is give you more ways to stab opponents or their minions, what's the point? Happily, Martial Law gives us a good dose of new, cool stuff.

For starters, lots of the new cards are just plain kick-ass. Lots of them just find new ways to do the old stuff, like Headshot that takes a minion out of the game for good, or Queen's Bishop who deals damage to whoever he wants, right before he attacks. Use those properly, and you can counter some of the really scary bastards, like Vulko and Big Ghost, and still get your attack through to your opponents.

But the really cool new cards actually change up how the game works. Jerome Carceri, for example, stay in play after he attacks, which makes him ridiculously scary, because he can be used for defense even after you use him for offense. Legion Ten can absorb all the damage from a single attacker without passing any of it through, and still manages to be one mean motor-scooter on offense.

Lots of the cards in this deck let you manage your deck better, too. Roland LeFontaine lets you draw cards when he attacks. Tactical Prep lets you rearrange the top of your deck. Lone Hound lets you exile cards from your hand when he attacks, making him one hell of a healer. There are more cards that do cool new things, and if you want a list of what they are, go bother someone else.

Possibly the coolest new power in Martial Law is the ability to feed. A bunch of the cards give you this option, which lets you use the same ability twice. Like Sweep and Clear, that lets you draw a card, and if you discard two, you can draw again, for as long as you can afford it. Or All-Out Lunge, that lets you lay a little beating on an enemy, and then discard to do it again. To really take advantage of these abilities, you have to keep a few cards back when you lay down your chain, which adds another layer of strategy to building your deck.

I also really like the Martial Law wounds. In the original, wounds you draw at the end of your turn can be traded for more cards. This used to be about the only way you could build a really big hand. But the wounds in Martial Law can be used when you attack, to throw a little blood fury into your attacking minions and ramp up the damage they do.

One really nice thing about Martial Law is that you don't have to own the original game. It comes with all the wounds and starting hands you need to play, so while I would obviously prefer to mix it with the original game (and already have), you don't have to buy both boxes to play Nightfall.

Now, the same complaints I had with Nightfall carry through to Martial Law. For starters, the vampire/werewolf/human war is so overdone, it's almost campy. And it's not even that thematic - when your attacking force consists of a Dracula, the Wolf Man and Van Helsing, any concept of war between monster races starts to fade. There's no advantage to having just vampires, or just werewolves, or just humans, so there's no reason not to just buy whatever works, and not even pay attention to what kind of monster you're shoving into an office chair and putting to work.

But my complaints continue to fade every time I play Nightfall. It has become a staple of my group. We usually meet once a week to try out all the games that I'll review that week, but we don't even pretend to make excuses when we drag out Nightfall. Fact is, we're up to our assholes in games we don't really like very much, and sometimes, after we play two or three total stinkers, we need to play a good game just to remember that these things are actually fun now and then. We all enjoy Nightfall, and Martial Law takes a game that we enjoyed and makes it even more awesome.

If you haven't tried Nightfall, you really owe it to yourself to give it a whirl. You can start with either box - both are great. And if you already have Nightfall, and play it often enough to know how much fun it can be, you'll want to pick up Martial Law as soon as you can afford it. Never mind all the black eyeshadow and leather trenchcoats. The game is a blast, and Martial Law makes it better.


New mechanic adds more strategy
New wound cards add more tactical options
New cards with new abilities add more reason to play Nightfall again
It's awesome

Same angst-ridden theme, still with weak execution
Some serious printing errors on a few of the cards

Son of a bitch. I did it again. Nightfall: Martial Law will be out in July. That's a month away. Hopefully you can wait, because it's worth it.

QUICK REMINDER: Just two weeks left in the The Spoils contest (that name is intensely awkward). Read about it here, and the enter to win a really fun game:

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Expansion Review - Dice Town Expansion

Dice Town has been a favorite around my house for a while now. Something about rolling dice, playing poker, and hosing your friends makes this a great game to break out when everyone just wants to goof off for an hour or so. It's two parts cutthroat, three parts luck, and fourteen parts using the ol' noggin. The game itself is not in whatever top-ten game list I might have, but I've probably played it more than 90% of the games I own now.

And now there's an expansion. I think every game has to have an expansion, sooner or later, or people will forget to play it (not really. That's stupid). While considerable effort was put into coming up with clever new rules and fun new things to add to the game, it is obvious that they really were not trying on the name, because after lengthy market research and a consultation with a panel of industry experts, they decided the best name for the Dice Town expansion would be Dice Town Expansion.

The basic idea of Dice Town is that you roll poker dice, and then go down the line and grant various rewards to the players who roll the best in each possible hand. So the most nines gets you gold rocks, the most tens gets you cash, the most queens let you steal, and the best overall hand gets some land. The expansion expands on that idea (which explains the rather obvious name) by giving two possible actions to each location on the board, and then allowing second place to take the leftovers after first place takes his pick. This has considerable ramifications on the game.

For instance, the player with the most nines can now pick to grab a gold rock for every nine he rolled, or he can draw a card and maybe do better. If you only rolled one nine, you probably want a card, but if you have five, you're almost certainly better off just taking the rocks and letting the guy with the second-most nines try his luck panning in the river (and thus drawing a river card, which might give him anything from a huge pile of nuggets to very wet socks).

This continues down the line. The most tens will let you rob the bank and take the pile of cash left by players from previous turns, while second place lets you rob the stagecoach and take a dollar for every ten you rolled. Jacks let you draw general store cards as before, or you can decide to take a Doc Badluck's action, like you used to do in the original game when you rolled like crap and everybody beat you. Queens still let you steal, but you can also recruit outlaws that let you manipulate your rolls. Kings make you the sheriff, or they let you hunt outlaws after they're used by other players, and these can be worth more points at the end of the game. And the best hand lets you grab land cards, while second best hand lets you draw one at random.

With this many options, we have not seen anyone go a whole turn and not get some kind of prize. And that means nobody ever has the Doc Badluck action because their hand sucked. What happens instead is that players who really want to protect a card or steal some money from everyone else will try to win at Jacks, because then you can take Doc Badluck's action without actually having bad luck. Which makes him a rather poorly named doctor.

The additional actions also make the game longer. I didn't personally have a problem with that, but it could affect how often Dice Town hits my table in the future. The expansion adds more dice, so now you can play with six, but this has always been an entertaining way to kill half an hour while something else was finishing up. I love the game, but the longer play time will limit how often we break it out, especially because now that I've played with the expansion, I wouldn't even consider going back.

There's also a lot more thinking going on now. Before, you started your turn and said, 'what do I want?' and tried to get the best dice for your goal that turn. You were single-minded, because second place was as good as last. But now that you can win second place, you could score something at nearly every location, even if you have a horrible hand of dice. An aggressive (read: greedy) player could try to win multiple locations every turn, settling for smaller rewards in favor of more of them. It's a tricky way to play, and it makes you work a lot harder - but it can also make you the winner, so it's worth a shot.

Another cool thing about the expansion is that it includes the 2009 expansion The Indians. The Indian die is in there, along with the smoke signal cards, and you can give your land back to the natives in order to win their support next turn. That can be a real game-changer, and it's nice that you don't have to track down that obscure mini-expansion, because there it is, in the aptly titled Dice Town Expansion.

I've already emptied the smaller expansion box into the main Dice Town box, and so it goes without saying that I won't be getting rid of it. Dice Town is a really fun game that has seen a ton of play at my house, and the expansion takes it from a basic-but-interesting beer-and-pretzels game to a real mind-bending contender. It's not the light dice game it used to be, but with the expansion, Dice Town is a lot better.


2-6 players (now)

Adds layers of strategy and careful play
Lots more to do means you're less likely to feel completely screwed
Diverse actions make it less likely that one person will dominate a single location the whole game
Makes a fun game even more fun

Turns a light-but-clever game into a full-blown brain squeezer
Makes for a longer game
(Neither of these are cons unless you want them to be)

It seems Asmodee has once again sent me games you can't get yet. I really need to start checking on that before I write the entire review and find out I can't send you anywhere to buy it.