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Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Meanwhile...

Not my little Old World
Well, the cursed cloud of gloom was upon me again last week, and I wasn't able to get the WFRP ready for last Sunday. So we just played some boardgames instead.

Roborally
We started off with a game of this gem. It's been a long time since I've had a multiplayer game of Roborally, so to get a 6-player game was cool. Better still: Martin wasn't playing, so I felt I was in with a chance...

Anyhoo, I chose a couple of easy boards without too many different elements and decided to go for a simple 3-flag race. I explained the basic principles of safe and dangerous flag location, and then we had a quick bit of random selection to decide who'd be placing the start and the 3 flags. Blow me, but did Tony not immediately get into the spirit of things by placing the 1st flag so that there were pits on 2 adjacent sides. That flag was going to be a real killer, and no mistake!

Sure enough: yours truly was first to the flag, and first into the pit, when Andy's bot sneaked in and pushed my Twonky off the flag just before I was going to vacate it with the aid of my Retro Rockets. I really, really should've known better I guess, but Martin's absence (and my nifty Retro Rockets) had lulled me into a false sense of security, and I charged in hoping for the best, as is my wont. Sheesh. At least I wasn't the only bot so to suffer, though I can't remember who was next.

That wasn't the only carnage in the game. Andy got himself the Buzz Bomb- a neat little option that allows you to fire a flying missile that you guide around the board by programing it with its own hand of 5 cards. This can be a lot of fun, but only having 5 program cards means that Buzz Bombs aren't very manoeuvrable, and they can sometimes be more dangerous to their owner than anyone else. This was what happened this time I seem to recall, as Andy's bot and his Buzz Bomb ended up having a rather explosive encounter soon after. Heh.

At least Andy could take consolation from also having the Mine Layer. He promptly laid a mine on the 1st flag before heading off for the next checkpoint, so that the next person to land on the flag was guaranteed a warm welcome.

Meanwhile, Tony had got his hands on the Drone Launcher. This option allows you to fire a flying drone instead of firing your laser. You mark the target's square with a targeting marker, and the drone flies there at full speed (3/phase). If it doesn't hit anything before reaching the square, it hovers on the spot, rotating each phase until it picks up a new target, and off it goes again.

I've never seen a drone laucher do very much before, but in this game Tony fired off all 3, and each and every one hit. They don't do a huge amount of damage (only 2 points explosive), but they do push the target bot back 1 square. So yes, you've guessed it, Tony was able to fire a drone at a bot beside a pit and bingo, down it went. Three shots, 3 hits, and 1 kill: quite simply the most effective use of a Drone Launcher I've ever seen. But that's what happens on a crowded factory floor.

Donald was doing his bit for the robot repair industry too. His bot had the High Power Laser. This cutie can shoot through walls, or even other bots, with the added bonus that if you shoot through a bot, it takes damage as well as the target beyond. Two for the price of one was a bargain that Donald couldn't resist.

Antony too was getting in on the demolition derby. As I made my escape from the chaos surrounding the 1st flag I took several points of damage. Time for a quick power down to repair it all I decided. So I headed for what I hoped would be a safe spot. No such freakin' luck though. In a fit of sheer malice, Antony just ran up and pushed me off the side of the board as my bot sat there inert. I know he enjoyed this, because he reminded me of his evil deed several times after the game.

Meanwhile Brian too had lost a life and had been sent right back to the start, which turned out to be fortunate, but futile. Fortunate because it meant that his was the only bot in any position to do anything to hinder Andy as he made his run for the final flag. Futile because his efforts failed, and Andy cruised to a comfortable victory.

Everyone enjoyed this game, and there is an appetite for more, which is just great, because Roborally is one of those multiplayer games where the rule of 'the more the merrier' definitely applies. Twonky will have his revenge, just you wait!

Doom the Boardgame
Andy brought his copy of Fantasy Flight Games' boardgame version of the original 1st-person shooter for us to try out. I've never played this before, but I've been keen to give it a go ever since I first got to look inside the box just after it was released. Doom the Boardgame is simply one of the most awesome boxes of gaming goodness I have ever seen. The box is big, heavy, and stuffed to bursting with plastic miniatures, jig-cut board sections, counters, cards, and more. Quite frankly, even GW at their most generous have never filled a big box with such goodies- yes, in terms of components, Doom the Boardgame even puts my beloved Space Hulk in the shade.

So, does the actual gameplay live up to the quite astonishing impact of this droolworthy box of delights? On the face of it, yes.

Andy has the Expansion Set, which is just as well, because the basic game only supports 4 players. With the Expansion Set we were able to play a Deathmatch. This had the advantage of letting us all play, and of getting us easily into a quick and simple game. Unfortunately it had the disadvantage of not letting us play with all the lovely monsters, because a Deathmatch is a straight shootout between marines. Still, we did get a good taste of the core mechanics of the game.

We played Deathmatch 2: Reactor Core (click through and head for page 10), with a 3-kill victory condition.

I won't review the rules or the gameplay in detail: the rules are all there online if you'd like to check them out, and the review at The Wargamer gives a good account of how the game works. What I will say is that the rules are logical and provide for fraught decision-making and tense gameplay. There are a lot of fiddly details to get used to, but they all make sense, and I certainly fancy playing the game often enough to master the detail and develop some serious tactics.

I got the first kill in our game: Andy decided to head for the reactor core- the red area on the map- to get the BFG; so I promptly headed for an encounter location and opened the reactor shield. Heh.

The game then devolved into a tense duel of manoeuvre, as people rushed to arm themselves with the most effective weapons and sneaked about trying to get the drop on each other. I quickly discovered the joy of grenades, which can be thrown round corners and can prove satisfyingly deadly. They can also bounce around unpredictably, with unfortunately catastrophic results, as I discovered to my cost (yep, more spectacular self-destruction!).

Among all the rules, I found the attack rules particularly interesting.

The attack rules use 6 special coloured dice: 1 red, 1 yellow, 2 blue, and 2 green. Each weapon/attack uses a fixed number of dice of set colours, from 1 red dice for a fist up to all 6 for the BFG. The faces of the dice show 2 basic symbols: a number, and damage pips. When you attack, you roll the appropriate dice. The total of the numbers gives you the range of the attack (this doesn't apply for close combat naturally enough). If this range is greater than or equal to the range to the target, then you've hit, and you apply the total number of damage pips to the target.

Some dice faces also have bullets on them. If a bullet comes up, then you're out of ammo. In addition, the red and yellow dice both have a miss symbol: if this comes up, then the attack misses no matter what.

This mechanic has some interesting effects. The simplest is based on the distribution of numbers and damage pips on the different colours of dice. According to Andy, the overall effect is that if you get good range you're going to do less damage, and vice versa. More subtle perhaps is the effect of abandoning traditional fixed ranges and to hit rolls: uncertain and variable ranges make long-range sniping a much iffier tactic than closing in and blazing away at short range. I'm not much of a computer gamer, let alone a player of FPS, but it seems to me that the overall effect of these attack rules is to enforce a style of play that has more in common with Doom the FPS than with more traditional tactical skirmish games. I like this.

Anyhoo, even with just the marines on the table, I really enjoyed Doom the Boardgame. I'm looking forward to seeing how things go when the marines are facing all the monsters that hell can throw at them.

Oh, and by the way: Tony won our game.

And finally: Memoir'44 less than perfect? Shock! Horror!
The games of Memoir'44 I played with Martin recently gave rise to a lengthy discussion about the vagaries of cardplay in which Martin and I didn't see eye-to-eye. Musing on this recently I was struck by a thought about how the deck works in M44. I found myself wondering if this feature of the game might prove to be something of a limitation.

In M44 your route through the deck is essentially quite fixed. That is to say: because you play one card and draw one card, the cards you will get in your hand are largely fixed by the shuffle. There are only 2 ways to change this: the 6 'Recon' cards- which allow you to draw 2 cards and choose which you keep; and the 'Their Finest Hour' card- which causes the deck to be reshuffled.

There are various ways- in respect of both authenticity and of gameplay- that this can be rationalised. All the same, this tightly structured access to the deck contrasts strongly with my other favourite cardgames. In Up Front you have the discard capacity that you don't have in M44, plus the deck is used for random number generation too- both of these will affect your route through the deck. In Ivanhoe the decision whether or not to withdraw from a tournament is crucial in this respect, and can be of great tactical importance. Settlers Cards and Fluxx too both offer different ways to run through the deck.

All of which leads to the big question: is this very limited ability to change the way that you run through the deck (it is the exception rather than the rule) a problem? Would M44 benefit from rules allowing players to vary their card cycle by, say, discarding and drawing 2 cards if they don't issue any orders? I'm torn here.

My instinct is that M44 wouldn't benefit from a change of this kind. This is because I feel that the game's card cycle is carefully balanced with the structure of the Command deck and of the fire and movement rules. M44's slower card cycle compared to, say, UF, strikes me as being designed to pose specific hand-building problems for the sake of generating a definite psychological tension as you balance your capacity to react to your opponent against your efforts to develop your own attack plans.

At the same time I have to confess that the idea of a card-driven game with such limited ways to change your route through the deck sits uncomfortably with me. At the very least this might be because knowing how to work your way through the deck is a cardplay skill that you'd surely prefer to let players bring to bear.

Like I said, I'm torn here. But then, perhaps it is precisely the absence of this level of cardplay that makes Borg's design such a winner. Why do I say this? Because I'm thinking that this very absence is a great equaliser in a contest between a veteran card player and someone who comes to a game like M44 with little or no experience of card games and the associated skills of navigating through a deck of cards.

Well, I guess I'm reassured at least. ;)
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