Just Good Friends?

I love this picture by artist Bob Dob. Just the idea of these two as actors on set getting ready for the next person to put 20p in the Donkey Kong machine is amazing. Mario looks absolutely drained from having to run up all those girders knowing that even if he does rescue his love, he will instantly have to start all over again. Worse is that the original arcade Donkey Kong had a glitch that meant that on level 22 Mario would hit a kill screen and that would be it. He couldn’t win. Ever. No wonder DK looks so pleased with himself.

Monday Night Tabletop Round-Up 22/09/14

Every Monday night my gaming group meets up at the Cross Keys pub in Liverpool. It’s a real diverse mix of games and gamers and I thought I would start writing a weekly round-up of the games I played and what I thought of them. I can see this getting a little shorter with each one as games get repeated (this one got a bit long) but let’s give it a go.

Love Letter

Players: 4 (Plays 2-4)

Duration: 10 minutes

Love Letter is the perfect filler. It’s easy to explain, easy to play and only takes ten minutes which explains why in pure numbers it must be the most frequently played game at my gaming group. Sometimes there are even three or more copies of it in the library. I will probably only mention it once in these round-ups as it’s so basic so here goes.

In Love Letter you are all potential suitors for the Princess and are trying to get your letter to her before the others. Players start with a single card and take turns drawing and then playing one of their cards. Cards represent various roles within the court and each has a special power when played. For example, the Priest lets you look at another players hand, the Baron lets you compare cards with another player and eliminate the one with lower rank and with the Guard, if you can guess another players hand then you can eliminate them. Play continues until the last man standing or if the deck runs out (which happens quite quickly as there are only 16 cards) the player with the highest ranking card is the winner of that round. Play continues for as many rounds as you like.

That’s about it. This game is so simple it almost plays itself but there is a little room for strategy and bluffing and it always goes down well. I am not sure that it deserves it’s high ranking on Board Game Geek but what it does, it does perfectly. There is a similar game called Lost Legacy recently released that I would like to try as it seems to add a little bit more without taking away the accessibility. On a side note, I have always got the feeling that the player themselves is the actual love letter and we are being passed among the characters in our own hands. When I think about this too much I feel weird, we play the game but the game plays us, sort of.

Splendor

Players: 3 (Plays 2-4)

Duration: 30 minutes

After Love Letter we were still in filler time so we had a quick game of Splendor, another simple game but one I enjoy. On their turn players either take gems (represented by nice chunky poker chips in 5 colours) or purchase one of 12 cards on the table (which is immediately resupplied) with the gems they have collected. Cards then give players a free resource and the more expensive ones also give you victory points. Players can also reserve a card in their hand on their go if they are worried that other players are about to pinch it. The first to 15 victory points is the winner. There are also 4 patron cards that players can claim once they have built a certain amount of cards which also score victory points.

What players are trying to do is build a little economy where their cards can pay for more cards without using a go to collect gems. As gems are limited and cards change all the time you have to be quite adaptable as that card you wanted might get picked up or the stock of gems of a certain colour might run out. For me this game has a great mix of economy building and player interaction. Once a player starts claiming the high points cards it starts a race that really starts you trying to be as efficient as possible – then that card you wanted gets nabbed and you have to think again. I was one turn away from victory on this game so you can see how close it gets… one turn.

Concordia

Players: 5 (Plays 2-5)

Duration: 2 hours

Then it was time to start the meatier games and I found myself in a game with some of the more serious players in the group. This can add a bit of stress to the evening as I am new to the hobby and sometimes you get the feeling that making noob errors is a little bit looked down on. The finer points of strategy are often lost to me but I thought to hell with it, switched from beer to Coke, hunkered down and had a good go of it.

The game was Concordia which is set in and around the Mediterranean and involves creating colonies, resource management and a little bit of hand management. On their turn players play a card and this lets them colonise, trade, purchase more cards or claim resources. Cards then stay out their hand until you play one that lets you draw them back in. Initially described as a deck builder (I find Dominion unfathomable) I was relieved that your hand is the whole deck so you are not constantly shuffling and drawing. As you play cards it limits your options but there is always something you can do so it never feels unfairly limiting and you can always draw all you discards back early if it gets too tough.

Points are awarded at the end of the game based on your cards and how they relate to your Mediterranean empire. For example, if you have specialised in colonising cities that produce brick then you should be buying cards that give you points for that resource. Apparently it’s best to concentrate on 2 things that complement each other but this had escaped me. I struggled a little with this game and came in 4th but to be honest I was quite pleased with how it went and would tackle it again given the chance. This was at the heavier end of the scale for me but worth the effort.

Elder Sign

Players: 5 (Plays 1-8)

Duration: 90 minutes

Despite the slick Cthulhu themed veneer with it’s nice artwork, wealth of tokens and creepy flavour text, Elder Sign is about one thing – chucking dice. For those that get an inexplicable satisfaction from rolling a fist full of dice (as I do) then this will gleefully satisfy that urge. Sometimes it’s as much as 7 dice at a time – oh baby!

Elder sign is a co-operative game where players are investigators who are trying to prevent a world devouring monstrosity from entering our world and turning it all browny-green. 10 cards that represent locations in a spooky museum are face-up in front of the players, 4 are always the same and let you buy equipment or heal but the other 6 represent strange goings on. On their turn players roll dice to try and match rows on a card of their choosing. If they successfully match a row they assign those dice to the card and attempt another row, if not then they discard a dice and try again. If successful they collect the rewards on the card and a new one is drawn but if not they must suffer the penalties. Rewards can be helpful items, allies or elder signs of which a certain number must be collected to win. Penalties can be a loss of sanity, health or another token on the doom track which, once filled, means the investigators have lost and the world becomes a living hell (with the Old One that we faced).

Amazingly we seemed to sail through this game. I don’t know if it was lucky dice rolls or the optimum number of players but evil was vanquished without too much bother. Co-op games are usually about losing as best you can instead of winning as easily as possible. I think we picked our cards well and avoided the ones that seemed virtually impossible but maybe we are just really good at throwing dice? Yeah, let’s go with that.

Dishonored Impressions

I love a game that makes me think about how I can move in real life. During a holiday to Italy I would stare dreamily at churches or large courtyards, not in awe of the stunning architecture but because I would be thinking about how Ezio might climb his way to the top. Crackdown had me wondering which rooftops to leap between, Bionic Commando how to swing from lamppost to lamppost and Portal had me thinking in, well, portals. So it shouldn’t have been a surprise that my favourite feature in Dishonored is Blink, a special power that lets you teleport around it’s steampunk world in 50 yard chunks to either evade guards or drop behind them to administer a swift choke (or shiv to the throat).

There are a host of other powers that let you feel like a murderous assassin too. You can see through walls for a limited time, turn bodies to ash or even summon a swarm of bloodthirsty rats to devour your foes alive. All of the more fun ones lend themselves to a stealthy approach and this does seem to be the way the game wants you to play. Like all the best stealth games getting discovered isn’t a game breaker and you can always resort to your trusty sword and handcannon to noisily and bloodily resolve a level (or just part of it).

There are some small problems. While enemies are comically unobservant (I would definitely notice a masked man crouching on a bus stop) once one of them sees you they all run over to your exact location straight away which breaks the illusion a little, even the standard ‘hey, he’s over there’ shout would smooth that over. But despite some little AI quibbles it’s a great game with some lovely touches. The Heart lets you read the inner thoughts of the characters around you and there is loads of flavour text in the form of journals and books.

Dishonored not only looks great but plays smoothly and perhaps most importantly makes me feel like I have the power of life and death over everyone around me. A classic power fantasy? Maybe, but that’s probably a topic for another time (and person). Go get it.

Back to it

I want to get back to blogging. At first I did it just for myself on Gamespot, it was nice to see my words down in print, but as time went by I got more and more engaged with the community. Others seemed interested in what I had to say and it felt great. But when GS updated, the community I had become a part of seemed to collapse overnight. Comments dried up and there were more blogs about leaving GS than there were about games. I scoffed at these and then quietly left. It was a shame (a few cool people relocated to a forum here which is great).

Well now I am going to go back to it and write for myself which should be fun. For one thing I don’t have to come up with titles that are desperate clickbait in a bid to elicit comments (that sort of thing really gets hold of you) and I can quietly indulge my new passion for board and card games too. I have not read a video game review for about 6 months but have watched about 250 for tabletop gaming (I love you Dice Tower). I guess tastes change and although I say I would never want to stop gaming (digitally that is), somehow I almost have.

Well, that’s life right? So here goes.

A Cautionary Tale

***Warning – Grump Alert**

Just over 10 years ago a friend of mine was pestering me about reading a book that he had read and thought I should try. He had previously recommended Neuromancer which I loved and so knowing that his tastes were in synch with my own I picked up a copy of A Game of Thrones. I loved it. I went out and bought all the available sequels and then waited for the next one. The story, characters and world were amazingly rich and detailed and I felt like Westeros was a real place full of intrigue, betrayal and fantasy where heroes are hard to come by and where greed is second only to survival.

One day I was thinking to myself on the way to work that it would make a great TV programme. The whole thing was too complex for a 2 hour film but given the time in a TV serial all those charcters and storylines could be done the justice they deserved. Somebody at HBO must have been thinking the same thing because a year or so later the first series was commissioned and 3 years later it is one of the most anticipated and successful shows on TV.

I was excited about the prospect of seeing my favourite books on my TV but not being a Sky customer I didn’t watch the series and decided to wait for a DVD release. In the meantime Game of Thrones fandom got bigger and bigger. Praise flooded in from mainstream reviews and friends comments, everybody loved this TV programme with it’s rich and detailed story, characters and world. Wait that sounds familiar. Oh, that’s right, I know because I read the fucking books.

In papers, on TV, on billboards and in magazines I see images of the characters and they are slowly chipping away at the fantasy world I had built in my mind. Each stunningly created image from the latest episode is draining away my love for a series that I have enjoyed and lived in for 10 years or so. So while I am pleased that more and more people are getting to enjoy this fantastic epic, it is not the one that I know and it is slowly overwriting my personal world.

I guess what I am trying to say is, be careful what you wish for.

Growing Pains

Ghost Trick is all wrapped up and I have finally gotten to the mystery of Sissel’s death. I won’t spoil it but I really didn’t see THAT coming! Weird but certainly wonderful. In other gaming news there is basically no news. It seems that of late I have not really had the opportunity or motivation to do much gaming which seems very odd. Much of it is a time issue. Having recently had a baby, time priorities have become altered so that, even though he is usually (hopefully) fast asleep by 7.30 or so that is still enough of a squeeze on an evening. This plus my recent interest in board games has meant that digital gaming has taken a slump in my house.

There used to be a time when I used a games console on a daily basis but at the moment it’s more like weekly. A drop in Xbox time would usually be because I wouldn’t have any games waiting to be completed but even then I would be rooting through the bargain bins or having just one go on Trials HD over and over. However this isn’t the case at the moment as I currently have several pretty good titles ready to go like Sleeping Dogs, Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light and Ni No Kuni but not the drive to make time to play them. This is to be expected to some degree. As time passes and our lives change so do our interests but to think that my passion could be waning in something that I have loved, championed and been captivated by for almost 30 years feels strange and a little frightening.

Maybe it’s just a matter of waiting for the right game to come along. Right now I have no interest in any of the newer consoles and even less in splashing out on a powerful gaming PC as titles on them seem to be lacking in any magic or wonder. Maybe it’s a matter of seeing through the cracks. After so long enjoying games my mind will naturally break a game down in order to beat it. It took a conscious effort to make natural decisions in Mass Effect instead of thinking about gaming the system for the best outcome. Maybe I should be looking back instead of forward. Nostalgia can fog our recollections about the true quality of things past but I have been thinking about getting Majora’s Mask on Virtual Console for a while now and I would love to see if I can recapture that N64 magic.

Maybe I should just stop being a baby, fire up Sleeping Dogs and just enjoy it. Yeah, probably that.

Tales From the Bargain Bin: Ghost Trick

Death can present a problem in a lot of video games. Once the main character is killed it’s usually the end of their adventure, at least temporarily. But Sissel’s demise in Ghost Trick is the very start of a strange and wonderful mystery that will have you scratching your head in confusion before palming your face in disbelief. After discovering he is dead and having lost his memories Sissel is assisted by a friendly spirit who tutors him in the art of ‘ghost tricks’ where he can move between objects and manipulate them. It sounds pretty basic but these simple powers make for some interesting puzzles that see you saving others and trying to get to the bottom of the mystery of Sissel’s death before sunrise the next day when we are told that time will run out and Sissel will cease to be.

Ghost Trick is a great puzzler, not as punishing as those old LucasArts adventures but still with a level of challenge that doesn’t treat you like an idiot. Many puzzles are time based which meaning you will occasionally get to a point where you can’t proceed any further but a neat rewind mechanic and helpful checkpoints mitigate a lot of frustration. The exception is a rather painful stealth section which meant a lot of agonising trial and error (which I hate) but thankfully this is only one brief part of one of 18 chapters so once finished it can be swiftly forgotten.

Story plays a big part of the game and you will probably spend as much time reading as puzzling. Thankfully the story is full of humorous twists and bizarre characters that really bring it to life. On top of this the animation is top notch and squeezes something pretty stunning out of my old DS Lite. It seems so rare now to be wowed by visuals but the simple and clean art style here really impressed me.

Ghost Trick won’t be for everybody, the fact that puzzles can lead you down a dead end may alienate traditional puzzle fans who aren’t used to a fail state and the crackers story gets a little tricky to follow at times especially when it loops in on itself but I wouldn’t let those things put you off. Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective is a wonderful and unique title that I think all puzzle fans will get a kick out of.