Free RPG Day at Leisure Games

Saturday 18 June is the 10th annual Free RPG Day and, as usual, Leisure Games is hosting a day of roleplaying – as well as giving away an assortment of free dice, modules and quickstarts.

If you want to come along and play your own games, feel free (subject to space, of course!). We will also be hosting a number of games throughout the day. We’ll have two tables of Pathfinder running, alongside two hour Microscope taster sessions. In addition, Stianin Jackson, author of Heroes of the Hearth, part of Pelgrane Press’s Seven Wonders anthology of games, will be around to demonstrate the game.

So come along for a day of games and fun. And did we mention the free stuff?

Review: Above and Below

Above and Below is a unique mixture of a storytelling and town-building game for 2-4 players. Each person plays a small group of villagers who are attempting to build a settlement, while exploring the labyrinthine caverns which they discover beneath them.

Mechanically, the game is incredibly simple. You start the game with three villagers and you take turns giving them one of a number of tasks: recruit more villagers, build new buildings, “harvest” commodities from an existing building, earn gold and explore the caverns. The main resource is gold, and each new building or villager will cost you. As you put a villager to work, they become “exhausted” and if you don’t have enough beds on your building cards at the end of each round, not all of your villagers will recover for the following round. The game takes place over 7 rounds and the player with the most victory points – earned via buildings, reputation and having different commodities – wins.

Thus far, I could be describing a game like Agricola or Puerto Rico. When you decide to explore the caverns however, it suddenly turns into a completely different game! You pick a cavern card and roll a die – the result gives you a paragraph reference to look up in the story book provided. Did I mention the story book? If you played Choose Your Own Adventure or Fighting Fantasy books, it will look very familiar. Most paragraphs give you a bit of descriptive text and offer you a choice. Most often, the option you choose then results in you making a skill test – and this is where you’ll wish you took an extra villager with you. If you don’t quite get enough successes, you can exhaust one or more of your villagers for extra successes, but that means that you won’t be able to use them again until they’ve been healed in some way.

Potential rewards are more commodities, gold, reputation and even new villagers (I never encountered one of those, sadly). What’s more, once you have explored a cavern, you can go on to put a building in it.

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There are a huge number of paragraphs in the storybook, meaning that there is a lot of replayability. There is slightly less variety when it comes to the buildings and villagers, but I guess these take more of a backdrop.

Appearance-wise, the game is absolutely gorgeous. Designer Ryan Laukat doubles as the artist and has given it a whimsical, cartoony style all of its own. The humourous, often surreal tone of the encounters in the story book reminded me a lot of Adventure Time Kingdom Death: Monster this is not. The seven rounds pass incredibly swiftly and while mechanically simple, there are some interesting strategic choices and multiple pathways to victory. Our game came down to a close contest between a player who had focused on increasing his reputation and another who had focused on getting as wide a range of commodities as possible. There isn’t a huge amount of interaction between the players, other than the fact that your opponents might get to the buildings and villagers you want first.

Overall, this is a cute family game with plenty to enjoy for both young and old alike.

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Review: Carcassonne: Star Wars

Carcassonne is one of my formative tabletop gaming experiences, and I’m obsessed with Star Wars, so I suppose it was inevitable that I would grab myself a copy of Carcassonne: Star Wars at the earliest opportunity.

Last year we were been bombarded with licensed Star Wars games at the family end of the spectrum. Some have been surprisingly good, such as the new Risk: Star Wars (which more closely resembles the highly regarded Star Wars: Queen’s Gambit from 1999 than it does Risk) but most of them have been simple reskins of existing games, with very little imagination put into them. Carcassonne: Star Wars fits more into that category, but it does add some interesting tweaks.

In classic Carcassonne, each player takes turns laying square tiles and placing their pawns, or “meeples” onto various features in order to claim them – ultimately for points. Meeples can be placed in cities, on roads, in cloisters and in fields. You can’t put your meeples in features which have already been claimed by other players, but you can connect your features to another player’s feature. So, for example, if your opponent has a huge city spread over several tiles and worth lots of points, through tile careful placement you can share or even steal those points. On the surface, it’s a gentle game about bucolic life; beneath the surface it can be fiercely competitive.

Carcassonne Star Wars Box CoverIn the Star Wars version, these types of features are replaced by things with a more spacey feel. Thus, cloisters become planets, roads become hyperspace routes and cities become asteroid fields. Each player has a “faction” – rebel, imperial or scum – and many of the tiles have symbols which match those factions on them. Claim a hyperspace route with a symbol on it and you get bonus points. But the biggest change is in the claiming of features. While you still can’t put your meeples on another player’s feature directly, if you do manage to combine your feature with your opponent’s, instead of sharing you fight! You roll as many dice as you have meeples on that feature, plus one for each tile with one of your faction symbols on it and the highest single die wins. The loser has to remove all of their meeples, getting a compensatory point for each die they rolled.

For some, this might sound like a terrible move, changing a game with no conflict in it to one where you’re rattling dice every couple of turns, but you might be surprised. My wife and I have a standing agreement to not play standard Carcassonne any more because it tends to cause arguments, but she really likes the Star Wars version. Why? Because it changes the game from one of passive aggression to, well, direct aggression. The loser of every fight not only gets compensation but gets their meeples back which they can place elsewhere. In classic Carcassonne you can have these long drawn out power struggles which ultimately don’t get anywhere and use up resources that you can no longer use, and that can result in long periods where you can’t actually do anything. The Star Wars version ensures that those dull periods much shorter.

As a standalone version of a classic game then, I think it has quite a lot going for it. My only real criticism is that they could have gone further with the theming. The overall branding looks a lot like those cheap Star Wars advent calendars and Easter eggs you get in supermarkets – sadly no chocolate is included however. It’s a real shame that the vaguely human shaped meeples weren’t replaced by Star Wars starfighters; the stickers which go on the meeples are a little tacky. Each colour is given a character name – Luke Skywalker (red), Yoda (green), Boba Fett (orange), Darth Vader (black) and Stormtrooper (white) – and I have issues with these. It’s nitpicking, but I do feel that we should have had the Emperor instead of the Stormtrooper. And in light of the “Where’s Rey?” controversy over Star Wars Monopoly a few months ago, it would have been more gender inclusive to have replaced Yoda with Leia. As the game is set during the original trilogy era, that would have fit better thematically as well.

Despite these issues however, as an interesting variant of Carcassonne, this more than holds up. It has had repeated plays in my household since I got my copy and I guess that’s as good a recommendation as any. The space battles make for a somewhat more dynamic game and I certainly rate it more highly than classic Carcassonne without any of the expansions (although personally, I’m a the Princess and the Dragon fan).

Some thoughts on Star Wars Armada Wave 3

Content warning: contains Star Wars and gamer geekery

After months of speculation and waiting, the third wave of expansions for Fantasy Flight Games’ Star Wars Armada game has finally been announced and it’s… well, it hasn’t exactly set blasters to stun. After the second wave gave us the iconic Imperial Star Destroyer and rebel flagship Home One, this wave has given us flotillas – groups of small support ships.

Flotillas Reference CardThe internet being the internet, this has not gone down well in all quarters, with several people declaring the game to be “dead” at this point due to the lack of exciting new ships. I think that even the most excited fan would have to admit that this announcement was a little underwhelming, but I think there are several reasons to be broadly content with these.

Wave 2 spoiled us

Wave 2 was huge, both in terms of size and scope. At this point, pretty much every ship that was in the original Star Wars trilogy is now in Armada (with two notable exceptions). We have 10 different ships to play with, and that’s before you get started on the various squadrons available.

If there was a problem with Wave 2, it was that it was arguably too big. Logistically, it must have been a nightmare – which presumably explains the big delays. And having so much in such a big chunk is a little hard to take in. If Wave 2 had been split into two, or even three, we’d have probably got our hands on our toys a lot sooner and been able to give each expansion the attention it deserved. And of course, it was a big chunk of cash to part with in one go – certainly not a problem we’ll face with Wave 3 (although even then, buying one of each is likely to cost as much as most board games).

More ships does not necessarily mean more variety

Rebel Transport ExpansionSure, FFG could adopt the approach of a certain other game publisher and keep pumping out an endless stream of new ships for Armada, but there’s a bit of a problem. On the Imperial side of things, most in-universe ships are little more than variations on the Star Destroyer design. In Armada, we already have four of these (only one of which appeared in the films) and while the Imperial Star Destroyer, the Gladiator and the Raider all do different things, the Victory-class ship is already struggling with being neither one or the other. The Rebel Alliance has even fewer options out there.

I don’t think bringing out more variations of that theme will especially help matters, even if a little more visual diversity might be nice. With X-Wing, this has been relatively easier, as the smaller scale ships in that game tend to have different tasks: some ships are interceptors, some are bombers, some provide support. But Armada is a game of throwing what are basically large moving cities in space at each other; the bigger scale means that everything gets averaged out. The game is not going to be well served by just more of the same.

There’s only one ship I can think of that they could develop which has its own distinct flavour: the Interdictor Cruiser. There’s a problem with introducing this ship however: it’s main ability is stopping ships from going into hyperspace. That’s a powerful ability, but not one which really figures much in Armada. To do the Interdictor justice and have it appear in the game, it will mean taking the game into a radically different direction, and that isn’t extremely wise to do in the game’s second year.

It’s a big game – in every way

Although the rules are simple enough, Armada is a deep and strategic game with lots of moving parts, and that’s both a strength and a weakness. I don’t feel I’ve even scratched the surface of it yet after playing for nearly a year – I certainly can’t win it! Leaving to one side the game play itself, there are a large number of factors to consider when building your fleet, balancing ships, upgrades, squadrons and mission cards to come up with a winning combination.

With all collectable games, adding more stuff increases the range of options exponentially. Building a winning Armada fleet feels more like building a deck in something like Netrunner than piecing together a squadron in X-Wing and as the game itself is much less random you can’t just rely on a bit of luck to push you through.

So a small expansion right now is actually quite a nice thing for the more casual player still trying to get to grips with the game as it is.

You can’t judge an expansion by its size

Size Matters Not

For me, the most interesting expansion to come out in Wave 2 was the Rogues and Villains pack, bringing ships such as the Millennium Falcon and Slave One into the game. I think squadrons remain a highly under-appreciated – not to mention fun and thematic – aspect of the game, and Rogues and Villains gives you a lot of interesting things you could do with them.

The new flotillas occupy a similar space for me – a nice chunk of theme and some interesting options that are about more than how much damage you can do to your opponent with a single dice roll.

The biggest problem with big expansions is that they’re ultimately zero sum: you can’t include another huge points-hog into your fleet without having to remove another one. That’s why you see the Victory-class so under-utilised; why include it when you have so many better options? Small expansions by contrast give you a lot more options. Ultimately I expect to see a lot more list diversity as a result of these two new expansions than we currently see, and that can only be helpful for the game.

The implications are huge

Imperial Assault Carriers ExpansionThe new expansions remain largely unspoiled. One thing, however, which I think has gone largely uncommented upon is that each flotilla is going to come with four fleet support icons and four other icons. That’s a huge amount of potential variety and new strategies.

We don’t have their points cost yet, but we can assume that the flotillas will be relatively cheap. If nothing else, they will function as a ship you can use to ensure you don’t have to activate your heavy hitter too early, or use to activate your squadrons with. We’ve already seen three very different fleet support upgrade cards and no doubt there are more to come.

I suspect these expansions will dramatically change the way Armada is played in new and exciting ways.

Oh, and this might not be it

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It has already been noted that there is a two number gap in Armada’s product codes. The Imperial Assault Carriers and Rebel Transports are SWM18 and SWM19 respectively, but we have no idea what SWM16 and 17.

Last time FFG left a gap in their product codes like this, it was for a very good reason: they were keeping the new Force Awakens ships for X-Wing under wraps. With the new Star Wars film Rogue One set to come out this year, it seems at the very least plausible that FFG have got a couple of Armada expansions ready which Lucasfilm are insisting they keep a secret until closer to that film’s December release date.

Conclusion

Wave 3 might look small and underwhelming, but it has the hallmarks of an interesting couple of expansions that will add a lot of dynamic and interesting options to your Armada fleet. Hopefully, its petite size means that it will be available sooner rather than later in the third quarter of 2016 and we can probably expect at least a couple of Rogue One-related releases to be announced this year as well. Far from this looking like a new game “dying” this looks more like the publishers being careful to not expand the game too fast, too soon.

Oh, and for the record, these are the ships I’m really hoping we’ll see come out for Armada:

The MC80 Liberty type Star Cruiser

MC80 Liberty Class CruiserThis ship is confusingly named (the Home One is also an MC80). It’s the only significant Rebel Alliance ship which appears in the orignal trilogy, Return of the Jedi to be precise, that hasn’t been released for Armada yet.

Despite the similar name, it looks significantly different to the Home One, with its more triangular appearance. I would imagine that this ship would be faster, with more powerful engines, and with a more rounded distribution of attack dice across its front and potentially rear arcs (instead of the Home One focus on side arcs).

The Venator-class Star Destroyer

Venator-class Attack CruiserI’m a bit of a stickler for the ships which appeared in the films, have a soft spot for the Clone Wars and have an interest in the period between episodes 3 and 4 as the Republic turned into the Empire. All of which make this Clone Wars-era ship a must.

I think this ship would lack a lot of punch and be quite slow, but would have a fair number of hit points and a good number of squadron points. Size-wise, it would be somewhere between a VSD and an ISD, but would probably be closer to the VSD in terms of points and would function more as a support ship.

(On a related note, I’d also like to see the much smaller Arquitens-class make an appearance, but it’s less clear what role it would play mechanically)

More squadrons and ace pilots

As I said above, squadrons are one of my favourite aspects of the game, so its no surprise I’d like to see more of them. There are plenty more types of starfighter to choose from – TIE Phantoms in particular would be fun, with their stealth devices – and it would be nice to see bigger ships such as the Ghost and Decimator pop up. But there’s also a lot of scope for more ace pilots for established ships. I wouldn’t go as far as X-wing in this regard – they aren’t a central enough part of the game – but a couple more ace pilots for each ship would add a nice bit of variety.

The Executor

The ExecutorThe toughest thing about designing Star Wars miniatures games is dealing with scale. And while I think that on balance they made the right call in terms of sizing things in Armada, it does make it hard to see how they can include the hugest ship to appear in the Star Wars films, the Executor. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try!

The Executor is nearly 12 times the length of an Imperial Star Destroyer, and for it to be imposing enough on the table it would need to be at least twice the length of the ISD model, and taller. We’re probably looking at a model that will cost £100 here. It might make more sense to make the Executor a big piece of card board, but it would be disappointing if that was the case.

Mechanically, it is hard to see how it could work in a standard 400 point game, but just as X-Wing has multiple modes of play, I’m sure Armada could handle it as well. What we’re talking about here is a ship that will be slow, but with lots of attack dice and high squadron and engineering ratings. It’s cost might be offset by a rule that if the Rebel player manages to blow it up, they automatically win the game – adding an extra layer of asymmetry.

While X-Wing is best in my opinion in its pure, 100-point dogfight form, Armada scales quite well. We might never see the Executor make an appearance at tournaments, but it is a crucial lump of plastic for that ultimate Star Wars space battle experience.

Review: Pandemic Legacy (spoiler free)

After being out of print for months, we should have Pandemic Legacy Season One back in stock next week, in both Blue and Red boxes (the content is exactly the same). Last autumn, Pandemic Legacy took the board game world by storm, rapidly becoming the top rated game on Board Game Geek and garnering rave reviews from the likes of Shut Up and Sit Down and the Dice Tower. Now that the hype has died down somewhat, is it worth your time and money? (tl;dr: YES!)

My own group is now just a couple of games away from finishing the full campaign, so I’ve seen most of what you get in the box. Don’t worry though; I won’t give anything away here – just the basic rules and aspects which will be apparent to you in your first game.

At first, Pandemic Legacy closely resembles Pandemic, the cooperative game it is based on. You are playing a team of 2 to 4 medical professionals going around the world attempting to cure four diseases in a race against time before they engulf the world in a global pandemic. Each character, such as the Scientist, Researcher or Medic, has a special ability. You each take turns going around the board and collecting and exchanging cards (you need sets of cards to discover cures for each of the diseases), and between each player’s turn, the diseases slowly spread. Where the diseases spread to is randomly generated by a deck of cards, but you can at least partially predict which ones are likely to come up because the discard pile is regularly shuffled and put on the top of the deck. You all lose the game if you have 8 outbreaks (where 3 or more disease “cubes” are placed on a single city and new cubes are placed on the neighbouring cities), if the cubes representing one of the diseases ever runs out, or if the deck of player cards ever runs out.

The first way in which Pandemic Legacy differs if that you give each of the characters you play a name, which you write on the character card with a pen. These are fragile human beings, with relationships, who can be hurt. If they are ever in a city where an outbreak takes place, they receive a “scar” – a special penalty that will stay with them throughout the rest of the campaign. And if they have two scars and are ever required to take a third, they become “lost”. You are no longer allowed to play that character and have to tear up their character card.

Some people won’t be able to deal with the idea of writing on cards, putting stickers on them and tearing them up, but it’s actually an incredibly immersive aspect of the game. Losing a character is a big deal! Risking a character who is on the verse of becoming lost is painful. You become invested in the characters you play, their relationships they have with each other and the scars they carry. My wife was playing Scientist “Josephine Butler” in our first game, when she was caught in Kinshasa when an outbreak occurred. This gave her the scar “PTSD” which meant that every time she began her turn in Africa, she lost an action. That fateful mistake is something that we’ve had to deal with in every game since.

Pandemic Legacy stickers
Stickers used in the Pandemic Legacy game

The board also changes. Whether a player character is there or not, each time a city outbreaks, its panic level rises. At panic level 1, everything remains broadly the same, but at level 2 any research stations in the city get torn down and you can no longer play a card to fly into that location. By the time you get to panic level 5, all civilisation has broken down and the city is extremely difficult to get into. I’m sorry to say that the aforementioned Kinshasa is in such a state in our game, and the less said about Japan, the better.

On the positive side, while your character’s scars, city panic levels and game events conspire to make things ever harder for you, you do get certain bonuses at the end of each game depending on what you did. If you manage to eradicate a disease in a game, in subsequent games you can choose to make it easier for you to cure that disease in the future. Build a research station in a city and you have the option of establishing a permanent base there. Your characters can gain new abilities and you can add special bonuses to cards in the player deck.

The story in the game is told via the “legacy deck”. This is a stack of cards which you go through from game month to game month (the story takes place over 12 months and if you lose in one month you get a second chance before having to move on to the next), giving you various objectives and new rules. The game comes with a series of sticker sheets which look a bit like bureaucratic advent calendars, which are full of new stickers and new rules which you add directly to the rulebook. There are also 8 boxes inside the box which contain new components as the various new twists and turns emerge.

Overall, the game is fairly well balanced and has one other (thematic and grimly ironic) mechanism which adjusts according to your group’s ability. If you win a game, the government deems your services to be less important and cuts your funding in the form of Event Cards in the player deck which give you powerful bonuses. Start losing again, and your funding/Event Cards increase. There’s also a mysterious box which you open if you lose four games in a row. I have no idea what it contains and am not in a hurry to find out!

I can’t really write any more without revealing any of the plot’s twists and turns; suffice to say, they happen! The precise details however will vary tremendously from game to game. With all the plot twists and immersive aspects, it feels very much like playing a DVD box set of your favourite procedural drama. Indeed, if I have one wish for “season two” of Pandemic Legacy, it is that they make the inter-character relationships even more dynamic and dramatic.

The most controversial aspect of the game is that it has a limited number of play throughs. To run through the entire campaign you will get to play the game between 12 and 24 times depending on how good you are; most people seem to end up playing around 16-20 games. That works out at around £3 a game, although if you haven’t played Pandemic before, you’d be well advised to play the basic “legacy-free” game a few times before diving into the storyline. You can also play the game with your own personalised board any number of times after the campaign is finished. You will have to make your own judgement over whether that represents value for money or not; for me, it was worth every penny and I have many games in my collection which cost about the same amount and yet I’ve played fewer than 16 times.

Overall, I thought Pandemic Legacy was tremendous and has the added bonus of providing me with a box large enough to hold the original Pandemic and its three expansions in one place! I really look forward to seeing what future Legacy games we have to look forward to. Bring on Seafall!

 

Fiasco Picnic 2014

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Sunday 3rd August
12:00 pm
Alexandra Park, London, N22 7AY

Come to sunny Alexandra Palace! Eat food! Drink drink! Look down over the lesser denizens of London! Meet interesting people! Don’t kill them!We’ll be playing Fiasco, and generally pretending we’re other people, killing, maiming and humiliating each other’s characters. And probably our own. How can this not be fun?

We will aim to meet and eat at 12:00 pm, with the aim of getting games up and running by 1:00 pm. We will bring some stuff we need to play, but if you can bring any stuff of your own, that would be good. Try to bring dice. Definitely bring your own picnic, and maybe stuff to share. There is a restaurant/bar attached to the palace if you forget. Bring things that will protect you against both extreme heat, and extreme cold. If the weather is miserable, then we will go the bar and play there. If you want to attend just to eat, learn how to play, or watch the games, that’s fine. We might play some of the stuff we made at Literally Hacking Fiasco

Here is the FB event.

 

Meet here:

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Literally Hacking Fiasco.

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Monday, 28 July 2014
18:00 until 22:00
Leisure Games 100 Ballards Lane, N3 2DN London, United Kingdom

Location: Big Fancy Metropolis: A games shop.

Needs: To dismantle: And reassemble all things Fiasco in new and unexpected ways

Relationship: Humans: It’s complicated.

Objects: Shared: Crafting materials.

Join Sean Buckley, Simon Brake, and a random sprinkling of story gamers, as we dive into Fiasco, armed with scissors, glue, and irreverence. Mash-up some playsets. Vandalise the rules. Shift the Tilt to a curious angle. Imagine a happy ever Aftermath. Then test out your hand crafted curiosities at this year’s Fiasco Picnic on Sunday August 3rd.