Monthly Archives: February 2015

Monday Night Tabletop Round-up 23/02/15

Betrayal at House on the Hill. Betrayal at House on the Hill. Betrayal at House on the Hill. It just doesn’t sound right. THE Betrayal at THE House sounds more natural surely? Well, thankfully for us grammar pedants it’s a sideshow to XCOM which, now I think about it, doesn’t make sense either.

XCOM: The Board Game

Players: 4 (Plays 1-4)

Duration: 2 hours

Like the video game it draws its inspiration from, XCOM is about a special task force that is desperately trying to save the Earth from extra-terrestrial invasion. Players take one of four distinct roles (Commander, Chief Scientist, Central Officer and Squad Leader) with rounds broken into two phases (a timed phase and then a resolution phase) both of which are controlled by a free companion app which players must download to their smartphone, tablet or PC. The aim is to complete a final mission before the XCOM base is destroyed or two continents descend into total panic (continents move up and down a panic track depending on player actions).

During the timed phase the app will rapidly assign task after task each with a strict time limit. The Central Officer is in charge of relaying information from the app to the team, placing UFOs on the world map and assigning satellites into orbit, the Chief Scientist decides on, and assigns scientists to research projects, the Squad Leader deploys soldiers to the current mission or garrisons them to base defense and the Commander tracks the budget, draws crisis cards and assigns fighter ships to defend against UFOs.

Once the timed phase is finished play moves to the resolution phase and players get to see where their frenzied and headless decision making has got them. This phase uses a push-your-luck dice mechanic where dice are rolled to determine success. Players can keep rerolling for better results but when they do the risk of failure goes up (determined by an 8-sided alien die).

During the resolution phase the Commander resolves crisis cards and balances the budget. Assigning satellites, fighters, scientists and soldiers takes money and any overspend pushes the most panicked continent event further down the panic track (any money left over can be used to buy new fighters or soldiers). They also roll to see whether fighters are successful in shooting down UFOs over continents to which they have been assigned. Failures result in fighters being destroyed and UFOs not shot down send the continents they are hovering over further down the panic track. The Central Officer also does this for satellites to knock UFOs out of higher orbit.

The Chief Scientist rolls for their research projects with success granting new technology and additional powers to the team. Failure exhausts scientists meaning they can’t be assigned during the next timed phase. Finally the squad leader rolls those accursed dice to complete missions and defend the base from direct alien assault. Fails result in dead soldiers and less time and resources to get to that final mission.

XCOM is stressful. You never have enough resources to do everything you need and are constantly trying to balance global panic with the need to complete missions which is how you ultimately complete the game. The team juggles research and defense so the squad leader can get to and then complete the final mission. I was the squad leader and it didn’t go well. In the end we actually failed on multiple fronts as the world descended into a terror-fuelled chaos and our base was infiltrated and destroyed by an aggressive alien assault. It was tough. What made the loss even harder to swallow was that the next table also playing XCOM managed to carve out an impressive victory with a pile of incredible technology that saw them tear through the final mission in one round. No doubt they are terrible cheats*.

XCOM is pretty much everything that a good co-operative game should be. Player interaction is high but strict time limits mitigate the alpha gamer problem where one player controls the whole thing. It’s difficult but not unfair and I felt that it would be beatable given another shot (although I should note that there are three levels of difficulty above the easy setting that we played on). The dice may be a sticking point for some. Naturally the good rolls average out with the bad but seeing a four man team getting wiped out by bad luck can be frustrating. However, I would gleefully jump at the chance to suffocate under the inexorable alien tide once more. Welcome to Earth.

*they’re not, we sucked.

Betrayal at House on the Hill

Players: 6 (Plays 3-6)

Duration: 90 minutes

Betrayal (sorry THE Betrayal) is a game where 3-6 players explore a creepy mansion, building it as they go with tiles randomly drawn from a pile that includes kitchen, dining room, graveyard and laboratory. Nice. At a certain point called ‘the haunting’ the game changes and depending on various factors a scenario is chosen which sees one player turn against the others. I believe there are about 50 scenarios in total and they are all totally different.

In the one that we played one player was revealed as a life sucking monster that was trying to kill the other players to keep her youth. The good guys needed to reach 5 rooms and complete a ritual that would send the monster back to her grave. We started pretty well as 4 of the rooms were out already but eventually time got the better of us as at the end of the monster’s turn we aged ten years and slowly died one by one. As the holder of some magical macguffin I was immune to the monster’s aging witchcraft but it became strengthened by each other players death and I was finally bludgeoned to death in a showdown over a bottomless chasm. Usual Monday stuff.

This Weeks Addiction: The Americans

It’s 1981. Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings are small business owners that live in a nice suburb of Washington. They are loving parents. They are intelligent and charming. You would like them. They are also smart, resourceful and ruthless KGB sleeper agents that have been living in the US for the past 20 years and are willing to employ extreme methods to serve their Soviet handlers. You would still like them.

The Americans is similar to the Sopranos in making us like characters that we definitely shouldn’t. Tony Soprano should be beyond sympathy but after a few episodes I was under his spell. His humour, intelligence and vulnerability made me forget he was actually a monstrous criminal. The same is true of The Americans. Phillip and Elizabeth are dangerous spies that commit treason as part of everyday life and will protect their identities with murderous efficiency but throughout the series I found myself rooting for them, hoping their relationship would hold together and that their true identities would not be discovered. I was also rooting for the FBI agent that just moved in across the road. The agent whose job is to catch spies. It’s complicated.

Like The Sopranos The Americans is not about the incredible situation in which it is set but about the lives of the people that are surviving within it. Characters are conflicted when higher, idealistic goals contradict their personal feelings and their priorities and loyalties come in to question. There are no heroes or villains here and the classic roles of bad Soviet spy and good lawman are not so clear.

I have only seen the first series of The Americans so far thanks to its availability on Amazon Prime but I have my fingers crossed that the second and third will be available soon because it is a great series. Plus it has big 80s hair. Perhaps I should have started with that.

This Weeks Addiction: Hitman GO

Hitman GO is a puzzler where you have to guide Agent 47 from one side of a small grid to another without being apprehended by guards who are also prowling the level. Hitman fans may get a bit of a shock when they see GO but the series’ core elements are all present in its strange tablet-based second cousin. Purists would point out that deep-down, Hitman is really a puzzle where observing and memorising enemy movement and behaviour is a much more powerful weapon than a pair of silenced pistols. GO has taken this central idea, added a turn-based element and presented it in a board game style that is both stylish and clean.

The point of each small level is to get to the other side. After each swipe Agent 47 moves one space in the desired direction and then each guard takes their action too. Basic guards may move along a prescribed path, spin on the spot or just stay facing the same direction. If you are in a space in front of one of them they apprehend you and it’s back to the start. In the early levels you can try to sneak around or dispose of guards but later levels let you throw rocks as a distraction, get access to one shot sniper rifles or fire the iconic silenced Silverballers.

Enemies get more complex too and there are dogs that chase you down or snipers that stare down lanes in the grid but the incredible visual design means that you easily remember what each does. The soundtrack is simple too and the gentle background music is replaced by Hitman favourite Ave Maria in levels where you have to assassinate key targets. Other sounds are the gentle toppling of pieces and the swish after each movement. It’s wonderfully pared down.

In addition to just getting through the level there are a number of extra objectives that you can attempt which give you extra stars that unlock new bundles of levels Angry Birds style. These add an extra layer of playability to each level but if you don’t get them then you will not be able to play later levels which could be frustrating for those that want to see everything. Naturally there is the option to pay real money for hints or unlocks but such painful wallet-wringing is a bit unpleasant and I can’t see many going for it.

Hitman GO is an excellent title. The basic gameplay makes for a solid puzzle title but the Hitman skin and tabletop presentation make it something special.

Monday Night Tabletop Round-up 09/02/14

Red7

Players: 4 (Plays 2-6)

Duration: 5-10 minutes

Red7 is a card game which consists of 49 cards numbered 1 – 7 in each of 7 different colours (with each colour matching a winning condition). At the start of the game players are randomly dealt 7 cards to their hand and then one face up in front them (this area is called the palette). In the centre of the table (or canvas) there is a card which states that the highest card wins (the red winning condition). At the end of their turn, players need to be winning the game or they are knocked out. They do this by playing a card into their palette to satisfy the winning condition, playing a card onto the canvas to change the winning condition, or both. Examples of winning conditions are highest card wins (red), most even cards (green) and most cards under 4 (violet).

Red7 is a brain burner. Each turn is a puzzle that you have to solve and due to the diversity of the cards in this game each turn will be unique. There may be multiple solutions to getting through your turn but some are better than others. You will want to use only one card whenever possible (running out of cards means you can’t go and will almost certainly be out) and you may also want to attempt to plan for future turns too. As a downside, player interaction is low as even though other players palettes do affect your turn the player right before you may change a rule and ruin any plans you have made. However, at about 5 minutes per round this is not a problem and it’s still fun to see players squirm as you change a rule right in front of them. If you like logic puzzles and card games (which I do) then this inexpensive filler is a must.

Brass

Players: 4 (Plays 3-4)

Duration: 3 hours

There is something nice about playing a game about your local area. Brass is set in the Industrial Revolution of the North West of England and seeing Runcorn on the board is oddly satisfying (as opposed to actually going to Runcorn which is definitely not). The game takes place over two ages, (canal and railway) and players are trying to score victory points by building various industries (coal, iron, cotton, ports and shipyards) represented by tiles. The catch is that once built the industry will not generate income or score until it is ‘flipped’ which is achieved by meeting certain conditions depending on the industry.

At the beginning of the game players are dealt 8 cards (each of which either feature a location on the board or a type of industry) and 5 stacks of industry tiles (one for each type of industry) with lowest technology type at the top. On their turn players play two cards and take two actions depending on the cards (they then redraw two more cards). As an action players can build an industry, build canal/rail links, develop industry, sell cotton or take a loan.

Building is probably the most common action. When players build an industry they pay the cost on the tile and place it on the board. Certain tiles may require coal or iron which can be obtained from other industries or bought from a distant market. When coal mines or ironworks are built, coal or iron cubes are placed on them and when a connected industry is built that requires them they are removed from the tile. Once they are all removed the tile is flipped (generating money and victory points). Shipyards are expensive to be built but score a lot of points and are flipped immediately. Cotton mills and ports can be built too but are only flipped during a sell cotton action. Building transport links is only allowed from towns that you already have an industry or transport link to and allows you to move coal, sell cotton and score points.

Developing industry is a simple action where you discard tiles from your stacks to get to the better (higher scoring) industries lower in the stack and taking loans gives you a cash injection but lowers your income. Selling cotton is a tricky action that lets you flip a cotton tile but you will need to sell it through a port that there is a transport link too. Additionally the port they sell through also gets flipped.

Once the cards have all run out the canal age ends. At this point players score for any of their flipped industries and canal links. Then all level one industries and canal links are discarded, the discard pile is shuffled into a new deck and the railway age begins. Once the cards are exhausted again there is a second scoring round and the player with the most points wins.

The above may give you some idea of how the game plays but there are a lot of finer details that make Brass a much more complex experience. The concept of having to flip industries before they can score can take a little while to get your head around but it’s not the only quirk. Income is measured on a track in increasingly sized bands so an industry income level of 5 may only correspond to an actual increase of £1. Loans aren’t ever paid back directly but knock you down the income track by entire bands so you are encouraged to borrow heavily early on when the bands are smaller which seems odd. Other weird things are the need for coal to travel along transport links when iron can somehow fly and the fact that all level one industries and canal links are discarded from the board halfway through the game making the canal age (which scores low) feel like an extended setup phase. These abstract elements do clash with the theme and the misleadingly simple looking board does hide a deeper more obtuse layer.

At three hours Brass sits right at the very top of my time limit for mechanics-heavy games and it’s one of those that I am not sure whether I am actually enjoying or just appreciating. Thankfully we had a Brass fan teaching (or reminding) us the game so it went fairly smoothly and the explanation for XCOM at the next table went on twice as long so it can’t be all that bad. Brass is not a game that I would want to play every week or even every month but like Container a few weeks ago it’s one that gets into your head and pushes you to think about every move. We will meet again!

It’s worth noting that historically Brass is very accurate in where the industries are placed and the transport links between them. For someone living in the area it’s entertaining to see that Blackpool’s only value was as a transport link (no industry just tourists) and that you only go to Barrow when you absolutely have to. Just like real life.