Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Castle Ravenloft

My randomizer must have known that Halloween is upon us, as the next random game from my collection to write about is Castle Ravenloft, released in 2010 by Wizards of the Coast, as the first game in their Dungeons and Dragons Adventure System, a series of board games loosely based on the 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons RPG rules.  These games are all cooperative, in that all of the players play as a team against the game.  The basic gist of this game is that the evil vampire, Count Strahd, lives in Castle Ravenloft and does generally bad things in the surrounding countryside.  The players all pick one of five characters that descend into the catacombs beneath Castle Ravenloft to accomplish some goal (determined by the scenario you play).

Each character has a number of abilities, and the player can customize these to some degree.  For example, the Rogue might get two "Daily" powers (i.e., you can use them once per game), but there are three to choose from, so you can pick the ones that you like best, or that you think best mesh with the powers of the characters chosen by the other players.  So even before the game starts, the players should be cooperating with each other to pick the best set of powers.  Or you can just pick something randomly, whatever floats your boat.

Once the characters are ready, you place your character figures on the starting tile and move through the catacombs.  The catacombs are generally randomly placed from the stack of "dungeon tiles" available for the scenario.  when a character is one the edge of an active tile, she can "explore" into the next tile, which means that the player draws the top tile from the stack and places it on the edge his character figure is next to.  Placing a new tile also means that you draw a monster card, and place its figure on the new tile.

Monsters are handled pretty well in this game.  Whoever drew the monster card keeps it in front of them, and on their turn it activates.  The monster card tells you what the monster does, using a brief decision tree format.  For example, if might say "IF a player character is within 1 tile, move next to the closest character and making a SWING attack."  The "SWING" attack would then be described at the bottom of the card.  Thus, no player needs to play as the monsters, as the monster cards instruct each player how to activate them on their turn.

You also will often draw an Encounter card each turn, which usually means some random bad thing will happen.  These can be quite random and nonsensical, but it increases the danger and provides a mechanical reason to not sit back and patiently kill each monster before exploring new tiles.  While new monsters are usually only place when a new tile is placed, you are usually drawing an encounter card each turn (and sometimes encounter cards place new monsters), so even if monsters aren't actively killing you the dungeon itself is trying to do so, so don't waste time.

The mechanic that I like best about this game is the way that healing surges (which let you keep a character from dying) and experience points (gained by killing monsters) are held in a common pool that all players use.  The game is lost by the players if ANY character is at zero hit points and there are no healing surges left, so the players really need to help each other out and kill monsters ASAP to keep people from getting whacked.  If any character is at zero hit points at the start of their turn, they have to use a healing surge to get some hit points back.  If there aren't any healing surges left, everybody loses immediately.  And with experience, you can spend them to "level up" your character using a wonky mechanic that I don't like, or you can spend them to negate an encounter card that you just drew.  You never have enough experience to negate everything, though, so there is good interplay between the players as to whether or not a specific encounter should be negated through the expenditure of experience points, or if they should let it happen.

The game comes with thirteen scenarios, and more are available online.  Add this to the variety of character types and available power cards, and this game has a lot of re-playability.  I really enjoyed my games of Castle Ravenloft so far, and I'm sure it will see more time on the table.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

A.D. 30

Published in 2012 by Victory Point Games, A.D. 30 is one of the most unique games that I own.  It is a solitaire game of the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ, starting from his baptism by St. John the Baptist and ending at his triumphal entry to Jerusalem three years later.  The player nominally takes the role of Jesus Christ, though I can't say that I ever felt like Jesus when I played it.  The player is responsible for gathering as many of the apostles as you can, and making sure that the authorities are ready to kill Jesus when he reaches Jerusalem, but not before.

Every turn, the player draws a card from the deck.  This tells you whether any of the authorities move down their track, how many actions you get, and possibly some other pieces of information.  You can spend actions to move Jesus on the track, recruit apostles or give them assignments, pray, teach, or push the authorities back up the track.  The whole game is built around the player making sure that things are arranged as close to the Biblical record as possible when Jesus reaches Jerusalem.  You don't have to have all 12 disciples in your entourage, or have the authorities right on the line, but you have to be close to that to get a full victory.

There are many ways to lose the game.  Jesus could lose all of his Piety (basically his spiritual strength, which can leach away in various ways and is renewed by praying), the authorities can move to kill Jesus before he is ready (an authority moves all the way down the track to the end), or you can reach Jerusalem but you don't have enough disciples, or Barabbas isn't sitting around to be freed, etc.  The basic gist of the game is that you are mustering resources (apostles and Piety), while trying to keep the authorities from reaching the end of their track.  I think this game could have been made with a different theme, but the same mechanics, and that kind of ruins the game for me.  It is resource management, and doesn't have much really to do with Jesus Christ and his earthly ministry.  It isn't a bad game, but it isn't as interesting as I wanted it to be.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

The Battle of the Alma

The next game in my collection that I am writing about is an old one, but one that only recently made its way into my collection:  The Battle of the Alma.  First published in 1978, this game covers the first major battle of the Crimean War, with British and French forces (aided by a couple Ottoman units) facing off against the Russians.  While the British and French generally have better units, the Russians have command of the heights.  The allied attackers have 10 turns to get units to the bottom center of the board.  If they do, then the allied player wins.  Otherwise, the Russian player wins.

This game is very straight forward, and anybody with board wargaming experience should be able to learn the game quickly.  Each counter provides the fire combat ability, melee combat ability, and movement ability of each unit, as well as the morale rating and the division that unit is a part of (for the allies).  Most units have fixed starting locations on the map, so setup is pretty quick.

Combat is also pretty quick.  Fire combat makes use of the attacker's fire factor, and the defender's melee factor, along with the roll of one six-sided die, to determine the results of the fire.  Multiple units can fire on the same target, but a target can only be fired on once per turn (i.e., you can't have unit A fire, check results, then have unit B fire; units A and B have to combine their fire into one attack roll). You might eliminate a target this way, but more often than not the combat result is a number, which you then compare to the target's morale rating.  If the fire result number exceeds the target's morale then it routs, and starts running away.  Melee combat is a little different, and more like standard wargames of the era, with the use of a basic Combat Results Table (CRT) allowing for the attacker or defender to be eliminated, routed, or retreated based on the result of the die roll.

Game play is straight forward.  The allied forces attack the Russian formations to try to break through.  The allies have some options for attack zones here, but both sides are spread out across most of the board length, so it is generally charging at the enemy positions.  The allies can try to take advantage of roads and bridges to try to quickly charge some Russian units, but that runs the risk of ruining the allied divisional formations, and allows the Russians to try to pick off units one or two at a time at the "tip of the spear."  However, the allies only have 10 turns, so you can't just sit back and trade artillery fire to try to soften up your intended attack points.

The game itself is pretty simple, with the rules covering a total of 8 pages, some of which are just explaining game turns.  This game was part of the "Series 120" game line, with the intent of providing a game playable in two hours or less.  I think this game meets that goal, but I have to admit that it leaves me kind of cold.  The fixed setup means that the game lacks replay value, and I just don't find the tactical situation to be that interesting.  I have this game in my collection because it is the only Crimean War game I own, but I don't think I'm ever going to play this again.  There are other games I have that I find more enjoyable and interesting to play than this one.