Saturday, July 10, 2010

Fun with Zombies, Gunfighters, Viral Hemmorhagic Fever and Cthulhu

Mission Fun And Games in St. Albert recently had a sale to celebrate their twentieth year of business. That's a real accomplishment for any independent store, let alone a brick and mortar game shop, and with their entire store going for 20% off, well, only a fool would let an opportunity to swing by and congratulate them pass by, right?

The danger in a store like this to me, specifically, is two-fold: the first being that I like games, you know, like, a lot.

And pretty much all types, too. I like board games, card games, war games, dice games, party games, role-playing games...pretty much everything except head games, and yes, that includes the song by Foreigner.

The second threat is my uncanny ability to rationalize purchases: 'it was on sale', 'it's out of print now', 'a portion of the proceeds go to charity', 'he seemed like a good guy and he said the beans are magic!', et cetera. Luckily my wife has developed what amounts to a highly evolved resistance to these rationalizations, and I have a deep and abiding desire to remain both married and ambulatory, so I managed to restrict myself.

Having now played all the games at least once, I thought I would share my findings with the like-minded among you.

Bang is an Italian card game that recreates the gunfights seen in spaghetti-westerns, complete with shifting allegiances and ambiguous loyalties. It is fast, fun, and easy enough to play that both Fenya and Glory enjoyed it, although a lot of time was lost trying to explain exactly what the hell a spaghetti western is to an 8 and 11 year old.

Each player takes on a role of either Sheriff, Outlaw or Renegade; the Sheriff has to kill the Outlaws before they do the same to him, while the Renegade wants the Sheriff's job, and so has to arrange it that he is the last man standing. In larger games, there are also Deputies to aid the Sheriff. The only role known to all the players is the Sheriff; all the other ones need to be deduced.

In addition to having a role, each player is also given a Character, and that character has a special ability, like 'Calamity Janet', who allows her player to exchange 'Bang!' cards for 'Missed!' cards, and vice versa, or 'Vulture Sam', who gets to collect all the cards from an eliminated player.

Most of the game consists of playing a 'Bang!' card against an opponent, who can thwart you by playing a 'Missed!' card in response, so it is fairly straightforward. Three or four un-missed bangs will eliminate that player. One complication, however, is that the opposing player's relative position to you at the table defines what the the range is between your characters, and at the start, you can only shoot the players to your immediate left or right. Later on, you may find a Schofield, allowing you to shoot a player two seats away, or a Mustang, which increases the distance others see you at by one, but in the meantime, your targets are limited, and you are already in a fight.

The edition I got not only included three expansions (High Noon, Dodge City, and A Fistful of Cards), but also came in a very large bullet that serves as the storage container. Oh, and best of all, there is a devastating but fickle card called 'Dynamite' that circulates between players until it explodes. Glee!

One of the primary motivators in picking up this game is that it is playable by ages 8 and up, making it a good choice for the family, but I am looking forward to playing this one with the lads, as it is highly competitive and quite a bit of fun. You do need a minimum of four players however, and a maximum of eight.

Game design legend Steve Jackson takes less of a lead in the running of his company these days, which frees him up for more actual design work, and after a career spanning four decades and having produced Ogre, GURPS, Car Wars, Chez Geek, and his most prosperous creation to date, Munchkin, it's clear to me at least that this was the right choice. Take his most recent dice game, Cthulhu dice.

I have a weakness for cool looking dice, it must be said, and this game has one of the coolest, but having played the flash game version on the SJGames website, I was impressed by the simplicity of the premise, the speed of play, and its inherent vindictiveness.

Each player begins with three marbles, representing his sanity. He picks a player to roll against, and the victim rolls back. Depending on the result, the Victim may lose sanity to either the Caster or to Cthulhu, who resides in the centre of the table. He may also gain sanity from the Cthulhu, but if dread Cthulhu himself is ever rolled, then every player loses one sanity to him! Mad players (having lost all their marbles, waw-wah!) continue to roll, hoping the Elder Sign will show Cthulhu's favour and return at least some of their sanity.

The object of the game is to be the only sane one left, and it is not always assured that there will be anyone left sane by the end, which just adds to the fun.

You can theoretically play with two people (each playing two cultists with their own set of marbles), but you really should have at least three, and five is best yet. There are enough marbles for six, and you could theoretically play with more, but it would make for a long wait between turns.

A very entertaining game, which can be taught in about 5 minutes to a group of new players, and can be transported quite handily in a dice bag.

I love the idea of collaborative games, they are part of the reason I enjoy RPGs so much. When I first read about Pandemic about three years ago, the concept of a team of 2-5 players racing around the globe in an effort to stop a global health catastrophe seemed like a very sound premise. Since its release in 2009, they have already spawned an expansion, which I considered promising since if no one liked it, it's not likely they would have bothered to make one, right?

Each turn, each player draws cards to determine which city a disease, represented by wooden blocks in four different colours, is going to strike. If there are three blocks already on a given city , an outbreak occurs, and an additional block is placed on each adjoining city. If one of those cities also has three blocks on it, another outbreak occurs, and so on. The game is lost at the 8th outbreak, or when you can't place any more blocks for a given colour due to running out.

Players have cards with the names of cities on them, and can use 5 cards of the same colour to cure that disease, provided they can reach a research centre. They can also discard a card to travel directly to that city, or, if they are already there, build a research centre instead. They can also give a card to another player, but they must both be in the city named on the card in order to do this, so you can see that some coordination is called for, especially since you aren't able to see the cards of the other players! If they are in a city with a disease block, they can discard one block, hopefully preventing an outbreak.

Each player also has a role which comes with a special ability: the Researcher can trade cards in any city; the Scientist only needs four cards of one colour to find a cure, the Medic can remove all disease blocks from a city, the Dispatcher can mov another player's pawn, and the Operations Expert can build a research centre in the city he is in without having that card.

Periodically, players will draw an Epidemic card from the player deck, which means the city at the bottom of the Infection deck gets three disease blocks and all the cities previously drawn get shuffled up and placed back on top of the infection deck, making an outbreak almost inevitable. Once you haved cured the fourth disease, you win.

This is a game for ages 10 and up, so the three of us played while Glory was away camping with a friend. Thanks to the game's simple yet elegant mechanics, Fenya caught on right away, even pointing out options Audrey and I hadn't considered yet. ("Daddy, instead of you using three actions to give me your cards, why don't you just spend one to take one of mine? You can cure Black with your five cards then, right?")

We lost our first game, but triumphed in the second, even though we continued to use the 'Introductory' rules which allowed us to keep all of our cards face up like a virtual hive mind. There are two additional levels of difficulty, Normal and Heroic, and the "On The Brink" expansion apparently includes a Legendary level, as well as a fifth disease strain and scenarios like "Bio Terrorist", where one player works against the others. I think Normal level will provide more than enough challenge for the three of us for the nonce, but it's nice to know that there is variety available in the future.

Pandemic is probably my favourite of the games I got at the Mission sale. It has decent production values, a sharp looking board, and good quality cards. As opposed to dice, the card-based mechanic brings just the right combination of random and inevitable, which results in a very dramatic game. ("No, not Sao Paulo again! It'll take forever to get there from Karachi!")

Steve Jackson's second dice-based game, Zombie Dice is a cup with thirteen dice in three different colours.

These dice represent the victims that you, as a zombie, are trying to catch in order to snack on their brains. The colour represents their relative toughness, with green being the easiest, yellow being tougher, and red being very hard indeed. Each turn you draw three random dice and roll: a picture of a brain means you caught him and ate it, footprints are one that got away (and which can get re-rolled next time) and a blast represents your zombie being shotgunned. Each turn you decide whether or not to press your luck and keep chasing brains, but when you roll your third blast, your turn ends and you lose any brains you got up to that point. Ending a round with the most brains after 13 makes you the winner.

This simple 'press your luck' mechanic means a game between two players can still be entertaining. Again, you could theoretically play with as many players as you want, but the wait between turns could get interminable. There are two opportunities for fate to fickle-ize you; first with the dice you draw ("Two reds and a yellow? Argh...") and then again with the throw of the dice themselves, so there is a little room for strategery, but daring and luck will win or lose the day for most players.

Steve Jackson gave a prototype of the game to Howard Tayler, creator of the sci-fi webcomic Scholck Mercenary, who wrote a great little essay about the surprising roleplaying potential of the game. For instance, everyone already knows three red dice are bad news, but you are already obliged to roll, so cracking a line like, "Special Forces, eh? Let's see if you taste special..." adds a whole new dimension to play.

Another accessible and easy to learn game with a minimum of rules and lots of portability, a game rarely lasts more than ten minutes, so Zombie Dice is probably the game which has seen the most play of the four I got at the sale.

1 comment:

  1. Great games! James and I need to come over to play zombie dice. I'll bring brain cupcakes!