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Monthly Archives: April 2017

Game Review: Zombie Dice

Brains…. Braaains… Brains good. Meat run fast. Catch meat. Eat most braaaaains…

Boomboom? Uh oh…

Maybe you need to up your vocabulary… Or maybe you’re playing Zombie Dice.

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Zombie Dice is a dice-rolling party game by Steve Jackson Games. In it, players (as many as you want) take the rolls of zombies, each try to get as many delicious brains as possible before taking too many shotgun blasts to the face. It’s a press-your-luck style game; a player’s turn consists of a series of dice rolls, each one increasing the chances for more brains, but also upping the risk of getting shot and getting nothing at all. With it’s thirteen custom dice and it’s simple rules, Zombie Dice is easy to learn and quick to play.

On their turn, a player takes 3 random dice from the dice cup without looking. Dice are color coded by risk; green are the safest, yellows are medium, and reds are the riskiest. Players roll the dice, setting aside Brain results (needed for victory) and Shotguns (3 of these end the turn). Players can choose to score (taking points equal to the number of rolled Brains) or continue. If they continue, they re-roll any dice that came up Footprints on the first roll, along with enough fresh dice from the cup to total 3. If at any point a player gets 3 Shotguns, though, their turn ends immediately and they score no points. Players keep going until someone gets 13 points; then everyone finishes a last round, and whoever has the most points wins.

The real beauty in Zombie Dice is it’s simplicity. Players can learn it by the first turn and jump right in. Aside from deciding when to push on and when to play it safe and score your points, there’s no real strategy. This can be a draw, especially for newer gamers who aren’t after heavy games, or for anyone looking for a quick, light game. The unlimited number of players makes this game a nice one to include as an option for a large group, since it allows people to drop in and out of it fairly quickly and smoothly.

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You have a chance for more than 3 points, but do you risk just one more shotgun?

Of course, the lack of real strategy might make the game bore some players. Certainly it’s not a game to play over and over again in a short time. There’s only so much you can stretch the fun of rolling the same dice again and again and again. The other real downside of the game is that it has no inherent social elements about it, which I think is strange for a “party” game. Sure, you can talk to the other players, but not only is there not anything in the game requiring it, there isn’t really anything in the game even prompting it. When I played, we would try to convince one another to keep going (often trying to push each other into riskier and riskier plays), but that was really it. Nothing you do can affect other players or interacts with anything other players have. It’s almost like the game is a bunch of people playing a solitaire dice game at the same time, rather than a true group dice game.

Still, lack of strategy and social elements aside, Zombie Dice does well what it’s supposed to do. It’s quick. It’s simple. It’s a little macabre and silly without being gory. It’s fun, as long as you don’t try to stretch it out too far. Like the runners the Footstep dice signal, the game is fast food (get it?): good, but not necessarily filling. Still, there’s nothing wrong with fast food once in a while… It’s better than shotgun-wielding food, at least.

 
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Posted by on April 29, 2017 in Board Games

 

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Puzzle This Out: Using Puzzles in RPGs

Fair warning: I love puzzles. I like solving them. I like making them. I especially like watching players working to solve a puzzle, the way they laugh in pride and relief when they figure it out.

Now, not everyone likes puzzles in their games. If your players find them more frustrating than fun, then the puzzles are never going to be a fun time. But if you make a quick google search for puzzle ideas, almost every result you get is going to include people saying that puzzles never work, that they don’t have a place in games, that a puzzle killed their father and they will not rest until every riddle in the world is destroyed.

To a point, I understand their complaints. Puzzles, thrown in without thought or reason, can detract from the enjoyment of them. On the other hand, done right and with willing players, they can add something special, a new type of challenge to change up from the usual death and destruction.

When Puzzle Don’t Work

There are certainly some times you’ll find puzzle won’t work. First, and perhaps most importantly, if your players aren’t interested in puzzles, don’t try to force it. Some people game for the hack-and-slash, or for more social aspects of role-playing, and they just don’t want to deal with riddles. If they don’t like them, for goodness sake don’t try to make them.

Appropriate logic can also be a stumbling block for making puzzles enjoyable, especially for players who want that sort of logic in their game. No one would ever really lock their valuables up behind a riddle in a world where locks and magic exists. The key to a world-destroying abyssal portal, forged by the gods of old, should not be a matter of a patterned series of colors recognizable by the first eighth-grade art student to come across it. It simply doesn’t make sense that things that are meant to prevent people from finding/unlocking/powering up something that they shouldn’t can be overcome by a good brainstorming session.

Finally, puzzles hit a stumbling block when frustration sets in. You plan the puzzles, you know the answers. Players don’t. What you think is simple or obvious, they might find obscure or impossible. If the puzzle is a roadblock that prevents progression through the story, then a difficult puzzle can lead to players getting annoyed. And being annoyed while a GM smiles smugly at how obvious the answer will totally be once you get it is not a recipe for fun.

Making Puzzles That Do Work

So let’s talk about how you can make sure your puzzles are avoiding those types of stumbling blocks. First, if you want to know if your players like puzzles you could ask. Crazy idea, I know. Ask them if they’re interested in puzzles and riddles and you know what you need to know. Don’t be bound by asking once and sticking with that one answer, though. Be open to feedback, both direct and indirect. Direct feedback is when your players straight up tell you what they like and don’t. It works well, when it happens, but it doesn’t always happen. Indirect feedback is what you’ll see more often; if they look frustrated, if they give up trying to solve your riddles, if they complain when puzzles come up… Well, if you miss those sort of signals, maybe you need to pay a bit more attention. Or get glasses. Whichever on.

What about making puzzles that have logical purposes within your game? Like I said, valuable things are not, in real life, locked away by a riddle instead of, oh, I don’t know… a lock? Here are some reasons that someone might make puzzles:

  • Craziness: Who doesn’t love the motif of the mad wizard? You’d have to be crazy to use a puzzle to lock your vault, so make the person who did it crazy, and it all works out.
  • Tests: Puzzles are terrible locks if you don’t want someone to open something; on the other hand, if you just want someone to struggle to open something but eventually get it, then a puzzle is perfect. Puzzles are good as a “prove your wisdom” style challenge.
  • Accidental Obstacles: What if the challenge or puzzle wasn’t meant to be a serious obstacle, but through neglect, accidents, or other mistakes, winds up being one? Consider the magical gatekeeper that was meant to be a simple bit of fun, but has gone out of control, demanding answers from anyone? Or maybe an ancient, ruined tower has magical puzzles seeping through its very walls, like semi-conscious spirits? One time, I had an accident in a laboratory researching elemental planes lead to a puzzle; the only way to put out the elemental fire, for instance, was to find which source of water was from the elemental plane of water, it’s opposite.
  • Non-Puzzle Puzzles: Sometimes puzzles aren’t really puzzles. For instance, if two people are writing in code to one another, and you have a partially-complete cipher, the figuring out the rest is a puzzle. It makes sense that two people might write secrets in code (and they wouldn’t intend other people to be able to solve it… Lucky for you, you found a half-burned codebook on that last corpse), and having only part of the code makes it more of a challenge that just following a full cipher. This sort of challenge has all the elements of a puzzle for the players, while still making sense as an attempt to stop the players from finding something.

Those are just some ways to make puzzles make sense in your game. Of course, there’s always one more reason that works… “Because I planned it that way.” Players have to be able to have some willing suspension of disbelief for the game to work, so why not willingly disbelieve the whole “puzzles make dumb locks” thing?

As for the frustration aspect of puzzles, a lot of it can be avoided with proper planning on your part. First: make puzzles easy. That sounds like terrible advice, doesn’t it? Well this is my blog, so you’re stuck with it. If you create the puzzle, you know the answer, so of course it seems easy to you. For players, though, it’s going to be harder than you think. So make the puzzles slightly easier than you think necessary, and they’ll still be harder than you realize for players.

The other way to avoid frustration is by not making the puzzles a roadblock for the stories, if at all possible. If the players can’t figure the puzzle out, there should be a way around it. Puzzles could lead to bonuses, for instance, which are helpful but not necessary. Or a door that players need past can be brute-forced open, if the riddle password can’t be guessed. There should always be an option for getting by the puzzle without solving it, just in case it proves harder than you expect.

It’s also advantageous to consider having more than one solution to your puzzles and challenges. And you don’t even need to think of them! I mean, do think of them, if you can… But if the players offer you a solution that is logical, smart, and completely different from the answer you have written down, take it anyways. They never need to know you hadn’t thought of it first.

Final Thoughts

Puzzles aren’t for everyone. I love them, some people don’t. I think they add a unique challenge to a game when sprinkled in among combat and social encounters. If you want to include them, just remember: Make sure it’s fun, logical, and desired. If any one of those three elements are missing, your cleverly-crafted puzzle challenge may fall flat. If more than one of those elements are missing, then why are you even bothering putting it in?

What do you think? If you like puzzles or hate them, let me know in the comments. If you have some clever set up for a puzzle, or a challenge that you think is worth sharing, share it!

 
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Posted by on April 27, 2017 in Role-Playing Games

 

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Game Review: Love Letter: Batman Edition

They’ve escaped… Again. A mass break-out at Arkham, and its Rogue Gallery is on the streets again. Bane, Two-Face, The Joker… Left unchecked, who knows what evil they might bring to the streets of Gotham. It’s up to you to bring them in. Well, you and a few others; but you’ll do it best. In fact, you’re going to bring in the the most dangerous villains, and show up your rivals while you’re at it.

Maybe your a vigilante fighting against the rising tide of villainy in the world… Or maybe you’re playing Love Letter: Batman Edition.

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Love Letter: Batman Edition is designed by Seiji Kanai and jointly released by Cryptozoic Entertainment and Alderac Entertainment Group. Played by 2 to 4 players, the game suggest a playtime of 20 minutes, but in my experience it tends to be a bit longer.

The goal of the game is to be the first to gain 7 “batman tokens.” The tokens are generally gained by capturing the most valuable villain in a round. Gameplay is fairly simple; players are given a card with a character and ability on it. On their turn, players draw a new card, and choose one of their two cards to discard, activating its ability. Abilities can serve to gain information, protect yourself, or eliminate other players. A round ends when either there are no more cards to draw (in which case whoever has the highest ranking villain wins a token) or when all but one player has been eliminated (in which case the remaining player wins a token).

The game is quick to learn, and quick to play. A round can be a mere matter of moments, depending on the cards played. Even if it lasts as long as it can, the 16-card deck means that there’s a max of 6 or so turns each in a 2 player game, and less than that with more players. The instructions printed on each card are fairly simple to understand, with the rule book going into a bit more detail for more complicated situations. Typically, though, simply doing what the card says is all you need to know.

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The player has already played Batman and Robin… But who knows what villain is hiding in the flipped card?

The game does force you to think strategically, at times. Higher value cards are good for the end game, but make you a target early on. Sometimes, you might find yourself forced to discard cards you’d rather keep. Since you can also see what cards the other players have discarded, and each player is provided a reference card that shows how many of each card is in the game, you can try to reason what cards other players have from there. Of course, as there is always one card removed from the round secretly, it is impossible to card count with 100% certainty.

The game is fun enough to play, but the real draw of it might be the flavor. Who doesn’t like the idea of capturing super villains in Gotham? The rule book plays this up, pairing explinations of game mechanics with commentary about “serving justice to a corrupt world” and scum not being “allowed to walk the streets among hard-working citizens again.” It’s a funny read.

One minor complaint I have about the game design, though, comes in the ranking of characters. The card abilities are based on the abilities from the original version of Love Letter, but with Batman characters replacing the courtiers from the original game. But it doesn’t seem like a lot of thought was put into making the characters and abilities make sense in the world of Batman. Robin is ranked as a higher villain than Bane, for instance. To my mind, the characters could have easily been arranged in a slightly different order and match up to abilities and ranking in a more sensible way.

The other concern I have with the game is in the art. The illustrations are based on DC’s New 52 revamp from 2011. The costume and art seems fairly sexualized. And, while the male characters get muscles and action shots, the three female cards get… Uh… Well, they get boobs. Lots and lots of boobs. And, while some people will argue that that’s just the card art remaining loyal tot he New 52 look, I think it would probably have been easy enough to draw the characters in their New 52 costumes without also framing them in such a way that their breasts were oddly pronounced and front-and-center in their cards.

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Did I mention the boobs?

All in all, Love Letter: Batman Edition is a quick game, that’s fun is not marred by it’s simplicity. It can be learned in seconds, and played in half an hour or so. Playing strategically might take a bit more familiarity with the game to get to, but the game is not built in a way to give one person being familiar with it a huge advantage. A bit of help, maybe, but not to a game-breaking extent. If you’re not bothered by the… interesting artistic choices, it’s a great game for a quick play session, or as a palate cleanser between heavier, lengthier games. Who knew putting a stop to villainy could be so quick and easy?

 
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Posted by on April 22, 2017 in Board Games

 

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Game-Breaking Breaks: How to Deal with Hiatuses

What better topic for a first post back following a long hiatus than long hiatuses? That’s some meta-topic stuff right there.

Pretend you have a group that you like gaming with. Maybe you have a long campaign, an in-depth story, events building on events, cliffhanger leading to cliffhanger, momentum reaching a mad crescendo of tension that crackles through the very air like electricity before a storm-

And then one player can’t make it next week, because they have to study. And another is out of town the week after that. And you have your parents visiting the week after that, so you can’t run the game. And all that carefully crafted tension and suspense and excitement that you’ve worked to build is all gone.

So how do you get it back? What can you do to ensure that you can get right back into the flow of things following a break?

Sink or Swim

“The volcano is erupting, the lead cultist’s body still warm, the blood still flowing from the wounds you inflicted. Before you even get the chance to breath, the room shakes. One wall breaks open, and a flow of molten rock begins to seep into the room.

You have no time to hesitate, no time to think. What do you do?”

One option when coming back off a break in gaming is to just jump right in. Don’t worry about making sure the players remember everything, so long as they know what’s going on right now. This works, perhaps, best if what’s going on right now is something dramatic and/or stressful and/or dangerous. “You roll out of bed. You can have muffins or toast for breakfast. There’s no time to hesitate, no time to think. What do you choose?” doesn’t have quite the same dramatic effect.

The advantage of this throw-them-in-and-pray mentality comes from the drama it creates. Think of it as a cheat to get back to the high-tension levels you had been building slowly towards. It’s not quite the same; less of a slow, building burn and more of an adrenaline and gasoline fueled bonfire, but – done in a suitably high-drama situation – can work wonders for getting players re-invested in the story real quick.

Of course, there are downsides, too. First and foremost, players might have no idea what the sweet heck is going on. And their fresh out of luck if the situation requires them to recall some specific detail of the story. Its success, I find, comes in a sort of opposite correlation to how long you’ve been building the story. It’s great for a second half of a two-part adventure that ended on a cliffhanger… Not so functional for getting back into a three-year long campaign that spans a dozen kingdoms and as many interwoven storylines.

The Recap

Probably the most obvious and the most simple option to get your game back on the road is simply recapping the action. As a GM, you can simply provide a “previously on…” style review of what’s been going on, to make sure the players remember the important bits.

This idea has a few advantages. First, you know what bits are the most important, both for what happened and what is coming, so you can be sure to bring those elements up. After all, the dramatic reveal that John Everyman the local carpenter is part of a secret cult bent on world domination is a lot less impressive if the players don’t remember meeting him in the first place. If you’re a particularly performative GM, this type of recap can be used to try to build back up the suspense and tension of the story through how you tell it. There’s no harm in laying some of the difficulties the players have gone through and the risks their facing on heavy in your recap.

There’s some downsides, though. Mainly, it’s a really passive experience for the players. Role-play games are participatory by their very nature and if you spend the first hour of a session re-telling what the players have already done, it’s not a game… It’s a monologue. Aside from annoying the players, you run the risk of them not paying attention. A recap misses the point if the players don’t listen to it anyways.

The Recap, Part 2: Players Revenge

An idea I personally prefer is to have the players lead a recap for you. Ask prompting questions. “Who remembers where we were?” “What was it you guys were looking for?” “What happened once you found the MacGuffin of Doom?” With some guidance from you, the players can share what they all remember.

One of the biggest advantage of this style is what it tell you, as a GM. What you think was important or central might not be what the players took as the most important. Maybe you threw Joanne Everyman (John’s over-bearing mother) in as a joke… But if all the players remember her, why not bring her back? After all, John had to be put in contact with the evil cult somehow. It also tell you what your players did or didn’t like. If they grimace with every memory of the goblin’s riddle game they had to play, then maybe it’s worth remembering your players don’t like riddles. On the other hand, if they speak well of the chase-scene, maybe you should remember they like those kind of action sequences.

Of course, there are downsides to letting players lead the recap. Most problematically, they might not remember everything, or they might remember things incorrectly. I remember one particularly violent-minded character who’s player insisted they were on a mission to kill the person they were actually looking to save. You can imagine how, had she convinced the others that her recollection was correct, the story might have been in trouble…

That kind of problem is easily solved, of course. Simply correct (gently) where needed, or add in some information that they miss. But consider not tying yourself too tightly to what you think is the “right” things for them to remember. Besides letting you know what they think was important or fun, what a player “remembers” (whether true or not) might just give you some ideas you’ve never thought of before. Yeah, it makes more work for you, adapting things on the fly to what players say happened… But if you think you can handle that kind of improvisation (which some GMs can’t, and that’s ok) then try. It’s just another way to help players co-create the story with you which, as a GM, is a big part of your job.

A Final Thought: Avoiding the Problem

If you know that breaks from campaigning are likely, or that certain players may be available some sessions but not others, you might want to consider doing everything you can to avoid the problem of players needing to be reminded of what was going on in great detail. There’s a few ways you can probably do that.

Don’t have cliffhangers. They don’t work if players don’t remember them so, if you know there will be long breaks between games, you can just avoid them.

Have characters take a break between sessions. If you can, in story, explain that the players can rest for a few days (or more) between adventure sessions, then you don’t have to worry about players forgetting what spell slots they’ve used, how much they’ve been hurt, and so on. It will all be reset to the nice, simply, full numbers.

Have a home base, and have characters return to it. If, in the story, there’s a location that characters go to frequently (i.e. a favoured tavern, the mercenary’s guild, the mansion of their patron, the apartments they rent), try and get them back there by the end of a session. This is particularly useful when players come and go, as it gives a reason that their characters come and go as well. It’s a lot harder to explain away the disappearance of Volkar the Barbarian between sessions when they were all together in the middle of a jungle at the end of last session.

(Giving them a home base also has the added benefit of giving you something to use in story. Just as they’re getting comfortable, have the bad guys burn their favoured tavern to the ground, and see if that doesn’t get them more invested in hunting them down than countless external story hooks.)

And finally, if you don’t think it’s reasonably likely for the players to meet regularly, consider not having a long-term campaign. This may sound obvious, but if your not getting together to game every week, maybe you can’t carry a continuous story across the sessions. This doesn’t mean there can’t be some connecting elements. Imagine if, instead of being adventurers set on one path to save the world, your games involved a group of mercenary adventurers, and each session is just one of the most eventful jobs they’ve done in the last month/year/whatever. You can still have stories build on each other (i.e. the brother of the person they defeated three sessions ago has finally built the perfect death-maze to trap them in for revenge), but that only requires some basic information, not detailed recollection.

Campaigns are fun, and a well-built, over-arching story can be super rewarding for both you as GM and your players. If you are forced to take some time away from the game, though, remember that it’s always possible to get back into it. These are just some possible ways to do exactly that.

What about you? Do you have a trick for getting back into a game after a break? Do you think it’s worth the trouble of making over-arching stories, or are stand-alone adventures best? Let me know what you think in comments.

 
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Posted by on April 15, 2017 in Role-Playing Games

 

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I’m back

When I started this blog, I did it for a class. I was in my first semester in a new Master’s program, and I had to make a blog. The teacher wasn’t too specific about what the blog had to talk about, so I went with what I knew, what I liked. And I liked role-playing.

Fast forward a semester, and the same teacher was teaching a class on board games (I never like the term the teacher preferred, “analog games”). And they assigned a blog again. Hey look, I already had one perfectly suited for discussions of board games. And, thanks to that class, this blog moved away from role-playing games and towards board games. But that was still fun.

Then I went and graduated and my output slowed. Well, not so much slowed, as stopped completely.

But now, I find myself feeling the need to write, to discuss the games I love. So I’m back. I’ll be moving back and forth between board games and role-playing games, and maybe even try my hand at some video content. I’m hoping to keep updating fairly regularly, but who knows for sure how well that will work?

In any case, I’m back in action. Is there anything you think I should start with? Leave a comment if you’re interested in more discussion on role-play storytelling or board game reviews. If there’s any specific board games you think I should talk about, tell that, too. We’ll see how it goes.

 
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Posted by on April 15, 2017 in Uncategorized