PAX Log


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:

Saturday

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.

SUNDAY

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.

Eclipse Phase

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.

Jerry Holkins

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.


Matthew Schanuel

About Matthew Schanuel

Matthew Schanuel lives in Boston, Mass. He's a beer aficionado, a game player (and designer!), an academic-in-exile, a DM, and, most recently, an employee of a financial non-profit. He draws the comic Embers at night over at http://embers-at-night.tumblr.com/