Friday, April 29, 2016

LIE - a whole lot of fun and laughter in some tiny cards

Out of all the Pack O Game series, LIE was the one that interested me the least. It just looked like a Liar's Dice variant. Plus, I was primarily interested in the series with an eye for two players and it looked particularly weak for two-players.

However, when I had the chance to play it with more players at the Rincon Fundraiser, I took it. And everyone had a blast.

Short version for anyone who wants to stop reading now, Liar's Dice is a lot of fun which makes variants of it a lot of fun too.

Like every game in the series, LIE consist of thirty skinny little cards. On each end of every card, there is a picture of a six-sided die face with every pip appearing ten times throughout the entire deck. Out of all the games the series, LIE is easily the plainest one artwise, looking pretty drab compared to the very artistic SHH. However, it does the trick.

At the start of the game, everyone is dealt out five cards. Each player then decides what die they'll use on each card. The way the cards are designed, if you hold them fan-style, you'll cover up the dice that you're not using.

Now, if you're even vaguely aware of how Liar's Dice works, you know what comes next.

The starting player makes a bid in the form of a number and pip of dice, like four ones or three sixes. They are betting that there is that number of that pip spread throughout everyone's hands.

The next player has a choice. They can either raise the bid or they can call the last players, saying they are a liar. Everyone's hand is revealed in that case and you find out who was right. Whoever was wrong is dealt one less card in the next hand.

When someone is all out of cards, whoever is left with the most cards is the winner. 

In other words, almost exactly like Liar's Dice.

There are a couple of variants that come in the rules, like playing until last man (or woman) standing. The interesting one is having ones be wild UNLESS the opening bid is for ones. For what it's worth, I have seen those variants with regular Liar's Dice as well.

There is no denying that Liar's Dice is a great, fun game. One way or another, it's been around for generations. You can finds versions played all over the globe. It's a classic and it'll be around for generations to come.

And I do think that Liar's Dice is a better game than LIE. Using actual dice creates more interesting odds and situations. Plus, there's no denying that rolling all those dice is exciting and fun. We are taking about a game that started out as a serious gambling game but works great as a party game.

However, what I didn't anticipate is that even though LIE isn't as good as a truly great game has been vindicated  by history and played on every continent except Antarctica (and I might be wrong about Antarctica), LIE is still a very good game. Holding it up to a such high standard turned out to make me not realize that LIE could still be good.

LIE's big twist, of course, is that allows for a measure of hand management. In some ways, that mixes up the way that being a deck of dice flattens the odds. With some groups, it might actually flatten the odds even more but it really does open the doors to some mind games. I even know some folks that might think that makes it better than Liar's Dice but I wouldn't go that far.

Now, I do own a good copy of Liar's Dice with color coordinated cups and dice. And if I know that it was going to get played, I'd pack it. But LIE is not just a game that takes up no room, it's part of a set of games that has become my default travel choice. LIE is a game I can easily have on me.

LIE takes Liar's Dice and makes it even more portable. It adds some control, allowing for interesting choices with the bluffing. Most importantly, it's a really fun game. I'm glad I gave it a real chance and found out that it's a strong part of Pack O Games.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Volcano, one of the classics of Looney Pyramids

If there is a game that truly embraces the unique nature of the Looney Pyramids, it is Volcano.

There are a lot of abstract strategy games in the Looney Pyramid catalog. A good chunk of the early games, for instance most of the games in Playing with Pyramids, are pure abstract strategy games without any random elements.

Played out on a five by five grid, Volcano is a game about collecting sets of pyramids by strategically causing volcano eruptions. Some years ago, I wrote a fairly detailed review and rules summary : Looking back at it, I have to say that Volcano is much easier to demonstrate than to explain.

The thumbnail sketch of Volcano is that you move the volcano caps around to cause eruptions, which are basically the pyramids playing hopscotch. When a pyramid lands on another pyramid the same size, you get to keep that pyramid for scoring. You get extra points collecting  a trio of the same color and when someone gets a pyramid in every color, the game ends.

There is definitely a learning curve to Volcano. As I said, actually understanding how the game works mechanically doesn't seem to click until you see the game in action. The next part of the learning curve is figuring out how to set up good moves :D

Volcano is a game that really requires the stacking nature of the pyramids, as well as three different sizes. It clearly was developed out of the very nature of the pyramids. Plus, there's no denying that, as abstract as it is, the pyramids help it live up to the Volcano name.

Plus, Volcano is a very solid game. Definitely forces you to think in different ways so it is intellectually challenging. At the same time, causing eruptions and collecting colorful pyramids is an off a lot of fun. For such a different game, it's an easy one to get people interested.

I've been playing Volcano for years. Sadly, not regularly enough to get really good at it but I keep coming back to it. I consider it one of the games that really elevated the Looney Pyramid system, a game I'd buy and keep playing even if it was the only game in the system.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

HUE - the gateway to Pack O Games

HUE is the first game in the Pack O Game series and, in some ways, could be considered the ambassador for the series on a whole.

Every game in the series consists of thirty cards, each one cut to about a third the width of a regular card. That means you get stick-like cards and a deck looks literally like a stick of gum.

HUE is the tile laying member of the family. Every card is divided into three squares and three different colors, although about half the cards have the colors divided the long way, making them skinny lines.

Everyone gets five to six cards, including one with a poison symbol in the middle. Special rainbow cards are set out to start the board and then everyone takes turns placing a card on the board. Cards must share at least one edge with cards already out but they can cover one square of a previously placed card.

Now, here's the good bit. You don't play the last card in your hand. You score with it. For each color on the card, you score points equal the largest area of that color on the board. You score double points for the color in the middle of your scoring card. But any area that has a poison symbol is zeroed out and doesn't count for scoring.

The biggest hurdle HUE has to overcome is that there are a lot of time laying games out there and there are even a lot of pocket-sized ones. The Clever Pipe Game and Aquarius were two of the first games I picked up, before I even started collecting games seriously. It takes a lot to stand out in the pack.

But HUE does have a twist that makes it interesting. Your last card being your scoring card, particularly when you get your whole hand at the start. It gives you an end goal at the very start but also gives you the flexibility to change that goal if you have to.

Mind you, HUE doesn't fire Aquarius or small tile laying games for me. However, the more I play it, the more I enjoy it. It keeps growing on me. I don't think I'd turn down a game (it doesn't hurt that the playtime is so short)

None of the first series of the Pack O Game games reinvent the wheel. They all use tried and true mechanics, with just a couple twists to give them their own flair. By being a part of such a large family of tile-laying games, HUE doesn't stand out as much as some of the others like BUS or TAJ. But it is still a solid, well designed game.

HUE really is a good introduction to Pack O Games. It is easy to teach, even to non-gamers. However, the scoring makes it interesting, even for serious gamers. Honestly, the fact that it comes in such a portable package is just gravy.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Pack O Games continues to prove itself to me

Whenever I go to a convention or any other gaming event, I always take along some games. Truth to tell, I used to always have a game or three in my courier bag until I converted it to a diaper bag :D

When I went to the April 2016 from fundraiser for Rincon, I just put the plastic case that holds the first series of Pack O Games games in my pocket. (I don't wear a coat or jacket much in Tucson but cargo pants do the same trick as far as pockets are concerned)

And, over the course of the fundraiser, I ended playing three different games from that plastic case.

Which really just proves how the Pack O Games really does look to potential of being a game library that can fit in your pocket. Your cargo pants pocket. :D

While I still need to play SHH and GEM (which some folks have said are two of the best games in the series), I have gotten in a decent number of plays of the other six games.

If I were to strip my judgment of these games of their footprint and portability and playing time, I would say most of them are B+ games. None of them are amazing games that are going to become my new favorite game. However, with the exception of FLY which really isn't in a genre I'm interested in, they are all games I am happy to play.

However, when you take the fact that they are incredibly portable with small footprints and short playing times, that is what really makes these games shine. And accessibility, a virtue I've come to treasure more and more over the years. They are easy games for me to teach but they are still satisfying games to play.

In the post Love Letter world, it's not enough to just be small or quick. Micro games aren't just about being small or filling five to fifteen minutes. They have to be actual good games. 

The Pack O Game games are definitely portable but the fact that they are genuinely good games is what matters. Having a library of good games that I can take anywhere, that is nice.

Monday, April 25, 2016

A fundraiser lets me go to a tiny little convention

One of the really nice things about the Tucson gaming scene is Rincon, the little gaming convention in the middle of the desert. While it's hard for me to gaming conventions back in the Midwest, Rincon not only gives me a local convention but a couple of fundraisers every year, effectively giving me a couple more mini-conventions.

I have been to a lot of conventions over the years, from giant ones like Gencon to tiny local cons. Rincon's one day fundraisers, taking up about three meeting rooms at the hotel, isn't even the smallest one I've been to.

I feel like every time I go to a Rincon event, fundraiser or the actual full con, I keep on having a better and better time. If it isn't well organized, they hide it well. Everyone is friendly and even the fundraisers have good game libraries. 

I didn't have any problems finding games to spend the entire afternoon playing. When one group that I was playing with had to leave, I was able to find another to sit down with. Highlights included finally getting to play both Forbidden Desert and TAJ. The low light was Konexi.

While I honestly think that Forbidden Island has a definite place in my collection as a really easy cooperative to teach with plenty of eye candy, Forbidden Desert definitely takes the mechanics up a notch as well as the narrative. It definitely is not a simplified version of Pandemic, which I think is a reasonable description of Forbidden Island. Incidentally, we all died of thirst pretty quickly, which brought back memories of Outdoor Survival.

TAJ is one of the more complex and gamer-oriented games in the first series of Pack O Games. I haven't played GEM so I don't know if it is the most complex. It is a game of hitting goals and price manipulation as you try to get your favored rugs to be worth the most.

While I did enjoy it and I am glad to have gotten in the three player game, since I think two player game would not have done it justice, I was left wondering if actually had too many moving parts, mechanically speaking, for its short playing time. On the other hand, I would cheerfully play it again a few more times before deciding that.

Konexi is a dexterity game and a word game. It definitely has a nice toy factor with the large and stackable plastic letters that you to use. However, I felt like you were really limited in your choices. I also thought that including letters like Q and X made it harder to make words.

Rincon in its various forms continues to not disappoint. 

What I got out of rereading Goodbye, Mister Chips

On a whim, after being reminded of the book by some graduation announcements, I reread Goodbye, Mister Chips by James Hamilton. 

It's been a good twenty years since I last read it, when I went through a phase of reading a bunch of books that you are forced to read in high school English classes in order to hit some of the ones I hadn't been assigned to read.

I remember that I went into the book expecting it to be depressing, something like a British Death of a Salesman. Instead, I remember finding it a relaxing, even uplifting little read. Mind you, I didn't actually remember much more until I reread it.

Truth to tell, I liked even more now, having lived a bit more life.

Goodbye, Mister Chips is the story of an old, now retired teacher, looking back at his long career and how many boys he taught and helped. What I personally got out of it was that it was the story about how a man, with the help of age and humor, learned how to become the glue that held a school and, in a sense, England together.

It's a pretty sentimental piece but Hamilton makes it work by underselling it to us. Brookfield isn't a top of the line school but a good second tier school that turns out its share of good Englishmen. Mr. Chipping, the titular Mr. Chips, is likewise depicted as having an second rare degree and not even being that good at reaching Greek and Latin. 

However, he is good at building community.

Hamilton wrote the entire book in a passive voice, telling about what happened in Mr. Chips' life as opposed to showing. Even the death of his young wife in childbirth is undersold, although it is still a tear jerker.

The book does work itself up to a climax, World War I, when Mr. Chips is asked to come out of retirement and help the school. When the headmaster dies, he has to step up and run the school during a war that is shaking the foundations of society. Which, of course, he does.

His crowning moment is calming a class of boys during a German bombardment by having them translate a quote from Caesar about the German tribes. It's a nice moment of believable courage.

When Mr. Chips inevitably dies at the end, which you could see coming from the first chapter, it isn't a tragedy but a testimony of all the lives he's touched and improved.

The moral of the book might be that the old, traditional ways are best or, as per the influence of Mr. Chips' short-lived but progressive wife, that traditional ways need to be tempered by modern ideas. Heck, it might just be that Hamilton really liked his school years.

What I took out of Goodbye, Mister Chips is that the elderly continue to make a valuable, even essential, contribution to both community and society. Long after he retires and even on the night before he dies, Mister Chip continues to be an important part of the life of the school. 

The world we live in today is changing even faster than Hamilton's world but I'd like to think that still rings true.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Emerald City of Oz, where Baum planned on ending the series

Ho boy. This is a big one. The Emerald City of Oz is the book that turns so much of Oz on its head. The Nome King returns, more vindictive than ever. Vast evil armies march upon Oz. Oh, and Dorothy moves to Oz permanently, along with Uncle Henry and Aunt Em.

Okay, it's that last one that really shakes things up and breaks the formula we've become used to. You know, Dorothy somehow ends up in the fairy lands, has adventures and goes home to her loving family that don’t quite know what to make of her stories.

Like pretty much everyone alive today, my first exposure to Oz was the 1939 movie with Judy Garland. That version of the Wizard of Oz ends with it all being a dream. Having Uncle Henry and Auntie Em end up living in the emerald city is a huge difference than it all being just a dream.

As is often the case with Baum, real life does have an explanation for this big shift. Baum was wrapping up the series and intended for the Emerald City of Oz to be the last book, which also explains the whole evil armies invading Oz too.

Of course, the fact that he would go on to write eight more Oz books, plus a small short story collection about Oz shows how wrong he was. Unfortunately for Baum but fortunately for those of us who enjoyed his Oz books, nothing else sold nearly as well and he had to go back to Oz in the name of money.

(I do think that Sky Island, which was the last book he wrote before he threw in the towel and went back to Oz is a really good book, by the way)

Anyway, let the spoilers begin as I give a quick summery of the book.

Most of The Emerald City of Oz goes back and forth between two plotlines that dovetail together at the end of the book. On the one hand, we have the villains’ storyline. The Nome King is back, planning his revenge on Oz by leading several armies of evil creatures to conquer Oz. On the other hand, we have Dorothy and her family immigrating to Oz and spending some time as tourists before they learn about the impending invasion.

At the beginning of the book, Uncle Henry’s about to lose the farm. It turns out that he never was able to financially get over the farmhouse getting destroyed in the first book.

After she learns this, Dorothy arranges with Ozma for the whole family to move to Oz. (So that happens right at the start of the book so I didn’t spoil much mentioning it in the first paragraph)

After they arrive, in order to help them settle in and get used to what Oz is like, Dorothy and the Wizard take Uncle Henry and Aunt Em on a road trip where they get a chance to see some of the crazy tiny little kingdoms in Oz.

While Baum is no stranger to oddball places, he really pulls out the stops with this trip. Living jigsaw puzzles, talking utensils and philosophy arguments between crabs and zebras.

The trip does include what I found to be one of Dorothy’s most unsympathetic moments. After Toto eats some of the inhabitants of Bunbury, who are living bread, Dorothy takes offense to them having a problem with that since they are food, after all.

The other plotline, which I found more interesting, describes how the Nome King appoints a new general, Guph. Guph then goes out and recruits increasingly nasty allies. The Whimsies are giants with tiny heads that they cover with papier-mâché masks, the Growleywogs are even stronger giants with a total absence of body fat and finally the Phanfasms who have vast magical powers.

Of course, every last one of them, including the Nomes, plan on betraying everyone else. While they don’t get a chance to, my money would be on the Phanfasms. The other three groups have their silly elements but the Phanfasms are just plain creepy.

Thanks to Ozma’s magical picture, Ozma and company learn about how the Nomes are tunneling to Oz so the armies can invade. They trick the armies into drinking from the Fountain of Oblivion, causing them to lose all their memories and give up this whole evil invasion nonsense.

Glinda the Good then casts a spell that renders Oz invisible to the outside world. Since Dorothy was allegedly the one telling Baum everything that happened, his source has dried up, hence wrapping up the series.

Baum might not have ended up ending the Oz books with the Emerald City of Oz but he certainly does a good job making it a worthy end to the series. While the General Jinjur got farther in her civil war in the Land of Oz as far as conquering Oz is concerned, the Nome King and his allies are a far more serious threat. They are easily the greatest danger that the land faces in all of Baum’s books.

Heck, even the degree of silly stops on Dorothy and company’s grand tour of Oz exceeds anything else in the series for sheer density of locations. Baum clearly planned on ending in a big way and I’d say he succeeded.

Of course, it wasn’t the end. Not by a long shot. But, boy, were things shaken up.

My changing philosophy of role playing games

I don't know if it is a shift in my interest in role-playing games or if there is an actual shift in the industry or culture of role-playing games. However, 15 years ago, any game that I would be involved with was at least theoretically a long-term campaign and commitment. Now, there are a lot more games that can be over and done with in one sitting.

I didn't make a Dungeons and Dragons character with the idea that I would only play them for one session. Sure, sometimes that happened because the game fell apart or the character died horribly. But that wasn't the plan. 

But now there are games like Fiasco which tells the whole story in two arcs or games like The Quiet Year or Ribbon Drive or Baron Munchausen that are clearly designed for one session. Even indie games designed for longer play, like Polaris or Apocalypse World, are still designed for a limited number of sessions. 

Some of that comes purely from mechanics. You can get a game of Fiasco rolling in ten, fifteen minutes. On the other hand, you would spend hours just making a character for Role Master. (And then have them die in five minutes due to the critical roll charts. There's a reason I only played Role Master once)

But the mechanics for a short form game wouldn't exist if the demand wasn't there. More importantly, they keep on coming out which means that there is an audience for them. Possibly even a growing audience.

In the boardgames and now in role-playing games, I find that the concept of accessibility is becoming more and more important. When I first got into role-playing games in the 80s, you had to be pretty serious and dedicated because the rules were so complicated and convoluted. Now, there are games that you can pick up and play, even if you don't have years of Dungeons & Dragons under your belt.

Which has led me to another change. At least for me, I would only be playing two or three rule systems at any given time. Often, only one rule system. Games like Dungeons & Dragons or Call of Cthulhu are life style games. They don't leave a lot of room in your calendar for other systems.

But games like Fiasco or The Name of God are small enough commitments that it's much easier to put a lot of different games. That is definitely a change in how I think about role-playing games.

There is a definite switch from game mastery to game exploration. With more complex systems designed for long term, virtually indefinite play (I knew a D&D campaign that went on for over twenty years on a pretty much weekly basis), you end up doing a lot of research and, by virtue of extended play, practice. In some cases, I've seen it turn into who can use the rules better.

With short forms, it becomes about story exploration. You aren't trying to explore how the nuts and bolts work. You are exploring how narratives work. Sometimes in a comic form and sometimes in a tragic form. And, in my experience, the players are more inclined to collaborate.

I think there is a legitimate shift not just in the design of games but in their philosophy.

3:16 truly explores carnage among the stars

3:16 Carnage Among the Stars is a brilliantly insidious role playing game. Actually, insidious is the wrong word. It is brilliantly subversive.

In it, you are gung ho space troopers, dropping onto planets and killing every last horrible alien monster there. Think Starship Troopers with a more aggressive agenda and you pretty much have the idea.

You are a part of the sixteenth brigade of the third army, hence 3:16. You are taking part in the great commission of the Terran Expeditionary Forces: to wipe out every alien race that can possibly be found in order to keep the human race safe. It's a big job but you're going to do it, one bug-eyed monster at a time.

3:16 is a dead simple game, mechanically. Characters have a whopping two stars. Fighting ability for when you want to put the hurt on something or someone and non-fighting ability for everything else.

The actual missions are practically a small-scale, stripped down war game. You play out the fight on a very simple board that basically just defines how close the aliens are to you so you know what weapons you're able to use. You roll a ten-sided die to determine successes or failures (rolling under your abilities)

The game master gets a set number of threat tokens that they can use in each planet. Threat tokens are used to keep track of the waves of aliens as they attack as well as activate alien powers. They also serve as a way of pacing the game, creating an economy of danger and action.

If that's all there was to 3:16, it wouldn't be that much of a game. Heck, I have seen board games that pretty much fit the way combat works and that's what you'll be doing most of the time.

However, there are flashbacks.

Flashbacks are when a player pulls out a cut scene that will help them get out of a jam. The player narrates a scene from their past and explain that experience is going to make the key difference. Strengths let a player win on their own terms, wiping out all the threat tokens in a scene. Weakness lets a player lose on their own terms, taking a one threat token out of the scene and removing that character from the scene too.

In other words, flashbacks let you get in some serious role playing and character development and even let you get a mechanical benefit from it too.

So far, 3:16 sounds like a straight forward, space military action adventure game. So what's so subversive about it?

Well, as you read through the book, it becomes increasingly clear that the Terran Empire is not the paradise it proclaims it to be. Forced sterilization, suicide booths, and cultural stagnation, we are talking dystopia here. And what about your ultimate mission? To wipe out all life in the cosmos? That's the crazy end of xenophobia.

Seriously, 3:16 is just a couple chaos gods and an eldar away from being Warhammer 40K

And it gets better. As you rise up in the ranks (and if your currents character doesn't survive, it's easy to make a replacement and keep on going), someone will eventually become the Brigadier, who has nothing to do with Nicholas Courtney. By then, you'll have the weakness Hatred From Home. You will learn that no one in the Expeditionary Force is ever allowed to go back to Terra. And you'll have access to The Device, which destroys 1d10 PARSECS and automatically ends the game.

So, without ever explicitly stating it, the end goal of a 3:16 campaign is for someone to go insane and wipe out the human race.


3:16 is a anti-war game that uses nothing but war to get the point across. No, it's not a coincidence that the title is a blatant reference to John 3:16

Would I ever play 3:16, knowing the likely endpoint? Yeah. It looks like an interesting journey.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Treehouse was the killer ap for Loony Pyramids

When discussing the Looney Pyramids, it's impossible to not touch on Treehouse because it was an important change in the way that the system was sold and marketed.

When Looney Labs rose from the ashes of IcehouseGames, they needed a lower cost product since they needed to work up to the production costs of the pyramids. Andy Looney came up with Fluxx, which became their flagship game.

In a lot of ways, Treehouse was meant to pull a similar trick.

Before treehouse, the primary way to get the pyramids was in colored caches of fifteen. Both Ice Towers and Zendo came in boxed sets but it was a lot easier to find the caches. The problem was that you needed multiple caches to play virtually anything and the caches themselves didn't come with any rules.

So if you wanted to get into the pyramids, you had to invest in multiple sets, along with digging up the rules. Mind you, that wasn't a problem for me. By the time treehouse came out, I have gotten every single color that was available and bought the Playing with Pyramids book of rules. But I am kind of crazy that way.

What Treehouse did was give you a low price entry point into the world of pyramids. You got fifteen pyramids divided into five colors (so you got one of each size in each color), a die and the rules to Treehouse. Instead of buying a bunch of parts, you bought a complete game.

Treehouse was a pretty simple game. Everyone got one trio of pyramids, with an extra one set in the middle in the treehouse formation. On you were turned, you would roll the die in the results would give you different ways of moving your own pyramids, with your goal to have your pyramids matching the treehouse.

(I wrote a review of the game shortly after it came out which describes the rules in greater detail:

Treehouse didn't just represent a new way to package the pyramids. It also showed a new philosophy for the game design. Before Treehouse, most of the pyramid games were pure abstracts. Treehouse is a quick, luck-filled little filler.

And, as near as I can tell, Treehouse did succeed at being a killer app for the pyramids. Treehouse is still in print after 10 years and has had several different editions. In general, I've seen the different forms of pyramids sold in more stores than I did back in 2006.

Compared to a number of other pyramid games, Volcano and Zendo in particular, Treehouse doesn't seem that strong to me. It really is just a little time filler with the die often forcing you to make choices you'd rather not make.

But... I have gotten a lot of games of Treehouse in over the years. 15 little plastic pier meds and one plastic guy makes for a game that you can carry in play just about anywhere. You don't have to worry about it getting wet or muddy so it's perfect for restaurants and coffee shops and picnics.

So maybe my inner game snob just to has to own up to the fact that it is a fun little game.

And there is no is no denying that Treehouse helped spread the pyramid system and helped make it more mainstream.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Into the Odd, old school with some indie ideas

I want to like Into the Odd so much more than I do. True to its name, it's an odd combination of indie mechanical sensibilities and serious old school theme. And that's something that should work but, in this case, it came out feeling half-baked. 

At its heart, Into the Odd is an old school dungeon crawl. And I mean 1974 Darkmoore old school, before dungeon crawls were codified into medieval European sword and sorcery. 

Character creation and mechanics are dirt simple. You make a character by rolling 3d6 three times for strength, dexterity and will plus a d6 for hit points. You then cross reference your highest stat and your hit points to get your starting pack. Which doesn't just include equipment. You also get things like supernatural powers or disfigurements. The chart is the great equalizer. If you have lousy stats, you get great equipment and powers.

If you're trying to do something that doesn't involve hurting folks, you need to roll under the appropriate stat on a d20. 

For combat, you don't need to roll to hit. You just roll for damage and subtract the other guy's armor from it. Hit points are really just ablative. After you work through them, you start damaging strength with a chance at doing critical damage. Some things, like poison, do extra nasty stuff with critical damage.

That's pretty much the rules in a nutshell. It takes about a minute to explain the rules and another minute to roll up a character. Of course, quick character creation and simple rules aren't that hard to find.

What actually makes Into the Odd interesting and ultimately, heartbreaking for me is the setting. It owes more to Jack Vance's Dying Earth than it does to Tolkien or Howard or Leiber. Although it's never actually explicitly stated, it sure feels like a post-apocalyptic world where the good times are so far gone that they are just vague myths. Not quite to the point of the Dying Earth but working its way there.

It's clearly not medieval since there are things like guns and factories and steam engines. On the other hand, most of the world seems to be nothing ruins and wilderness with city states being the biggest form of government.

Adventuring in the world of Into the Odd consists of going out into the wilderness and ruins and forgotten catacombs to find the lost wonders of the ancient world. So scavenging and grave robbing is clearly a major economic force.

What really gives the setting a distinctive flavor is the Arcana, the lost wonders and treasures of a forgotten age of miracles. These are not your generic magic items. They range from tchotchkes that can fit in your pocket to pieces of architecture. 

And they do very specific, ridiculously specific things. Think the mini-series The Lost Room things. Figuring out what Arcana can do and then how to make that useful is definitely a distinct part of the game.

I do have to say that the book doesn't just include the standard starter dungeon but a good-sized wilderness area around it, complete with a wandering encounter table and  encounters and story books on different hexes. As long as you're willing to wander around the Fallen Marshes, there's a decent amount of adventuring a GM can run in the fly.

Here's the rub. Into the Odd has simple rules and will make for a good quick and dirty dungeon crawl. But neither of those things are that hard to find. There are a lot of options out there for either one of them.

It's the setting, which is so old school that it touches the primordial roots of D&D that is the selling point for Into the Odd. And while the city of Hopesend Port and the Fallen Marshes do give you enough to run a short campaign, I wanted to see so much more of the setting. Yes, minimalism fits the old school feel but I could have easily enjoyed more than twice as much setting material.

Simple rules are nice but the flavor and setting was what I took away from the game and I wanted so much more.

Into the Odd is a quirky game that is three quarters Old School Revival with one quarter indie sensibilities about simple, intuitive rules. If it wasn't for that being a such extreme juxtaposition, I don't know if I'd consider it a indie game at all.

It's really not a game that I'd suggest. These days, my interests are in narrative driven games. But if someone else wanted to play it, I'm sure I have fun.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Building the apocalypse out of your own fears

It is after the end. Civilization has collapsed. Everything has fallen apart. Your fears are all around you, threatening to destroy you and everything you hold dear. Yet, somehow, you keep clinging to hope and keep on trying to keep on moving forward.

The Last One is a post apocalyptic horror RPG designed for two players, one who will play the last one and one who will play the other, the cruel world that will to its uncaring best to snuff out the last one and their hope.

In addition to being designed for only two players, the Last One is also a short form, designed to be played out in seven scenes. It is also almost entirely narratively driven but has a fairly tight structure for that narrative.

The player begins by coming up with three fears, a hope, and a safe house that is the end goal for the last one. The other will use these things to come up with the world after the end.

An important idea is that the fears shouldn't be the fears of the character. They should be the fears of the player. Personally, I find that a big, bold idea. It's pretty obvious that the guy who designed The Last One wanted to make sure that it was an emotional gut punch to the player.   

There are two kinds of scenes in The Last One, After Scenes and Before Scenes. As the names suggest, they are either set before or after the apocalyptic event that ended the world as we know it.

In the seven scenes that will make up a game of The Last One, the After Scenes are the odd-numbered scenes. They are also the ones that have crucial choices that will impact the last one on their journey.

You see, both the player and the other are dealt seven cards at the start of each after After Scene. When the player wants to make a critical action, the player and the other lay one to two cards face down and simultaneously reveal. High card wins and that person gets their way.

It will always be the decision of the player to make a choice. The other cannot force them to make a choice but if the player chooses not to make a choice, then the other determines  the consequences of not making a choice. If you decide to not do anything when someone starts shooting at you, the consequences can be pretty extreme. I 

After three choices have been made, the other will resolve the scene and bring it to an end. The other isn't allowed to kill the last one or destroy their hope until the seventh and last scene. Every horrible thing short of killing them is fair game, though.

The even-numbered scenes are flashbacks that explore who the last one is, how they handled the end of the world and why their hope is important to them. There are no choices or other card play but the other gets to ask three tough, probing questions.

While the flashback scenes might not allow the other to do any harm to the last one or their hope, they definitely help with the whole character development and role-playing part of the game.

There are a number of things that I like about the Last One. In particular, I like how there is a lot of freedom while there is still a tight structure. The end of the world could be through disease or nuclear bombs or zombies or something else. The player's hope could be their child or lover or dream of freedom or their pet cat. And, of course, the fears can be anything.

At the same time, all of that will be explored in seven scenes that use the choices and questions to pace the scenes. Sometimes you need a framework to get the job done. 

At the same time, making the game all about the player's fears might be a bit much. That might cross the line between fun and engaging and go into disturbing.

I will admit that my absolute first choice for a short form or game for two players is Baker's Murderous Ghosts. It has a very interesting structure that definitely keeps the tension circling in upon itself, one way or another. The card play in Murderous Ghosts feels like it's much more tightly connected to the narrative. Plus, the danger and the horror are more immediate and visceral.  

The Last One explores horror in a completely different genre and fashion. With the flashback scenes, it becomes a more thoughtful and reflective way to deal with horror. Still, it is nice to have options and different views.

I do have to make one more note about The Last One. Each page was thematically  decorated with splatters the blood over the black lettering. Maybe it's because I'm colorblind but it was really hard for me to read.