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Tabletop Round-Up – 24/08/16

As well as Gravwell I played Tammany Hall last week which is a game I love but, as is often the case, one I can’t seem to actually win. All seemed to be going my way when I was pipped to the post by a tie-breaker. One day Tammany, one day…..

Gravwell

Players: 4 (plays 2-4)

Duration: 1 hour

Who thought escaping a singularity would be so tricky? In Gravwell players are spaceships trying to slingshot their way out of a black hole by using the gravity of other spacecraft. The game takes place entirely on one track that spirals out from the start all the way to the finish some 50 or so spaces later. Each round is split into two parts. The first is where players take it in turn to draft fuel cards from a common pool and for each pick they will get one card they can see and one that is a mystery. After all cards have been picked then players play one card simultaneously until either one player has successfully escaped or until all cards have run out (in which case a new round begins).

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Fuel cards have a letter (corresponding to an atomic element) and numerical value. When cards are played the player with the card nearest to A goes first and they move in the direction of the nearest ship a number of spaces that match the number on the card. Then the next player activates his card and so on in alphabetical order. Plans are made and immediately broken when a spaceship lands right behind you and you end up hurtling in the wrong direction. It’s chaotic but still a lot of fun and players are issued with an emergency stop card that they can use once per round to stop any huge blunders.

That is the basics of it and it’s a very simple idea. There are a few cards called repulsors that push you away from the nearest ship instead of pulling you towards it and a couple of tractor beams that pull every other ship towards you but in general this game is all about picking a card, playing it and hoping it all pans out. Science fans who are hoping for a high level physics strategy game will be disappointed but for a 30 minute game night finisher it will certainly generate a few laughs.

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This Week’s Addiction: Stranger Things

The Netflix TV model is one that I really love. Episodes are as long as they need to be and as numerous as they warrant. Bloated 26 episode seasons on major TV networks will give a First Person Shooter for every Tooms and wouldn’t it have been a lot better had they figured out that island without all the time travel filler? It’s great to see smaller ideas get made with a bit less money but no less quality and this is where you get amazing telly like Stranger Things.

Like all good mysteries Stranger Things is spoiled with too much description but if you love suspense and ripping yarns then it’s the best telly in years. A bold statement and one that is tough to back up when I am hard pressed to give too much away but I would hate to take away the magic in this wonderful series. The basics are fairly straightforward though. Set in the 80s in a small US town a young boy vanishes and a strange girl appears. The two events seem to be linked and a trio of young friends set out to discover the town’s secrets.

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The mood of the whole series is incredible. The electronic soundtrack alone perfectly fits with the time period but the entire thing feels like an early Steven Spielberg tale with the childhood camaraderie of ET and the creepy tones of Poltergeist. In fact it’s chock full of 80s film and TV references that were mostly lost on me (I was born in 1979 so only just made it into the 80s) but I am sure many eagle-eyed viewers will spot them.

At only 8 episodes Stranger Things is a tense and well-structured adventure. It’s creepy to be sure and viewers who struggle with being spooked out too easily won’t make it past the first episode but those that aren’t big babies will love the tale that Stranger Things tells. I sure did.

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Tabletop Round-Up – 17/08/16

Wednesdays are the new Mondays. Having recently moved house I have had to leave my old gaming group in Liverpool. I was sad to leave a lot of cool people but it has given me the chance to discover fresh gaming experiences with a new set of people. It has been interesting seeing how the two groups differ but some things remain the same in that everyone piles into the back room of a pub and has a lot of fun. Although now I have to drive that fun is a few pints less!

Ankh-Morpork

Players 4 (Plays 2-4)

Duration: 90 minutes

Ankh-Morpork is an area control game set in the wacky city of the same name which featured in many of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels. It’s a chaotic place where everyone has their own agenda to fulfil and where best laid plans can easily turn sour. Much like the river.

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At the start of the game players are given a Personality card which tells them their victory condition. These include causing trouble, controlling regions on the board or hoarding cash. Players put one of their minions in three regions of the 12 region board and play begins. Play is controlled entirely by cards and players start with 5 in their hand and then draw back up to 5 at the end of their turn. These cards have one or more actions on and these actions let you do things like add more minions to the board, build a building in a region, gain cash, assassinate opponents minions and a whole host of other effects that can change the board state.

When a region gets a second minion in it then a trouble marker is assigned to that region. Regions in trouble can’t have new buildings placed there and mean that any minion in them can be assassinated. Regions can only have one trouble marker though and when a minion is removed from a region the trouble marker is removed. I guess that he takes the blame for all the trouble there! Play then continues until a player has satisfied their win condition at the beginning of their turn or the deck runs out (in which case the player with the Commander Vimes card wins or if he is not in play then the player with the most wealth is the victor).

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This game is a lot of fun. I played with the full player count of 4 and it was pretty wild. Whenever I gained a foothold somewhere then another player would try to scupper my plans or rob a few coins from me. The variable win conditions mean you have to constantly guess what your opponents are up to as well as balancing your own actions. Are they causing trouble everywhere, placing buildings or just trying to run the deck down? It’s tense and staying on top takes luck as well as planning but if you keep your head down you might just win.

Terry Pratchett fans will get a huge kick out of this game too as most cards represent characters from the books that they will recognise. Even I remember Death, a great card I managed to steal from a player before being forced to discard by another. I laughed. Then plotted revenge!

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This Weeks Addiction: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Kimmy has just been released from an underground bunker where she has been living for almost 15 years. She was lured in by a charismatic preacher who convinced her and 3 other women that the apocalypse was nigh and only the bunker was safe from the toxic wasteland that the world was about to become. Kimmy, who was 15 at the time of her abduction, is brimming with naive optimism after being freed and decides to move to New York to start a new life.

Reading that back it sounds like the blurb on the back of some dreary airport paperback but it’s actually the start of one of the funniest TV shows I have seen in years. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt was created by Tina Fey who was also behind the highly acclaimed 30 Rock, a programme that I am also a great fan of and it has the same sort of comic cast and surreal one-liners. I love the way that jokes are casually thrown out there before zipping on to the next (‘The Smell? That’s just my new after shave Dutch Oven’) even if they are sometimes incredibly strange (‘Oh he never poops, they bred that out of them.’). There’s no wait-for-the-laugh cue or wacky expression to signal a funny. It just moves on to the next silly moment leaving you wondering if she really said that.

I just have the last episode of season 1 to go and I can’t wait. Every episode builds on the previous one and it just seems to get better and better. Anyone with a Netflix subscription and a pulse should definitely give this a go.

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This Week’s Addiction: Magic: The Gathering

Magic: The Gathering is an obscenely addictive two player card game. Each player uses their 60 card deck to cast spells, summon monsters and ultimately try to knock their opponents life down to zero (from 20) while staying alive themselves. Cards can be one of 5 different colours (white, blue, black, red and green) which represent a different type of magic like aggressive red sorcery or powerful green monsters.

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In many ways Magic is like the Call of Duty of card games. New cards are continually in development and all that extra stuff comes at a price. Magic cards are usually sold in random booster backs but for £3.49 RRP a pop for just 15 cards you can’t be sure you will be getting anything very useful. Magic players also have the reputation of being snot-nosed griefers but at least they are doing it to your face instead of over the mic so I guess the two are even there. This model attracts a lot of criticism with accusations of exploiting fans but the truth is that the reason Magic and CoD are so popular is simply that they are very good games. Both have simple rulesets with plenty of room for player improvisation and all that extra content keeps the game fresh and exciting.

It is easy to get carried away though, the constant stream of content and enormous card pool in Magic’s 25 year history can be overwhelming and it’s just so tempting to start buying it all up. Players with even mild acquisition disorders may find the urge to start splurging huge sums on boxes full of boosters and the card sleeves and boxes to put them all in. This is all optional of course but players who want to play competitively will need to sink money into getting the better cards. On top of this only the most recent expansions are legal in tournament play meaning that the killer deck you built for last year’s competition is no longer acceptable for this year’s.

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But these issues are very minor as without a changing tournament card pool the metagame would stagnate into the same old power decks and getting decent cards as singles online is comparatively cheap. For casual play between friends nobody cares if your cards aren’t tournament legal and there are plenty of entry level pre-built decks to buy at very little cost.

I can definitely feel the tug of Magic addiction though. My Amazon wishlist is gradually filling up with Magic products and I almost bought three copies of a card called Zombie Apocalypse from magicmadhouse.co.uk because wouldn’t a zombie deck be cool so why not?

I didn’t though.

But I still might.

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Tabletop Round-up 01/02/16

Bad winners are worse than bad losers. Just throwing that out there.

Roll for the Galaxy

Players: 4 (Plays 2-5)

Duration: 1 hour

Theme really is amazing. On one level Roll for the Galaxy is about sculpting a galactic empire through trade, technology and commerce but on another it’s just rolling dice and then moving them about! At the beginning of the game players are given 5 dice which represent the workers in their fledgling interplanetary kingdom. The sides of a die represent one of five phases (actions) that can be used during the game. The EXPLORE phase lets players gain money (used to put spent dice back in your control) or select technology/planets for future projects (both are worth victory points and may grant new dice or extra powers). DEVELOP and SETTLE let players build the aforementioned technology/planets. PRODUCE generates resources on planets so that the SHIP phase can turn them into victory points.

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At the beginning of the round all players roll their dice in secret and sort them by symbol underneath a ‘phase strip’ that has the five matching symbols on it. They then choose one of the dice and assign it to one of the five actions on the phase strip in what’s called a ‘phase selection’. After all assigning has been done players reveal their dice. Players then use their dice according to the phase they rolled but only if that phase was chosen by a player during phase selection for that round. What this means is that you will be hoping that other players will select phases that you want or dice you rolled with that phase are wasted. This choice is where the real tension of the game lies and it’s very satisfying to see all your dice activated by other players. On the flip side it’s very sad when most of your dice are wasted that turn. Play continues until one player has 12 technologies/planets or until a certain number of victory points have been claimed from shipping (set by the number of players). The player with the most points is then the winner.

This game is pretty simple and once you are into the swing of things rounds fly by but it’s slow to get going. The rules seem pretty good but explaining them is another thing altogether and there was lots of head-scratching at the start when you are just rolling dice and looking at a load of symbols that don’t mean anything. Despite this I really liked this game. Phase selection is a key choice in mitigating the luck of your dice and it’s very tense when you lift your blind and see what other players have gone for (or not gone for). You will always have something to do it’s just a matter of how much!

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There are plenty of other choices to make through the game too. Special abilities on tech/planets can combo nicely if you get the right ones and you can always fish for more if you don’t get what you want. In addition some grant you extra dice in different colours which might have a different combination of faces letting you specialise in various ways. It’s also worth noting that the components are really top notch with plenty of hard-wearing dice and sturdy tiles. In case you couldn’t guess I do like this game.

Mission: Red Planet

Players: 5 (Plays 3-6)

Duration: 90 minutes

Thankfully the poor devil who had to explain Roll for the Galaxy had an easier job with Mission: Red Planet which is a simple area control game set on the plains of Mars. Mars is split into 9 regions and the moon Phobos which is separate from the main board. Each of these 10 regions produces a different resource (worth either 1,2 or 3 points) which is hidden until a player lands some of their astronauts on them. At the start of the game players are given 9 character cards and a secret objective that can net them bonus points depending on some end of game conditions. A launchpad is set up with slots equal to one less than the number of players and one card drawn from a rocket deck is put on each slot. These rocket cards have a capacity and a destination for the rocket.

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At the start of each of the games 10 rounds players choose one of their character cards and then reveal them simultaneously. These character cards put astronauts onto rocket cards but will have another effect as well such as launching a rocket prematurely, blowing up a rocket, picking up or looking at discovery cards (these attach to regions and affect end-game board state), moving astronauts and so on. The cards are numbered with the larger numbers getting to take their action first. Once these cards are used they can’t be used again until the player plays the character that brings them back to hand. Any rockets that are full immediately launch and at the end of the round they drop the astronauts onto their target region and a new rocket replaces them. Scoring happens at the end of the 5th, 8th and final rounds with points awarded for players that control a region. The number of points awarded then increases. At the end of the game those points are added to any end-game bonuses and the one with the most is the winner.

For me this game is the perfect balance of simplicity and fun but with the need to make some critical decisions. It can be so tense revealing those character cards, piling all your astronauts into that one key rocket and then hoping it doesn’t get blown up. When there are astronauts on the planet you then have to keep an eye on 2 fronts by making sure you are holding on to your key territories as well as filling rockets for further colonisation. My favourite character is the soldier which lets you kill an enemy astronaut and then parachute three others from Phobos onto any region on Mars. You can gain a lot of ground with this guy.

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I love straightforward area control games and I would add this to El Grande and Tammany Hall as one of my favourites. These all have a very simple ruleset that you can pick up very easily but with their own subtle flavour. I would contrast them with Cthulhu Wars and Blood Rage which, for me, push the complexity a little bit too far and bog the game down a little. Mission: Red Planet comes highly recommended.

THE FALL

This Weeks Addiction: The Fall

I almost missed The Fall. The temptation of all those high budget US dramas on Netflix might make you think a 6 episode run of a BBC-commissioned crime drama was a little old-fashioned. You might think an Irish detective story to be old hat. You would be wrong. It’s incredible.

The Fall follows Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan), a Belfast serial killer and Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson), the police officer trying to catch him. It’s a dark thrill that is utterly absorbing. We see Spector pick, stalk and kill his victims while Gibson and her team desperately scramble to identify the murderer. Dornan is totally convincing as the killer and portrays Spector with remarkable restraint. There are no wild displays of rage that would cheapen the character but a brooding violent intensity that is portrayed with a subtle change of tone or expression. Handsome and intelligent, it’s easy to feel yourself liking the empathic killer and the excitement of seeing him stalk through an empty house is dangerously infectious.

DCI Gibson is a veteran police officer, resilient and smart who enjoys a glass of red and a no-strings screw, a character who a few years ago would almost certainly be male. Anderson plays her so perfectly that she should be in text books about how to play a tough female lead without resorting to type. She is strong and practical without being bitchy or callous. It’s clear that when characters find her looks and strength distracting it’s definitely their shortcoming.

If all this talk of gender roles sounds a bit much then don’t worry. It’s just a theme running under what is a gripping series. Filmed in dark colours and with a creepy soundtrack, the end of each episode is almost like a relief but it’s one that ends quickly before pulling you right back in. It’s not gory or sensational but a slow burn that is deliberate and compelling. It kind of reminds me of that old series Cracker from the nineties but made in the style of Nordic dramas like The Killing or The Bridge. Ultimately The Fall is an intense character study by two fantastic actors. Season 1 and 2 are available on Amazon Video (included as part of Prime) and I would firmly recommend it.