Last week was marked by a pair of milestones. First, I finally defended my Master’s thesis, an extensive affair that fused together poetry, atheist/theist dialogue, postmodernism, and many academic buzzwords. It was the last major hurdle in getting my Master’s degree, so, you know, that’s pretty much “in the bag.” Second, I attended PAX East last Saturday and Sunday. It was a blast, of course, and during the two days I was there I got to play an assortment of role-playing and board games. Recorded here is a log of my activities at the convention, and my thoughts on the games I played.
Upon arriving at the show and being struck in the head by the line beach ball, I met up with my friend Paul, and then we checked out a few games. This is what we played:
Yomi – Sirlin Games
David Sirlin is a big name in the fighting game community (he apparently won the Street Fighter HD Remix tournament at PAX East!), though he has lately turned his eye toward board games. Yomi was his first foray. It’s a fascinating game meant to play off some of the same skills that are necessary for fighting game success, specifically “your ability to predict how your opponents will act” and adjusting to the evolving relationship between the two of you. In form, Yomi is a card game that mimics a fighting game that doesn’t exist. In the master set, with which we were playing, there are ten different characters to choose from, each with their own deck. Visually they are standard fighting-game fare, including the necessary odd-ball breaks from conventional human contestants. For the first game, Paul picked up the Grave Stormborne deck, who is to Yomi what Ryu is to Street Fighter: balanced and adaptable. I chose to play Argagarg Garg, though not just because he was an anthropomorphic fish-shaman named Argagarg. Argagarg was a patient, defensive choice, with a lot of block cards in his deck. Every time Argagarg ended a turn and a wasn’t knocked prone, he would bleed two damage out of the opponent. With life totals numbering around 85 and 90, though, I didn’t know how helpful it would be, but I assumed that it wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t going to be somewhat useful.
The game is built around a rock-paper-scissor mechanic. Attacks always beat throws, throws always beat dodges and blocks, and blocks and dodges always beat attacks. Blocks and dodges do no damage, of course, but they help the player develop card advantage. Throws are useful for starting combos, but can’t follow attacks, and attacks are where the brunt of damage-dealing occurs. Specific attacks are usable only in combo situations, as links or finishers in combo attacks, and once a player has launched a successful throw or attack, they can often launch into other attacks that are only inescapable with a Joker on the defender’s part. These cards are placed down blind, and players can bluff, so that the attacker can never be sure that his massive combo won’t just be blocked and wasted, and the defender is never sure that his Joker is the right play. As such, each turn, and each opportunity for a combo, requires you to anticipate what your opponent is going to do. Will they open straight for your throat? Play defensive? Anticipate your defensive option and simply chuck you across the room?
Each of these actions are held on a playing card. Each character deck is a 54 card affair, and can even be used as a normal deck of playing cards. Typically, cards 2 through 10 are just attacks, blocks and throws with speed ratings (for determining which strike goes through if both players attack or throw), though some have special abilities, and all have a bottom and top effect, usually both a throw and an attack, or the like, and you select which effect to launch at the opponent before placing your card face down. The face cards have lavish illustrations and further special effects, and often form the backbone of that character’s core strategy.
Our first game was very close. I started strong by playing against Paul’s preconceptions of my deck, and had Argagarg come out swinging. Soon, though, he adapted to the strategy, and I ran out of strong attack options, and so found myself being thrown out of my defensive posture time and again. We were both nearing death, but opting out of his combo with a Joker and retorting next turn with a small but damaging combo was enough to shift things in my favor, and the turn after that I simply let the life-sapping curse finish him off. It turned out to be quite useful!
For the second game, Paul switched over to the gambling panda Lum Bam-foo. Lum had random boosts to damage and provided bonuses whenever Paul drew a solid poker hand; he was sort of a wild-card choice. I went for the time-bending Max Geiger, who was a very offensive choice. His strategy was built around setting up massive, inescapable attack combos. That game was more decisive. I would pressure Paul into defense, then lay off the attack, build up cards, and sneak in a combo-starter for huge 40-damage strikes. When I had him against the wall, I faked him out with a few timely, cautious blocks, then finished him off with a massive combo.
I’m really impressed with how the feel of Yomi closely mimics a fighting game, and placing the reading of one’s opponent front and center generates a tense player-against-player environment where skill becomes much more important than luck. Since it’s built on that rock-paper-scissors base, but those choices aren’t equal (blocking builds card advantage, throws and attacks have different functions in building combos), it creates incredible tension, produces moments of genuine surprise which builds your respect for your opponent across the table, and fashions each win of a card flip into a moment of victory. Yomi has some great inherent drama built into it, and a lot of replayability; the four characters I saw on the table each had a unique play style.
Puzzle Strike – Sirlin Games
Puzzle Strike features the same characters as Yomi, but the form of the game in instead a token-based “deck-building” game based on a fictitious puzzle game that shares themes with the ficticious fighting game of Yomi. Instead of building a deck, one purchases tokens and places them inside a bag, and draws five tokens from it each turn. The goal is to fill your opponent’s tower with ten gems while keeping your own tower diminished (the concept is similar to Tetris Wars). Like in Yomi, the players select one of the ten characters. Each character starts with three specific ability tokens keyed to the same sort of strategy that their Yomi deck focuses on, which generates really interesting in-universe strategic links. I chose to play Argagarg Garg again, who still had his vicious curse, but this time it forced a Wound token, which is essentially just a dead token, into my opponent’s bag, and then added a gem to their tower for every wound in their discard pile. By the end of the game, the hex was generating three to four gems whenever I played it, so while it didn’t “sap” at his life, it grew in strength over the course of the game, still making a long-term defensive strategy worth pursuing. Paul went with the gambling panda again, who started with incredible purchasing power.
While I pared down my bag of tokens to an offensive wound and gem machine, Paul had a rich economy flowing; he could usually buy plenty of new tokens from the central piles each turn. An interesting part of Puzzle Strike that separates it from my other deck-building experiences is the economy of actions that it runs off of. Generally speaking, the player only gets to play one action token a turn, but many tokens have a colored or untyped arrow printed on them, indicating that a certain type of action token (blue for tricky stuff, red for attacks, etc.) could be played in a combo following the first, and some tokens sparked the ability to combo with four other actions.
It was fascinating to play. By throttling the actions a player can take, Puzzle Strike forces the player to build their deck around complementary combo tokens if they want to do a lot during each turn. Realizing that I had to manage multiple economies (token production, action production, etc.), I decided to focus on producing just enough actions to assault Paul’s pile every turn. It was an elegant, brutal strategy, and won me the game. Paul went for a longer-term purchasing and consolidation strategy that would have worked better if I hadn’t been able to decisively block the large gems he was tossing onto my tower. I am excited to play Puzzle Strike again; we only played with a fraction of the possible tokens, and saw only one strategy based around the abilities of our two fighters. I hope to sink a lot more time into Puzzle Strike.
Battleground — Your Move Games
Battleground was intriguing, but I’m not sold on it. Instead of miniatures, it displays its armies via cards that are bought in a deck. Each card displays a squad of a certain kind of unit, with that squad’s combat statistics printed along the bottom. Paul picked up an undead army, full of ghouls, skeletons and death knights, while I picked up a roving band of lizard-folk. I had intended to play with one of the T‑Rex that I saw on the field of battle, but I then discovered the slightly smaller, much cheaper Ancients and settled on them, along with a bunch of swarming units and two squads of heavily-armored warriors.
I like some aspects of Battleground. One thing it does very well is accurately represent the imperfect control a commanding officer has over his forces. The player provides each squad with an objective at the start of the game, which they pursue until they are destroyed, routed, or ordered to do something else. However, the player only gets three command actions a turn, and these actions can also be used to active special abilities (each squad of a race has the same special ability; the lizard-folk had “Rage”) or draw cards with one-time benefits to a squad’s abilities. Decisive movement of these units is quite vital to winning; battles are decided by flanking maneuvers, pincer attacks, and behind-the-lines assaults. Naturally, these things are hard to attain, but when it happens… ouch. I watched a unit of my worthless swarmlings rip into hardened skeleton infantry and, because they were flanking from behind, ripped the considerably tougher units to shreds.
However, it seems like the game also has some weaknesses. Throwing lines of troops at each other doesn’t offer much in the way of re-playability. The base premise is really rather dull, and there are only so many possible configurations when you’re hurtling your forces in a big blobbed mass against your opponents blobbed mass. It’s just not warfare that I find intriguing, but I also know other folks are into large clashes like those Battleground depicts, so if that’s your thing, have at it. It’s at the opposite end of Yomi’s most alluring aspect, the inherent drama and ability to recount cool matches from the past; I can’t imagine myself talking about a really great game of Battleground. There just isn’t much room for dramatic events in the narrative of a round. More troubling is that the art on the cards lacks luster; the grass under the combatants is unnaturally green, and the images of the forces, all aerial shots, aren’t flattering or even all that informative. The portraits and units are computer generated in a way that reminds of the very first cut scenes; the portraits, especially, are deep into the uncanny valley. The game simply isn’t much fun to look at, and that compounded with the broad scale of the game such that I never had any incentive to imagine what this battle might actually look like. In a game about the epic clash of fantasy armies, I experience that as a flaw.
The Dungeons and the Dragons
After playing Pandemic and The Great Dalmuti with random folks, I jumped into the D&D line and met a new DM and one of his players, and we chatted and wound up exchanging information before taking part in one of the worst D&D experiences I’ve ever had. This experience happened within the scope of the “DM Challenge,” and so I anticipated that I would have someone striving to make this an unforgettable experience. Boy, was I wrong. Rather than give you a play-by-play of everything this DM did wrong, let me instead present you with a list of the highlights:
Before the game started, we were handed a questionnaire that ensured we would be handed the characters we “really wanted to play.” We were also informed that our characters would be various levels, in direct contradiction to the rules of the DM Challenge. We were supposed to be playing level 7 characters. Not so.
The game started with a long-winded and boring monologue about how we had fought with demons, been grievously wounded to a man, and been infected with the Abyssal Plague. This led into an NPC monologue that I tried to break up with a question, but the DM ignored me and stream-rolled on. We were going to find a cure, and were going to be opposed by another groups of adventurers! Oh no, I thought, as the evil party at the table next door eyed us warily.
Player versus player combat with another table. Twelve players. Bad combat adjudication. I died quickly, thankfully, and went and bought a coffee in order to survive the rest of the night. How lucky for me that Tymora decided that I should be resurrected. An hour and a half later, our pointless player versus player combat ended and we continued with our “adventure.”
We fought three ghosts. None of us were damaged. They resurrected. I tore at remains, but the DM never cued that I had successfully finished it off, so I hacked at it for four frustrating turns.
Random traps during dungeon exploration. No attack rolls, just damage.
The DM or one of the DM’s aides would pull us aside whenever we picked up an item and tell us about it. It was up to us to tell the rest of the party what the item was. I could discern no good reason for this.
At one point, nearly every character was hit by sleep gas except for me and the party rogue. The DM pulled us aside and asked us, “Do you coup de grace anyone?” We both just stared at him, and then walked back to the table.
The barbarian found a Deck of Many Things, and drew a card. He was Imprisoned. Then the DM said, “Your quest has changed. Now you must rescue your Imprisoned party member.” I retorted, “What? No. He was an idiot for drawing a card right now, when we’re infected with a deadly plague. Onward to a cure.” DM: “You know, deep inside you, that if you do not rescue him, then you will all be destroyed.”
That’s when I made a quick excuse about needing to meet a friend and left the table. Paul played a round of Guillotine with me, and then we headed home.
Since I hadn’t yet been on the showroom floor, I took thirty minutes in the morning to wander through, gazing upon trailers, demos, and a Mass Effect 3 tournament being displayed upon a ring of televisions. It was frankly a little overwhelming, but was definitely worth checking out the other side of the show.
I met up with a friend, Nick, and his friend from D.C., Ike. We talked about miserable D&D experiences for a bit, starting with the woeful game on Saturday, and then decided to check out the Indie RPG area, where we discovered that one of the writers of Eclipse Phase, Jack Graham, would be running games a little later on. When we were told that one of the available scenarios was going back in time to kill Hitler, our path was made clear.
Jack, whose blog you can find here, was a really cool fellow. The scenario was drug- and alcohol-fueled, and we really played up that it was a Bad Idea, or at least that it was being carried out by Drunk Idiots. The resident professor on our space scum-barge discovered time travel, so we decided to go back and kill the man responsible for the biggest octopus-genocide in history. Oh, two important points about the distant trans-human future: there are uplifted animals, and history is fragmented and confusing.
The rest of the game was a comedy of us making a purposeful mess of our endeavor. Upon reaching 1942 Berlin, Jack pointed at each of us and asked “Are you drunk or high?” We then downloaded 90s-era German slang into our brains accidentally (“Boom Shaka Laka!”), and most of us were dressed like the attendees of a Nazi-themed fetish party. Except for our octopus team member, who inhabited the German Shepard Halloween costume he wore last year. Yeah.
I didn’t get a really good read of the system since we were too busy having fun, but it operates like Unknown Armies in that you try to roll percentile dice under your relevant skill, but as high as you can under your skill (so rolling a 59 under your skill of 60 is better than a 2 under your 60). I was playing an Ego Hunter, some sort of lunar detective of Japanese descent, and mostly provided the team with research and people-reading skills. We all got into our own mess of shenanigans, but the highlights included: our octopus trying to impersonate the Fuhrer’s dog and subsequently outing the Nazi time travelers from an alternate Third Reich future, my psychic murder of a Japanese general who would actually hurt the Japanese forces by making a bad call at the Battle of Midway, and, of course, blowing up the Fuhrer and other important Nazi officials with a massive hell-cannon. I didn’t quite make it out, but the future was better and weirder for it. Tons of fun.
A note on the base setting of Eclipse Phase: it scratches all the spots for me, even all the hard-to-reach ones. Trans-human horror in space? I’m there.
Nick and Ike went off to grab lunch, and I made a few purchases before noticing Jerry Holkins making his way through the crowd. I waited in a short line and got to shake the man’s hand, thank him for being such a good geek example, and admitted that I kind of wanted to be him (he admitted that it was “pretty nice”). He was incredibly kind, and I felt lucky.
Summoner Wars — Plaid Hat Games
Summoner Wars is another deck-based board game that was really quite cool. Each deck is unique, though they are now slightly modular, I believe, and based around a central figure, called a Summoner. Essentially, the Summoner is like the King, a la chess, in that the Summoner’s safety is of chief concern, but the Summoner is also quite capable. I never had cause to exercise my Summoner’s abilities, since my minions did all the heavy lifting, but I imagine one’s Summoner could really mix it up.
There are some interesting things at work in Summoner Wars. Unit movement is paramount to victory; in fact, it plays a lot like a shifting game of chess. Players take turns, moving three units at a time, and then attacking with three units at a time, followed by playing any other Event cards, which are the rare alternative to summoned units. My deck was built around mind-mages, so I telepathically controlled some of my opponent’s units and tossed both of our units around with telekinetic bursts.
The really interesting aspect of the game was that developing the points needed to summon units and play Event cards can only be done one of two ways: every time you kill an opponent’s unit, you place it in your Magic pile to discard as a point of magic. In addition, at the end of every turn, you can discard any number of cards from your hand to your magic pile, to be used next turn in summoning and casting. So you sacrifice the options that you have now in order to play the options that you keep, or will draw, in further turns. This gets really interesting when you realize that, once you draw all the cards in your deck, that’s it; you just stop being able to cast. You essentially have a limited number of points to leverage against your opponent, but the way you get there can be really intriguing, and if you have some way of attacking your opponent’s deck, as I did, then that can be devastating.
I won my game against the guy demoing the game, but just barely. There are something like 16 different Summoners; that’s a heck of a lot of potential games in there, and I know I would be tempted to master one strategy before moving on to others. Very intriguing.
Marvel Heroic Roleplaying — Margaret Weis Games
I headed back to the Indie RPG area to jump in on another game that was already happening. Marvel Heroic basically entailed running established Marvel characters on a superhero adventure, and it was perhaps the first super-hero game that I actually enjoyed.
The system allows incredible narrative freedom, and reminded me of the FATE system in that it isn’t at all built to be a strategic challenge, but instead tends far toward the narrative end of things. The system supports you complicating your own situation, creating a natural, player-fueled dramatic flow. It helped that I got to play the Norse god of Thunder, who entered the game by knocking out a T‑Rex with one titanic blow.
One fascinating element of the system is how it treats social encounters – the same rules for physical combat apply to social “combat.” If you take damage, you take “stresses,” a die of a certain size that others can roll against you. If that die ever grows to a d12, the next stress you take of that kind will “fell” you. If physical, you’re incapacitated. If mental or emotional, you are convinced, or you break, or some other suitable response occurs.
Rolling high dice means that you are more “accurate,” or more likely to deal a complication to an enemy, and it also means that the effect die, or the strength of the complication (“damage”), will likely be higher. However, any time you roll a “1” on a die, the GM gains that die to his “Doom Pool,” which he can freely use to ruin the player’s days. Anytime the GM gains two d12s in his pool, he can end the current encounter in his favor, explaining how the rest of the encounter pans out and complicating the situation for the players. I discovered the downside to Thor via that mechanic. Thor was the strongest combat presence at the table, until I botched a roll with a d12 and ended the encounter for everybody.
It was a very interesting game in which every action was an interesting maneuver. Players are really encouraged to play up the super-powers of their characters, and playing as iconic figures was great fun! Our group contained Spider-Man, Iron Man, Beast, Black Panther and Thor, and each of us had a really unique take on our characters. Our Spider-Man especially was really adept at mimicking the web-slinger’s attitude, and it was an interesting challenge to play such established characters; it felt a lot more like acting in a play than most role-playing experiences I’ve encountered, more interpretation of a role than invention of one.
End of PAX
With that, PAX was finished! It was tragic, watching that host of gamers disperse back into the winding tunnels and streets of Boston. At least I came away with new friends, good memories, and a few additions to my Amazon wish-list.