Saturday, June 19, 2010

UK Games Expo'10 #3. Games to the left of them, games to the right of them

A weekend of lovely stuff
With trade stands and demo tables spread through 6 halls in the Clarendon Suites there was plenty to keep me busy on Saturday before the Combat Commander tournament, and on Sunday. I had to exercise a measure of restraint at the trade stands this year because I was hauling my own luggage home by train, which gave me an added incentive to pass the time playing as many games as possible.

Cubicle 7
My first definite port of call on Saturday was the Cubicle 7 stand, located in the Gold Zone (where I'd later play my first game of Dominion). I was a man on a mission: I wanted a copy of the new superhero RPG Wild Talents, which I'd seen in the Expo programme because it'd been nominated for 'Best New RPG' in the Expo Awards. The stall was very busy so I only had time for a brief exchange of pleasantries with Angus Abramson before moving on.

Wild Talents
Wild Talents- "Superhero Roleplaying in a World Gone Mad", developed by Arc Dream Publishing, is a superhero RPG which uses the One-Roll Engine (ORE) designed by Greg Stolze. The ORE is a d10 dicepool system in which your success is determined by matching dice from your dice roll. The elements of the ORE in action are:
  • Height: the highest value of dice matched- eg. 2 7s; this determines the quality of your success.
  • Width: the number of dice matched- eg 3 7s is wider than 2 7s; this determines the speed and/or impact (ie. damage) of your success; you need a width of 2 to succeed at all.
  • Hard dice: these special dice always score 10.
  • Wiggle dice: these special dice can be assigned any desired value after all other dice have been rolled.
There is a bit more to the ORE than that, naturally enough, but that is the core system. I must admit that the idea that you can read off all the results of an action from a single dice roll is one which appeals to me, so I'm interested to see how this will work in practice.

The ORE aside, Wild Talents features the list of attributes familiar to all superhero RPGs:
  • Stats.
  • Skills.
  • Powers.
  • Extras (power boosters).
  • Flaws (power weaknesses).
There are also chapters on 'Building Superheroic Histories', and 'A World Gone Mad'- the alternate history of the world in Godlike, the first RPG to feature the ORE. The book is rounded off with appendices which include 'How To Play a Roleplaying Game' and 'How To Run a Roleplaying Game', both of which look useful. In short, this weighty tome pleases me greatly.

Elsewhere, wandering about the Blue Zone I happened across Retsami, an abstract game being demoed by John Wildsmith- its inventor; and billed as 'The Greatest Game Since Backgammon'. A grand claim in the opinion of this fan of backgammon, I was sufficienlty intrigued to want to investigate. So I had a game against John.

John Wildsmith & I play Retsami

Retsami ('I master' reversed!) is played on a 9x9 chess-style gridded board, with the addition of a spiral working into the centre. The 2 players each have 4 pieces which start the game dispersed along the same board edge. You can make any 1 of 3 moves on your turn:
  • Move any 1 piece in an L-shaped move; ie. you can move as far as you like but you only turn 1 corner.
  • Take any 1 opposing piece which is ahead of your attacking piece; this can be done in a straight or diagonal line.
  • Return a lost piece to any empty square on the starting row.
These simple rules make Retsami easy to learn. They don't make it simplistic to play. It is surprising how few opposing pieces are needed to make a row a potential deathtrap for your own advancing pieces. The resulting gameplay was tense and exciting. In short: I liked it, enough to buy it even if I'm unconvinced about the grand claim relative to Backgammon. Oh, and I won. I'd still've bought it otherwise.

Game design workshop
This year's Expo programme included a series of talks by guest speakers. Top of the list was the 'Game Design Workshop', featuring Alessio Cavatore- lately of GW where he worked on WHFB, 40K and LotR; and Jeff Quantrill- developer and playtester of Great Fire: London 1666 (designed by Expo's very own Richard Denning). You can be sure, dear readers, that this event was at the top of yours truly's list as well.

The talk took the form of introductions by Alessio and Jeff followed by a conversation between them in response to questions from the audience. All-in-all the event- billed as a 'Workshop', was OK. This might sound like damning by faint praise. It's not. Let me explain. Both Alessio and Jeff had interesting stories to tell and I enjoyed hearing them. On the ins, outs, trials and tribulations of games design, little of what they said was new to me: I'd already come across it one way or another down the years

What was new to me came in the discussion of playtesting. This went beyond the obvious points about doing lots of playtesting and of the importance of blind testing, to talk about the different kinds of playtesters. The key difference was summed up as this:
  • The playtesters who work to help you fix your game.
  • Those whose suggestions are more about redesigning your game into one they'd prefer.
The consensus from Jeff and Alessio was that the best way to avoid pitfalls of this ilk was to develop your game in definite iterations. That is to say: don't continuously incorporate every small bit of feedback; wait until you've got feedback from a specific test period, then incorporate that. This struck me as sound practice.

I asked a question of my own, naturally enough: if using today's ICT to give games away would prejudice future efforts to sell those games, and to what extent. I didn't receive the insights I was hoping for- into added value in the full production game, and so on. But we did hear an interesting story about how some fans of Days of Wonder's successful Small World had put together their own mod and uploaded it for free distribution via BGG. This turned out to be so popular that DoW bought it.

This session was well worthwhile. Even where the content wasn't new to me it was good to hear it in distilled form while surrounded by people of like mind. I enjoyed this a lot.

There were some particular gaming accoutrements I was keen to buy this year: dice cups. I wanted these for playing the random hidden AP variant in Conflict of Heroes: roll 3d6- taking the highest and the lowest; keep the dice hidden under the dice cup and count your AP expenditure up from 0 instead of down from 7, as in the standard game. This variant is recommended by designer Uwe Eickert, and Badger and I have been keen to try it for some time.

The kindly folks at Q-Workshop, purveyors of excellent gaming accessories

I did the rounds of all the dice and gaming accessories stands- picking up some nice dicebags (for the damage counters in CoH) and a nifty dice-rolling tray (it was a bargain I couldn't resist!), before returning to Q-Workshop, where I'd started: they had the cheapest dicecups on offer. Feeling a bit cheeky, I asked for a small discount on the 4 leather dicecups I was buying. The woman on the stand swithered, then agreed. Result! This quick plug is my side of the bargain.

The cups themselves are really high quality, made of thick durable leather with similarly durable stitching (it looks like waxed thread to me). I'm sure they'll last for years and will prove to be well worth the £7 each they cost me (discount aside, mine were cheaper than those on the Q-Workshop website because they don't have lids). Like I said, result!

War for Edadh
I sought out the stand of WarriorElite Ltd- publishers of the fantasy battle cardgame War for Edadh, because they were on the list for the 'Expo passport' prize draw. It turned out that WarriorElite were insisting that you play a demo before they'd stamp your passport. I felt that this wasn't quite in the spirit of the thing, but what the heck I decided. I'm glad I did: behind trappings which give the appearance of just another fantasy battle game set in its own world is a game which strikes me as quite unique.

Dave Kitcat on the WarriorElite stand

The core game of War for Edadh uses two kinds of cards:
  • Troop cards: these are double-sided; the back of the card is more detailed than the front and contains the unit attributes which are used to resolve conflict in the full game (the sample images here are taken from the Demo cards PDF; these are one-sided unlike those in the full game). The attributes' meanings are:
  1. Attack and defence value are obvious.
  2. Attack damage value is used when the attacker's attack value is greater than the defender's defence value.
  3. Defence damage value is used when the defender's defence value is greater than the attacker's attack value.
  4. Discard value is the amount of damage which must be delivered in a single round of combat (AKA. Conflict Resolution) to destroy a unit.
  5. Melee, charge and ballistic are the 3 ranges at which combat can take place in the game; not all units can fight at all ranges, as can be seen from the sample troops cards above.
  • Mastery cards: these are single-sided with 2 Mastery values on each card, and are used to determine who is the attacker and who is the defender in each conflict; the way this works is really neat:
  1. Each player secretly selects a Mastery card, standing it up with the chosen Mastery value to the top.
  2. Cards are revealed.
  3. Players pay the Mastery Point cost for the cards they played; this may be adjusted as per #6 below.
  4. If both players play the same card- regardless of its orientation, then the result is a draw.
  5. Each player then selects the troop(s) which will engage in this conflict.
  6. One player's card's Mastery value may be increased if their opponent played a card in the appropriate range; eg. MV1 becomes MV13 against MV9.
  7. The player whose MV is higher is the attacker for this conflict.
  8. Damage is resolved as above: only the attacker does damage if there is one; each side does damage to the other in a draw.
  9. If a defender- or either side in a draw, takes damage greater than their participating unit's Discard Value, then that unit is lost.
My valiant opponent & I at our demo of War for Edadh

If the interaction of attack and defence- with their related damage values, is intriguing, it is the use of the Mastery cards- especially the altered Mastery values, which makes War for Edadh unique; and all of this was shown to advantage in my demo game. I was playing Angueth against Huaos-Dzaa. We were playing the core rules from the full game so that we both had a wider range of troop types than in the sample battle layout shown above.

I was keen to experiment with the psychological dimension of playing low in the hope of ending up high thanks to my opponent's choice. This availed me naught; all the more so because the Huaos-Dzaa seemed to be so damnably heavily armoured even when I did get a hit. I was soon reduced to a lone unit against my opponent's five. It was all over bar the shouting we all thought. And then began the most amazing last stand as I played 5 correctly judged low cards in a row to win. What a thrill! A truly epic victory, and it had nothing whatsoever to do with pure chance.

I didn't buy War for Edadh on the day- I wisely judged that I could afford neither the cash nor the luggage space. Even so, if I have one regret about my own UK Expo'10 it is that I didn't come away with a copy of this fascinating game. I expect I'll rectify that just as soon as I can.

ShuuroHaving heard Alessio Cavatore speak on Saturday I decided to give his new game a go on Sunday. So I made my way to his stand, introduced myself in my now traditional manner, and got wired in. Shuuro- published by River Horse Games, is the first of Alessio's post-GW games. Shuuro is a chess variant whose variations are:
  • You buy your own 'army' using points values: you get your king for free; everything else is up to you.
  • There is some terrain: simple blocks in Shuuro- only Knights can cross or enter these; but Alessio told me of plans for different kinds in the future.
I played a quick game with young Joey on the 6x6 starter board. When this was finished Alessio suggested that Gina- Joey's mum, join in for a 4-player game using the unpublished expansion- Turanga, which adds 2 more players. Gina was game and she and I were teamed up against Alessio and Joey. One rule of Turanga is that teams are not allowed to communicate during play so Joey and Alessio went off for a few minutes to give each team time for a quick strategy session. Gina confessed she was no chess expert. No matter, I said, suggesting a simple strategy: pick on Alessio. Gina approved.

Me & Joey playing Shuuro while Alessio looks on

Our strategy proved very successful, not least because you only have to beat one player in a team to win the 4-player game. The game revealed some interesting quirks of play; eg. when you're in check you don't get mated until your own turn, so you get 2 chances to escape: your team mate can come to your aid; then you get your own chance.

I played another quick minigame with someone else so I ended up spending a wee while in Alessio's company before finally moving on. Alessio was very friendly and didn't mind answering my inevitable few questions about his GW days. He also told me that there will be more games from River Horse, but he couldn't tell me anything about them.

I have to say I really enjoyed Shuuro, the 4-player variant especially. I'm not a big fan of chess- I've never been great at the kind of lockstep logic it demands so I've long preferred dealing with chance in my gaming. But the customised armies and the addition of 'terrain' made this classic interesting to me in a way I really didn't expect. I'm already considering investing in the fully expanded set, although I might want to try it again before I took the plunge.

The UK Games Expo Awards
Any convention worth its salt has awards and UK Games Expo is no exception. There were 19 nominations in 5 categories this year:
  • Best new RPG.
  • Best new boardgame.
  • Best abstract game.
  • Best family/general game.
  • Best card game.
One nice feature of the Expo Awards is that con-goers can vote. I voted in 2 categories:
Angus and Dominic of Cubicle 7 with their UK Games Expo 2010 Best New RPG award

I was pleased to see that Cubicle 7 won for their Doctor Who RPG. My commiserations to John Wildsmith, and also to Ben and Chris of Tied to a Kite, whose Backswords & Bucklers was also nominated. I hope you won't hold my vote against me guys!

The full list of UK Games Expo 2010 award winners can be found here.

Collective EndeavourLate Sunday afternoon I decided to have one last run round the trade stands in search of swag. I headed for the Chessex stand in the Green Zone, thinking to buy some nice dice. It just so happened that my route took me past the Collective Endeavour independent RPG stand. I'd met some of the Collective Endeavour crew at Conpulsion back in March so I stopped to say hello. I exchanged greetings with some faces familiar from March and was surprised and delighted to hear praise from several quarters for my Conpulsion report. Thus waylaid it was inevitable I guess that I'd decide to invest in one of their games.

Malcolm Craig does his psycho impression at the Collective Endeavour stand

I explained my interest in buying an RPG with which I could run thrillers of the ilk of classic Hollywood movies like Hitchcock's North by Northwest. There was a game like that it turned out but it wasn't available on the Collective Endeavour stand, so I took a look at what was available and fielded a few suggestions before plumping for Cold City, by Malcolm Craig. Malcolm was pleased to add to my collection of RPGs signed by their authors.

Cold CityPublished in 2008 by Contested Ground Studios in a nicely produced digest-sized volume, Cold City is a game of monster hunting and twisted technology set against the background of emerging Cold War tensions in the Berlin of 1950. The PCs are members of the Reserve Police Agency: a top secret multinational organisation whose purpose is to track down the various horrors left behind after a Second World War in which the Nazi weird science and supernatural tinkering, so beloved of alternate history geeks, is all true.

My interest in the Cold City's setting and theme aside, what first struck me about this game is that it is very well written. Malcolm's prose is concise and to the point, and the sections on 'Game Creation'- 'Closed and Open Games' and 'Collaborative Game Creation', offer advice which could benefit any GM setting up a game using any RPG. The system itself is uncomplicated although its mechanics might at first seem strange to those unfamiliar with independent RPGs. Some examples:
  • The Draw: a flashback scene run for each PC as a prologue to the first scenario involving those PCs; the Draw serves to define the characters' involvement in the RPA, and might even add to the characters.
  • Traits: open-ended attributes- positive and negative, which players can define as they wish; eg. 'Hotshot pilot', or 'Can twist language and use it to her advantage' (an example from the book); capable of being both dramatic and functional, these encourage players to define their characters in interesting ways.
  • Conflict resolution: the single mechanic which perhaps most distinguishes RPGs of this ilk from those with which most roleplayers are familiar, conflict resolution is different from task resolution in that it typically distills the essential dramatic conflict of a scene into one contested dice roll, the results of which are then interpreted to narrate the scene's outcome.
  • Trust: the atmosphere of paranoia and hidden agendas (all PCs in a game of Cold City are usually from different countries so they have competing national and personal agendas) is engineered systemically in the game by the use of Trust, a mechanic which measures the trust PCs have in each other; Trust is a resource which can contribute- postively or negatively, to the dicepools used to resolve conflicts.
I have some vague familiarity with the notions of the Draw- from 'origin scenes' in superhero roleplaying and of Traits- from Disadvantages in HERO, but I've never seen either used as they are in Cold City. I'm certainly interested in seeing how they work out in practice. I hope I get a chance sooner rather than later.

Dogs in the Vineyard
Leaving the lads at Collective Endeavour I headed off to the Leisure Games stand to look for the RPG which had been recommended to me. Seeing there a copy of D. Vincent Baker's Dogs in the Vineyard RPG- my interest in which had been piqued by Malcolm at Conpulsion, I did the natural thing and bought a copy (which I got at a healthy discount because it was shop-worn). I must confess that I had mixed feelings buying this game because I've read statements about roleplaying from Vincent Baker which were so beyond being wrong they positively reeked (apparently I didn't play any of the great romantic melodrama which so thrilled us back in the 80s; we were playing the wrong games y'see). Still, I wasn't going to let that get in the way of my curiosity.

Dogs in the Vineyard (DitV) is a game of Mormon lawgivers in fancy coats dispensing harsh justice to the sinful faithful in the Old West; think Dirty Harry meets Pale Rider with a dash of High Plains Drifter and you've got it about right. The first thing I noticed about DitV is that it's not as well written as Cold City, the main problem being that the author is just too fond of himself in places ('show don't tell' would've been worth his bearing in mind it seems to me). Still, the book is quite readable and it did catch my interest: the rules are well explained, and the background is made quite vivid in exposition that is definitely useful to would-be players.

Character creation is easy enough:
  • Chose a background.
  • Divvy up your dice into your attributes (all attributes are dice pools of d4s, d6s, d8s or d10s):
  1. Stats.
  2. Traits.
  3. Relationships.
  4. Belongings.
  • Resolve your 'Accomplishment': just like 'The Draw' in Cold City.
The key feature of DitV is its conflict resolution system. This involves each side rolling a dice pool then bidding dice- poker style, to determine the outcome of the conflict step-by-step. This is frankly peculiar- if not contrived, to a roleplayer schooled in classic task resolution mechanics, but I must admit that I can see how it could encourage an interesting narrative dynamic to conflicts. Colour me intrigued a second time.

And that, dear readers, is all she wrote. ;)

UK Games Expo'10
- #1. Friends old and new
- #2. Once more unto those hex-and-counter battlefields
- #4. Winding up and wending home

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