Posted in Board Games

Game-a-Day Fortnight 2016 – Day 4: Star Realms

Star Realms is a sci-fi deckbuilding game where 2 players clash in space wars!

Also, space commerce.

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What makes this game shine is when you really get a good engine humming along. If you play your cards right, you can get crazy combos that let you draw more cards, do more damage, get more money, buy cards for free, discard opponent cards and more. It’s a great feeling when you pull it off – mostly…

We’ll come back to that in a bit. First, the basic premise and mechanics:

Both players have 50 authority (like health, but with no maximum) and the first to reduce their opponent to 0 wins. To do so, you as a galactic mover and shaker will be recruiting the ships and bases of four factions, the Trade Federation, the Blobs, the Star Empire and the Machine Cult.

You start with the same basic deck of cards as your opponent and draw 5 each turn. You build your deck as you play by buying cards from the communal Trade Row. You get money by playing cards with the yellow Trade coin near the bottom. For instance, in the photo below, the Trade Pod on the right initially cost me 2 Trade to buy, but every time I play it I get 3 Trade. Play a few Trade cards in a turn and you’ll be able to buy more useful and powerful cards.

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You can have cards from any combination of factions, but playing two cards of the same faction allows you to use additional abilities (in the photo above, the 2 red Combat on the Trade Pod and the “Draw a card” ability of the Battle Blob – they’re both useable because I’ve played two green Blob Faction cards this round). And because you can’t hold onto cards from round to round, focusing on a single faction can be useful – though when it comes time to buy from Trade Row, cards from your favoured faction may not be available, so you may have to branch out a little.

So, your opponent’s got a handful of ships and they’re damaging your authority. What do you do? It’s all about that base. Get some bases into play and they’ll act as shields, taking damage before you do. And your opponent has to do enough damage in one round to destroy them – they can’t just whittle them down over time.

Some bases are outposts and those bases have to be destroyed before your other bases. So you can have two lines of defence. Ships are played then discarded until they’re shuffled in again when your deck depletes. Bases, though, stay in play. So, every round you’ll already have some faction card (like my Blob Wheel below) that you can use to activate the ally abilities of your ships. Also, the base’s powers are active each round, too. (Below, Suz is getting 2 Authority or 2 Trade each round and I’m getting 1 Combat each round).

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With only 128 cards and a rules sheet, Star Realms is a tiny, portable package. There are expansions, and they won’t all fit in the box. Removing the rules, we managed to also fit one of the games many expansions, the Gambit Set, which gives new surprise abilities and provides some foes to tackle as a team.

And it looks like we may need to move onto that cooperative mode for a bit, as our last few games have been very one-sided. It could be that Blobs are just awesome, or one of us is getting good draws and the other bad. It didn’t seem like either of us was too diversified.

Either way, our last game had a 30 point difference and when you start with 50 points each, a score gap that wide is disheartening for the one on the losing side and the victory is bittersweet – the Death Star versus a helpless planet. Is it really a victory to celebrate?

So, we’ll play more games of Star Realms and we’ll definitely try the Gambit Set co-op options (not to be confused with the Cosmic Gambit set). I may update these impressions (or add a new article) once we’ve tried the co-op.

Despite our misgivings, we still recommend this game and will be playing a lot more of it. The combos you can get going in your deck are so satisfying, the game’s easy to teach, turns are very fast, and when games are closer, it’s very fun. Especially for only 30 Aussie dollars, this little game packs a big bang!

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Posted in Board Games

Game-a-Day Fortnight 2015 – Day 13: Alien Frontiers

Alien Frontiers is a fantastic area control game for 2-4 players (or 5 with the Factions expansion). You are spacefarers colonising an ancient alien planet. In this game there’s always something cool and important to do on your turn and the winner is always shifting. Let’s get straight to the verdict: we highly recommend this game!

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You start with three dice (which represent ships, and in the Kickstarter edition I got, actually look like ships). You roll them each turn and see which orbital facilities you can place them in (each has its own rules and benefits). Some of those facilities give you fuel, some give ore, some use those resources to build ships or colonies, others trade fuel for ore, allow you to build a colony for three ore, let you steal resource from other players, destroy one of your ships to instantly place a colony, or allow you access to the powerful and important alien artefacts deck.

It sounds like a lot to wrap your head around, and the board looks a little intimidating at first. But it’s actually quite simple. Once you get what each orbital facility does, the diagrams are enough to remind you, and the strategic options are clear round to round.

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Your goal is to be the colonist with the most points, but that doesn’t just mean the most colonies. You can also gain points from special items you can build (see the photos for two of the three possible, that we built on our planet) or gain points with two unique alien artefact cards.

You get one point for landing a colony; you get another if you have the most colonies in a territory. That also lets you use that territory’s special power. One of these, in Burroughs Desert (all the areas are named after science fiction authors, which is a great touch) lets you use the clear Relic Ship, which gives you another die to roll – a great benefit. If an opponent manages to tie with you for most colonies in a territory, your point for having the most is lost, as is your special power. So it’s often worth contesting a territory instead of claiming a new one. As you can see, the points shift up and down as you play and gain or lose territory control.

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As I said, there’s always something to do on your turn, and even once you have six ships (or seven if you control the Relic) turns are pretty quick. Alien artefact cards are really important. They have powerful abilities that break the rules in special ways, like letting you pay less fuel for ore, stopping players stealing from you, controlling one of their ships on your turn, or flipping a die from one side to another. Some even let you build or move those items on the planet (which have their own special powers). We both relied on our artefacts throughout the game, and also used the Raider’s Outpost to steal them from each other (to use their powers, or just stop the other player using them).

I have to mention the quality of the materials for this game. So good! Everything is beautiful and detailed. The board is really well done. Its simple diagrams and space icons are helpful reminders. Art for the whole board is great and each orbital facility has its own feel. When placing a colony toward the end of tonight’s game I noticed the terraforming station is actually shooting green beams down that hit the planet.

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Colonies are my favourite thing in this game. So tiny! Little clear plastic domes with tiny little cities inside matching your player colour! A really great addition that adds to the whole feel of the game.

We had special dice, but the normal six-siders that actually come with game are very colourful and usable. The board is double-sided: one with ship-shaped spaces, once with die-shaped spaces. It even comes with little bits of cardboard to cover up the spaces you wont’ be using in a two or three player game.

Splendor is Suz’s favourite game we’ve reviewed this fortnight, but Alien Frontiers is up there for her. For me, too. It’s a little longer than some other games we’ve played, but it didn’t *feel* longer. Time flies when you’re having fun… in space!

We highly recommend Alien Frontiers.

Posted in Misc.

Arkfall Quickstart Resources to Celebrate New Game Day

Today is 2/2 and is the very first New Game Day. In honour if this celebration, I’ve released some quick-start and quick-play resources for my new rules-light science-fantasy game – Arkfall. If you’re looking for a new game, Arkfall is one you can get for free and play immediately.

Want to know more about Arkfall? Check out my original Arkfall post, or just download Arkfall for free.

To help players get started super-fast, I’ve made the Quick & Dirty Heritage Generator which randomises and speeds up one of the slower (but fun!) parts of character generation.

And for the GMs, Finding Work on Arkfall is a handy one-page reference lets you generate jobs on the fly for the players. It even includes a table for what happens if they don’t take the job.

Here are some Google Drive mirrors if any of the above links don’t work (and these following links will always be up to date, thanks to Google’s re vision system:

Posted in Misc.

Arkfall – Science-Fantasy World of Dungeons Hack

Download Arkfall

Arkfall is post-apocalyptic science fantasy World of Dungeons/Mutants featuring Planarch Codex heritage moves.

The World Ark was a massive starship that harvested beings and shards of reality from countless worlds. Then it crashed and all that was strewn and mingled across this vast new planet. Since then, the inhabitants have bred and generations have passed. People have rebuilt and old worlds and cultures combine, clash and evolve. Everyone (including the PCs) has weird mixed heritages. Nanites are used as currency and levels of self-augmentation are one thing they can be spent on.

Some features:
– uses heritage moves to make bizarre PC races
– dead magic world, but technology emulates magic
– levelling up is not mandatory; instead of XP and coins, nanites are currency your characters can spend on stuff, including levels of self-augmentation
– includes a list of chems and their effects
– lore skill reskinned as ‘culture’ to emphasise that anything worth knowing on Arkfall has cultural significance to someone
– includes a few starting scenarios, quests and jobs
– includes an example move for PC flashbacks

If you read or play Arkfall or make something for it, I’d love to hear your feedback (also if you spot any typos, inconsistencies or things that are unclear). Also, it’s Creative Commons (CC-BY) so if you see something you like – or don’t – go nuts, use it, change it, whatever 🙂

Huge thanks to John Harper, Jonathan Walton and Jürgen Mayer for allowing me to use parts of their awesome, inspiring creations.

Also, if you want to get in on the discussion, check out Story Games or Google+.

2/2/14 EDIT: I’ve also posted a new article containing Arkfall quickstart resources, which you can also grab below.

Posted in Tools & Techniques

Campaign Tips From Stargate SG-1

I’ve always loved Stargate SG-1. Recently, I’ve started re-watching it. Only light spoilers in this article. If you know about Stargate at all, you’ll know this stuff.

SG-1 ran for 10 years. It was, the television equivalent of, the long campaign. SG-1 learnt and taught a lot during their adventures. I’m only up to Season 2 in my re-watch but there are already some important lessons I’m going to try to implement into my home games:

  • Start in media res
  • Use resources and NPCs as rewards
  • Build upon past successes and failures
  • Lead with the cool, but leave room to grow

Start in media res

Stargate SG-1 often starts with the team already away on some planet, or in the midst of a fire fight. Each episode has a few minutes before the opening credits where important plot details are established.

Okay, so they’re on some other planet, they’re under fire, lots of people on the planet dead already. Sam gives mouth-to-mouth to an injured soldier and her eyes glow. Uh-oh!

They’re on some planet, Daniel touches an artefact, he goes back to Earth but nobody at Stargate Command recognises him. Uh-oh!

Some planet again. Jack touches a crystal. He passes out. Some other Jack made by the crystal emerges and goes back through the Stargate. Uh-oh!

We don’t care how they got to those planets. We often don’t care about the planet at all after the opener. Sometimes we do, but it’s not initially important. What’s important is quickly establishing the conflict, plot seed and drama of the episode (or session). You’ve got the rest of the episode to delve into details if need be, but you don’t want to watch for half an hour before getting to the point of the episode. You want some simple things:

  • Dive right into the action and get everyone excited!
  • Quickly establish the conflict of the session
  • Focus on this session’s spotlight PC, if any

Doing this gets the ball rolling and sets a tone and precedent to keep the action going. It should also result in less tangents, sidetracks and non-game out-of-character talk.

Use resources and NPCs as rewards

One of my favourites. Stargate SG-1 is really good at this.

It’s not actually all that often that the team gets a lot of resources (and never really any financial backing) from their adventures. Sometimes they get knowledge, often they get NPC contacts.

These are then used to fuel future adventures. Knowledge allows them to find other useful planets that might have even greater resources. NPC contacts can be called on in later missions for aid, or be used as deus ex deu to swoop in at the last minute.

Rank, too. Rank and title is one of the most awesome rewards in a campaign like Stargate. Being called Captain by everyone, then completing an epic and dangerous mission and being promoted to Major – and being called Major by everyone in the campaign – can have a real effect on players. It’s a reminder of how awesome they are and of past adventures.

Sometimes they do get resources, though, like a new power source or weapon or shield or healing device. I love SG-1’s treatment of this. Getting a new weapon doesn’t mean +1 damage. It means hours and hours of behind-the-scenes research the work out how that weapon can be useful to them in other capacities. It’s immediate usefulness is there too, but it’s not overpowering and the resources are always limited.

It’s not usually suddenly everyone running around with staff weapons. It’s everyone still with machine guns, Teal’c with his staff weapon and then maybe one extra staff weapon. They are rewards and they make a difference, but they don’t flatten the playing field to the point of removing the challenge or fun.

Better than new weapons, though, are new materials. Being able to build a new device from alien materials, or power a current device in a different way, or build a ship – one ship. Those are the wins I like. That one ship then becomes very precious. It’s not just, “we captured a ship now we can built infinite ships”. It’s, “okay, we managed to barely escape in this battered alien ship, now our techs will spend months working out how to make it work again, then when we do we will have to use it sparingly because it’s our only one”.

In your game you can make rewards seem big and noteworthy by limiting the pace at which you give them out and by linking them directly to the mission at hand. They’re not rewarded with a ship, they escaped by stealing it and now it’s theirs.

And that moves us into…

Build upon past successes and failures

When you blew up that enemy mothership, it was an awesome victory and you got a sweet glider ship out of it too! But, now your enemy is scared of you or vengeful and destroying the worlds you’ve saved. They’re ramping things up. What do you do?

Or, remember that time you went to the alternate reality? Well, that gate address you got there will work in this reality too. Let’s dial it and see where it takes us. And then, awesome! A site we can use as a secondary base, off-world. Future games can involve evacuations there, or the base needs help, or the team is visiting and something adventure-y happens!

All sorts of possibilities.

In a long campaign like this, too, the resources and rewards and NPC contacts gained can come back again and again, worked in different ways to create new adventures. Rather than something brand new all the time, call back to old adventures occasionally.

Players get a kick out of this and it allows you to reuse (and prep less) and show change in the campaign world by casting familiar characters (or places) in changed roles.

Lead with cool, but leave room to grow

There’s always the risk, in a cool and exciting campaign setting, of hoarding all the awesome secrets for later. I was shocked, watching the first season of SG-1 again, just how quickly the team acquires some really powerful resources.

Yet, they’re not maxed out. They’re not suddenly at the height of power. Indeed, they are “primitive” in comparison to some of the alien races.

Don’t hold back cool things. If you do, you may never use them.

Besides, if you give them some cool stuff first – drip feeding it to them through their victories – then there’s more to build on. You’ll give them something they think is pretty cool – and it will be – but then they’ll find something even cooler and then they’ll get that.

You see troops with staff blasters. Oh man, I want one. Okay, after a tough fight you end up with one. Good session! Some sessions later: oh, what, a healing sarcophagus! I want to use it. Okay, here’s a few opportunities to study and use it. Here are the side effects.

You’ve let them have some cool things, but there’s always more cool stuff down the track. If you wait three months of playing for them to get their hands on a staff blaster, how long is it going to be till they get an awesome spaceship? A year? Two? Will you be playing still by then?

Lead with the cool stuff, but at a reasonable rate and make them work for their rewards. Leave yourself room to grow and as they use their cool toys, you’ll see opportunities to make those toys even cooler or give them something that complements or even overshadows and replaces it, and that will spark new sessions to seek those new rewards.

Posted in Settings

Setting: Spark of Youth

Here’s an outline of another campaign setting I’ve been working on. Feel free to use and alter it as you wish. If you do use it or have some ideas about it, I’d love to hear them.


Inspiration: Ender’s GameLord of the FliesDark Angel, Neon Genesis Evangelion

It is said that the spark is in all of us, yet by the end of puberty it is gone. It is not known why, but children have a strong connection to the power of the spark. It flows in them in ways still not fully understood by adults.

Very young children use the spark sporadically, for play and their own simple purposes, without thought. As children grow older, they begin to understand their powers better, using them consciously and with more control. Around age 10 for girls and 12 for boys, Transition begins.

Children undergo many physical and psychological changes during this stage and it is when their spark is at is peak, very powerful and unpredictable.

Transition is a stressful and strange time for children and many lose control of their magic as the power flares and fluctuates, burning brightly before it is snuffed out entirely. Girls usually complete the Transition by ages 15-17, while boys usually complete it by ages 16-18. After this, the spark is dead forever.

Because adults are unable to harness magic, children are highly valued for their abilities. Many children do not utilise the spark effectively and are more dangerous to themselves than others, or are merely an annoyance. However, children of particular talent and power are recruited into harsh military programs to perfect their control over the spark and harden them into tools of war. Children are taught from a young age that fighting for their faction is the highest honour and the greatest deed that one could hope for. Propaganda floods the schools, homes and streets, and armies recruit children as young as 8 to train to fight their horrendous battles.

Every year, new drugs are trialled in attempts to keep children young and keep their spark alive for as long as possible. Experiments are conducted upon children’s brains, leaving many permanently damaged or worse, in attempts to unlock the secrets of the spark. Some believe that it is the mental state of children that is the key to their power, and so they experiment on the mentally disabled as an alternative route to the answers they seek.

Schools are hotbeds of propaganda but some children catch on or have different ideas and sow the seeds of rebellion. Such children meet in secret after classes to discuss what the adults are really up to, what the war is all about, how they are developing in their talents, and what they will do to avoid being recruited. Groups of children roam adult cities and towns as rebels, vigilantes or criminals, using their powers however they see fit.

Rumour has it that there are hidden towns out in the wilderness populated entirely by children. Gangs of teenagers rule these child towns and the children live however they can free from the control of adults, but left to their own devices to learn about the radical changes they are going through.

Growing up is hard enough, but children must deal with the normal trials and tribulations of puberty – sexuality, friendship, bullying, and growing up – as well as the great unstable power that they wield, its consequences and the reality of life after the Transition: when their power fades and they find themselves as young adults in a world that considers them past their use-by-date.

Posted in Misc.

VERV

VERV was not always the solar system-uniting virtual reality device that it is today, able to connect users on distant worlds and give a better life to users on worlds where terraforming did not take hold. VERV has come a long way since its humble beginnings as the Virtual Engineering Rig (VER). It was developed to allow engineers to construct virtual models of buildings, ships, weapons and so on and then perform stress tests and other evaluations of the models under realistic conditions.

Another function of VER allowed users to manipulate robotic limbs as if they were the user’s own, allowing remote repair, exploration and even fine manipulation of deadly substances. This function also found use in a medical offshoot of VER – labelled the Virtual Examination Rig. Doctors were able to virtually explore the body and conduct surgery using a virtual overlay showing the locations of arteries, organs, tumours and so on.

As VER became more popular and widespread, independent engineers and members of the public acquired VER systems for their own use. The input and modifications made by these individuals and groups brought VER to an unofficial second version (VERII). VERII moved from augmented reality towards fully embracing virtual reality. VERII featured the ever-popular Otherworld virtual reality “game” where members could participate in virtual combat, trade with others and interact over long distances.

VER’s developers hired the creators of Otherworld and developed an official third version of the hardware and software (VERIII). VERIII proved very successful and by the time VERVI was released, technology had progressed by leaps and bounds. VERV, the current and publically proclaimed “final” version of the VER hardware is now able to accept a vast range of software, and even allows users to create software from scratch. It connects users to Otherworld and contains fully modular applications which even the most inexperienced user can easily understand the basics of.

VERV is said to be the “final” version of VER because the hardware is now complete and realised, with incredible flexibility for additional modules, so much so that there is unlikely a need for a new overhaul of the system. Additionally, as VERV can now accept any software, its potential appears endless.

Indeed, this potential is being realised by more and more people every day, from children to the elderly. It has united the system, but also presents a new venue for the dark side of humanity. Teenagers see and participate in all manner of vices in illegal v-clubs, hackers spy on individuals, groups and governments, shady deals are made in the anonymity of black boxes, and terrorists rub virtual shoulders with politicians.

VERV has laid the groundwork and it is now up to humanity to decide what to do with it.