Recently I have gotten myself into a 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons game as a player, as well as wrapped up a second season as a GM in my Game of Thrones RPG game while simultaneously preparing a new RPG for online play with my friends back in the states. Suffice to say, role-playing has suddenly become “it” in terms of where all my gaming time is going. In so doing I have been kind of jotting some notes down for future articles, the loot from many conversations and I realized this week I finally have enough to put one together. In today’s D&D Theory article I’m going to be musing about the concept of “Old School Gaming”, which I think is a very relevant topic these days given the rather sudden shift of Wizards of the Coast to return the game of D&D to a more classic or old school state with the release of 5e last year.
Now I say Classic/old school state with a grain of salt as the exact definition of what that is, is a bit murky. After all D&D is 40+ old, has had many editions, sub-editions, clones and spin-offs and as such what is “classic” or “old school” is probably different for everyone depending on which generation of the game you started in and how far back you go.
As such I think it’s relevant to first identify what “old school” gaming is, which as I found was a deep and fairly complex, albeit interesting topic that took me quite a bit to get my head around. The question really is, is it a “feeling”, is it a “mechanic” or is it some sort of “conceptual design or philosophy”? All good questions and today I’m going to try to answer them!
I started my research in perhaps the most obvious place, first edition of D&D and tried to identify what in that early version(s) of the games like Basic, Expert and Advanced rules system differs in approach, feel, design, mechanics etc. as it compares to modern systems like 3rd, 4th and 5th edition of the game.
At first, it was quite unclear to me. While certainly the mechanics were different in many respects, the fundamentals where very much the same, D&D as a concept in 1e is really not any different than any other edition that has come out since. To me it was clear that early editions of D&D weren’t as streamlined, and refined, there was certainly a lot less standardization and quite a bit more limitations on character classes and races, and players in general. Though I can’t imagine how having those limitations and lack of rules clarity really altered the experience for the better. Fewer options sure, but I didn’t find anything within the scope of the mechanics that couldn’t be accomplished in a modern RPG if you really wanted to include it or exclude it as the case may be. A DM for example could simply say “hey in my game Dwarves hate and never use magic so they can’t be any kind of Arcane caster”. Is having the limitation as a rule in the book as opposed to an option for the DM “old school”? I don’t believe so, there had to be more to it.
The realization didn’t really strike me until I read and was reminded of one very unusual rule in 1st edition AD&D called “XP-Treasure Conversion”. The basics of this rule was that if a character hauls out treasure from a dungeon of some sort and brings it back to a safe place like a town, the value of that treasure can be converted into XP. Gygax explains and reminds us in the DMG (paraphrasing here) that while the rule doesn’t make narrative sense, D&D is a game and games have rules and this is one of them. Simply put, the rule was there to remind and motivate players (not characters) that the premise of the game is that the players characters and their alter egos (PC’s) are in fact treasure hunters. Another words that the core premise of D&D is that you go into dungeons, kill monsters and take their treasure.
Now I would imagine a modern gamer would have a real problem with that explanation when defining what they do when playing D&D. After all, what that rule & premise suggests is that the cliché about D&D is a less a myth and more a fact. That D&D really is just a light hearted adventure game about going in dungeons, killing monsters and taking their treasure. I think most modern gamers would disagree with that assessment of what D&D is. The question is however, is that the source of “old school” or “classic” gaming mentality, another words is that the goal of “old school” gaming to capture that feel of this classic premise?
While I think at this point I was getting close, I don’t believe this was it in its entirety. One clear aspect of early editions of D&D was that the game itself was very unforgiving. This concept of the dungeon crawl as a core, was layered by the uncanny deadliness of the game itself in particular as it applies to the core premise of fighting monsters. Simply put, fighting monsters in early editions of D&D was extremely dangerous, something to actually be avoided hence it was at odds with the core premise on which its founded. Mind you when I say deadly, I really mean it. I recall in the 1st edition AD&D days, having one or two characters die each session was fairly common. 1st level characters were so fragile most of the time you would make 2 or 3 in advance, create them without back story’s, hell sometimes without a name and put them in the game to see which of them survived long enough to hit 2nd or 3rd level at which point you would flesh them out a bit and give them some much needed dimensions.
The most notable aspect of all of this was that none of it had anything to do with the story of the game. The premise of the game, the deadliness of the game, and this concept of detachment from characters, it all pointed to one thing. It was less a game about story and more a game about, well the game. Putting that question to old school gamers came with its own reactions as they rejected the idea that the game was not about story. In fact, they adamantly insisted that old school gaming was “real role-playing” and what they do in modern editions is “playing CRPG’s”.
The logic was that the story wasn’t about individual characters, the story was about the world and its events, the characters were parts in it. Sometimes those parts were small, insignificant and short lived and sometimes those parts were epic, elaborate and detailed. Your roles in the game might change periodically as a result of death of an adventurer, but the story lived on with new characters. A campaign was bigger and more to them than any individual character and they were adamant at saying that there was no detachment from their characters, but rather the solemn reality that adventuring life was dangerous as it should be and the results were often tragic. Interesting concept and I think Shakespeare would agree!
Still I believe I’m right at least in one thing. I believe early editions of D&D were less about a focus on characters and more of a focus on players. I believe there is a lot of evidence to support this theory and I also believe within that logic is actually the reason that “Old School” is a premise that is different from modern gaming. I don’t believe it’s purely rules or feel related, some part of this movement is about nostalgia. Still I think there is a concrete difference that is identifiable between modern D&D and early (1st edition) D&D as a design concept.
That premise or concept if you will is the difference between Character Centric game design and Player Centric Game design. I will define both but it’s worth noting up front that these aren’t always rules driven concepts nor are they mutually exclusive in that all RPG’s have some Character Centric elements and some Player Centric elements. It’s just that in 1st edition D&D, the Player Centric design is both more prevalent and more firmly defined as a part of the expected flow of the game and vice versus for modern game design as Character Centric systems.
Ok so let’s define Player Centric and Character Centric Design. The principle is really quite simple.
Character Centric design means that by the logic and premise of the design and by the implementation of mechanics into the game, a player character is the focus of the rules and ultimately the mechanics of that character are what drive the resolution of challenges and conflicts. Another words, when a players character is faced with a problem, there is a mechanical property on his character sheet that is designed to address it via mechanical rules.
For example, if a player needs to search a room, in a Character Centric design, that players character will have a skill or attribute available that he or the GM can activate to resolve the search and determine if the character finds what he is looking for. So a player will say, “I search this room for the magic ring, I think it’s here somewhere” and the GM determines “Ok make a search check, let’s see if your character finds it”.
It’s worth pointing out that Character Centric design doesn’t mean the GM is obligated to character centric play, a distinction with a difference. However it is kind of presumed that when you make a skill check, as a player you roll the dice, you know what the result is and hence know if you succeeded or failed the check. Hence if you find nothing, you know it’s not here, else you find it, vice versus if you fail you know you have failed hence you know, it might still be here, but you just didn’t find it or the ring may in fact is not here in the first place (boy that’s a mouth full!). You can also further layer this by having the GM make the roll in secret, in which case you have no information about whether or not you fail the roll, hence, if your GM tells you that you find nothing you don’t know if it’s because the ring is not there or if it’s because you failed the check and simply didn’t find it.
Regardless however as a Character Centric designed mechanic, the activity of searching is mechanized and the results are determined with the dice.
In a Player Centric design the challenge and obstacles of the game are instead directed at the player, and it’s the player who is expected to resolve these challenges through a narrative exchange with the GM as opposed to a function of mechanics associated with his character.
Taking the same example of searching for the ring, in a Player Centric design, the GM would describe the room and situation and the player would feed the GM instructions about his activities. For example he might say, I check under the bed, in the mattress, under the pillows, all the drawers in the dresser, I search for loose floor boards and check behind the paintings and so on. The GM in turn would respond to the activities of the player. It’s presumed the GM knows where the ring is hidden so if the player says, I check in the flower pot, he finds the ring, otherwise he does not.
The point here is however that there is no mechanical function of the character that assists or somehow affects the outcome of “searching the room”. The event exists purely in the narrative, a strictly player driven resolution and it’s typically (or at least it was the case in 1st edition) because no “search” mechanic actually exists. There is no search skill, you don’t make attribute checks. It’s simply a narrative exchange between the GM and the player.
Again just like Character Centric design, Player Centric design is not limited or somehow unable to switch and become Character Centric at the GM’s discretion. A GM might call for some sort of dice roll based on the attributes of the character anyway, perhaps asking him to roll his IQ or lower to see if he finds the ring. It is however just like Character Centric design, outside of the premise or core function of the rule-system, it is in a sense a “GM call”.
This concept of Player & Character centric design however is a core fundamental difference between “old school” D&D and “New School” D&D. Original AD&D is very much a player centric design, while modern games starting as early as the end of 1st edition AD&D with expanded books like the Survival Guides and 2nd Edition core transitioned into a more Character Centric design with each new edition. By 4th edition the adherence to Character Centric design was so firm, it even went so far as to add “skill challenges” to avoid Player centricity as much as possible..
I think in part why Old School gamers look at modern system and make classic comments like “That’s not real role-playing” is because the game they know is heavily buried in Player Centric play, which is by nature much more narrative as it lacks the ability to resolve challenges and obstacles with mechanics.
The main commonalty all D&D systems share is that they are all, since the very beginning, purely character centric in the execution of Combat. For some reason, no one argues or has issues with combat being purely character centric, but in other areas of the game there is a never ending discussion as to what degree a game should be player or character centric.
One thing to note however as mentioned earlier is that combat in 1st edition AD&D was very deadly and unforgiving and as such, just by the sheer volatility of characters, the meta of characters in its own right is very player centric. So while combat might not be player centric at all in any editions of D&D, most of what’s involved around it in early editions is and I think this is also a part of the definition of “Old School” gaming. As my friend pointed out, the game is about the campaign, about the story and the events in the story and while it’s focused on characters to a degree as they act as our avatars, it’s clear that all players understand that sooner or later their characters will die and they will make a new one, but the game is not over. They as players steer the avatar and it’s their decisions, their actions, their activities that bring the resolutions to conflicts, not their characters (in the meta of course) hence it doesn’t matter which character you are using all that much as their mechanics are not involved outside of combat.
Making characters and doing so considerably more frequently than in modern design is just part of the experience of old school gaming. In Character Centric games, characters getting killed is not desired and considered more of an “event”, as it’s their abilities, skills, attributes and powers that drive conflict resolution and in essence much of the narrative. They are an important component of a players success. Character Centric designs is why we have terms like “Character Build”, as the avatar is not just a representation of a character in the narrative sense for the player, but also his abilities, skills and influence over conflict within the confines of the game. In essence in Character Centric play, the player has considerably less influence over the success of his character as he is reliant on the mechanics to resolve conflict as opposed to the player’s narrative exchange. I will point out that I think its weird that no one has issue with overcoming challenges with character centricity in combat, but for some reason its a big fight when it comes to resolution for conflicts outside of combat. Weirder still are the exceptions like pick pocketing and climbing walls, suddenly, its ok in 1st edition AD&D, but only for the thief class, for everyone else, I guess you just die trying? The logic of this player vs. character centric design is a strange beast.
It’s expected in Character Centric games that characters are relatively safe and they walk into dangerous situations that are kind of rigged in their favor mechanically. Which is why things like CR ratings, the concept of balanced encounters, death rolls and other survival mechanisms exist in modern games, it’s all in the name of saving characters from death but more specifically in the name of preserving the importance of the narrative. Characters are an intricate part of the story, not because of their narrative but because of their mechanics and removing them from it, is in general bad. It means a new character needs to be made and the story components of the previous characters are lost, in particular for the player, as well as the mechanic advantages that reigned in his success. In a way in character centric games, characters have a greater importance.
The question is then which is better? Get ready for me to drop some life affirming knowledge, the answer is modern is better and the reason is that it’s the same fucking thing!
In the end, any sub-system, mechanic or function that is added in a system becomes “available” anything that is omitted is “unavailable”. Availability however does not require or assume use, its simply there and as a GM in any system be it 1st or 5th edition, the decision, the ruling if you will of what mechanics to use and when to use them is entirely up to you. Hence in a fully Character Centric game, you can with virtually no effort go fully Player Centric at any time. Its 100% fully backwards compatible, however in a Player Centric system you cannot just “switch” to a character centric system as the rules do not exist for you to use and fall back on. If search doesn’t exist, you can’t make a search check and as a GM you’re going to have to make a mechanic up on the fly to fill in for the missing rule, if the search does exist and you want to play out a search scene, simply don’t allow the check. The obvious logic is obvious!
That said, there is a problem with running a Character Centric system in a Player Centric style, which is of course player expectation. Consider that a players character is his investment, hence in a Character Centric system, the player invests points, or other advancements into various skills and abilities. If as a GM you choose to go Player Centric and ignore those aspects of their character, you are kind of cheating them out of their investments. Hence, if you are a GM (like me) who has a Player Centric style (aka old school) then you should stick to Player Centric systems if for no other reason than to ensure expectations match the result and you are not ignoring parts of the mechanical character the player might deem important to his role/story or whatever.
Old School gaming is all about enforced limitation. I find it odd that because the rulebook tells you something is not allowed, or simply by omission makes it unavailable that this somehow makes a game better than one in which all options are available to use at your discretion. It’s a silly concept and I actually hate conversations like this with Old School gamers even though, on this little blue planet there is no bigger old school gamer than me. Still, I do understand it from a player perspective that if a mechanic exists, in particular as it applies to characters, it should be used and used often. You wouldn’t deny someone spells or combat abilities that their character can perform, hence you should not ignore other aspects that are on the character sheet either.
I adore limitations, deadly game systems, player centric gaming, Gold to XP conversions and all that great stuff, but at the same time I don’t see why having a lift on limitations in a book, or having safety nets in a system or the absence of a Gold to XP rule changes anything at all. I’m a damn GM, if I want or don’t want something in the game, I snap my fingers and it happens. I don’t care if there is a search skill, if I say “there is no check, if you want to find something tell me how you are looking for it”, we are instantly in Player Centric gameplay, the system cannot stop me, I’m basically the god of the game. It is however a problem if I want to make a skill check and the rule for it is not available, and then I’m forced to invent shit on the fly. I don’t really see how that will result in a better experience old school or otherwise!
Hence Character Centric games do not change anything for me at all, I actually largely prefer them because it really just gives you more options on how to handle stuff. Even as an old school gamer I recognize that sometimes, stuff is just irrelevant and I want to get through a scene quickly. Skill checks are great for that. Oh your searching this room, go ahead make a check, oh you failed, great, scene done. I don’t have an obsessive need to waste time on irrelevant shit in my game and I don’t believe this makes me “new school”, it just means I’m a good GM, I know how to spend session time to keep the game fun and interesting.
Now I will say this. I adore, I mean truly love 1st edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons and I will happily run a campaign anytime. I think Gygax’s work is absolutely fantastic, I love the light hearted adventure and the player centric concepts of dungeon delving, for me D&D IS going into dungeons, killing monsters and taking their treasure. Is that simplistic? Is it really role-playing? Hell I have no idea, I just know that it’s absolutely fun and I love doing it in the confines of the many restrictions and funny concepts of 1st edition. I love 1st edition modules, I love its deadly nature, I adore the natural progression of meta characters from farmers with a rusty dagger to Lords of Castles and everything in between. I love watching beloved characters getting killed, I love creating new characters, I love everything about the system. I am, without a doubt an Old School gamer.
I do believe however, the argument that someone who plays modern games is “not really role-playing” or that it’s somehow a different experience is quite ridiculous. I hate these old Gonards that think their way is the right way, or even that somehow they do it differently than the rest of us. It really is absolute bullshit. I can turn 5e into 1e in a two page document, hell I can run a D&D game without you even knowing what system I’m using. It really is not that hard to add limitations, it is however hard to design RPG mechanics on the fly.
So there you have it, research complete. I can say without question that I understand Old School gaming, there are far more nuances then that of Character & Player centric play, but at the end of the day, role-playing games is a dynamic, infinitely diverse activity. Quantifying it fully is not really possible and while I do think it’s more than just a “feel”, it’s definitely achievable in all its glory in pretty much in any system. Sure, many things about modern system irk me. A Dwarf Wizard? Get the fuck out of here with that nonsense! But that’s my world, I share it with Gygax and 1st edition, but using a modern system does not exclude its implementation. I don’t need to use 1st edition to get rid of Dwarf Mages. I might prefer it (sometimes), but I don’t see how using a system that allows it, or allowing it in a system that doesn’t creates a disparity of classifiable groups like Old School and New School. I do think Old School is a thing, but I adamantly reject the idea that Old School is only achievable in Old School systems, or that somehow adding a rule like a skill check, or offering some extra options to a character some how breaks “old school” gameplay.
Well this brings us to an end, I know that many of you role-players out there have had this conversation and so I hope that perhaps you found something useful in this little theory-crafting article!
Last year my gaming group got together for a two and half day super gaming weekend event where we did absolutely nothing but play board games taking only short breaks to eat and sleep. It was one of the most memorable and exhausting gaming events I’ve had in a long time. There is absolutely nothing like having 2 full days of freedom, in particular for me as a father and husband, but to spend it with your favorite hobby and gaming buddies is just pure unheard of luxury. When summer rolled around this year, there was no question that we needed a repeat and this weekend, its exactly what we got.
Today I’m going to go over every game we played, doing overviews of the games we played and offering up a few tid-bits of insight of the event and games we played. Enjoy!
Sheriff of Nottingham
Pros: Easy to learn, quick to play, creates lots of tension and funny moments.
Cons: Requires a social group for the interaction to work.
We kicked off the event with Sheriff of Nottingham, a punchy social game of deception that creates great table atmosphere and in the hands of a wacky gaming group of long time friends like mine immediately endears itself, tapping into our natural group dynamic humor. Its really tailor made for friends that love nothing more than pulling one off on each other and Sheriff gets right down to the root of its core without a lot of fluff and unnecessary mechanics and components to get in the way of it. Yeah you might say its less a game and more a social activity, but its clever, fun and keeps you engaged.
Most of the game revolves around the anxiety of trying to smuggle goods past the Sheriff or as a Sheriff, trying to figure out who’s lying to you. Trade Good cards are put into a little sealed bag as players declare to the acting sheriff the goods they are supposedly moving into Nottingham. If the Sheriff checks the bag and you lied, you have to pay for your failure, if he checks and you told the truth he pays you and if he doesn’t check you earn on the contents as well. In short you earn gold for your success, and pay up for your failures, the one with the most gold at the end of the game wins.
This simple mechanism alone might fall flat in some less social and less out going groups, its definitely geared more towards extroverts but I think Its great for families or small dinner parties and certainly for any group of friends who enjoy a bit of confrontation and deception. Great game, its accolades are well deserved. Alcohol is recommended!
Pros: Well balanced, works with various player counts, lots of strategies to explore.
Cons: Can be a bit hostile in a free for all, not everyone will appreciate its cut-throat nature.
This one we as a group picked up right before the event and all but one of us had never played it, it was without question one of the most pleasant surprises of the event. The Star Realms infused fantasy card game seasoned with all of the character expansions was put on the table in a 5 man free for all. This one definitely had some teeth, starting out slow as players built up their decks, it quickly turned into a hostile and very bloody all out war where rivalries formed, alliances were broken, bringing out the games asymmetrical nuances in an almost a Magic The Gathering stylized bash that had everyone sitting upright.
Now I really like Star Realms, but something about a Fantasy Setting using the same mechanic with some Asymmetrical classes with what I think was a cleaner balance over Star Realms really made this take on deck building shine. It had a more refined tracking system for health, more synergies for each color and a bit tighter deck building. More importantly it worked a lot better as a multiplayer game then a duel. In Star Realms games generally were not particularly close, as one player would more often than not run away with it. It felt like with Hero Realms you were better equipped to stay within the same power ranges. I also like the fact that all colors had very strong and viable combos without the need to supplement across different color branches while also functioning well when mixed. In Star Realms for example I always felt like some colors like Yellow just didn’t work on their own. Now grant it we had expansions for Hero Realms where I have only ever played vanilla Star Realms but as a whole I liked this version of the game a lot better. The theme just fired on all pistons for me and my gaming group unanimously agreed.
Great game, another Gamersdungeon.net recommended title for anyone who loves a nice crunchy fast paced card game.
Pros: Lots of politics, alliances and betrayals, plenty of tactics and strategy, well rounded races.
Cons: Mechanics are showing their age, a bit too long for what you get out of it and can end rather anti-climatically.
The Twilight Imperium version of Dune got a mixed reception from the group, a game that once graced my top 10 list, REX is a bit of an enigma. Its a mechanic that is the better part of 40 years old and while Fantasy Flight Games refreshed it quite a bit, its deeply Asymmetrical to the point of confusion. It really rely’s on all players having a really good understanding of all of the components, mechanics and of course racial powers in play or that could come into play. Veteran gamers will pick up on it quickly if the rules are explained well and you go over everything thoroughly but this added time compiles one of the games main problems, the length of the game.
The game had its moments, I wouldn’t say it was a complete dud, among them was the mini game of forming and breaking alliances, betrayals and varied winning conditions which created a lot of atmosphere and even the more reluctant players had to admit that REX created some tense situations and tough choices worthy of table time. It does suffer however from a couple of flaws that some mechanical modernization could probably fix.
More than that though one the key problem with the game is that its definitely too long when it goes to 8 rounds and our game did. Its been my experience that most games don’t normally go to 8 rounds and even when they do their is a big climax at the end, but in this and previous sessions of the game with this group this it just took far too long and ended fairly anti-climatically doing little to sell it to a group who had been disappointed by it before.
I think some groups might find the deception, alliances and betrayals and varied winning conditions very satisfactory, but I think for my group REX had its last chance at the table, in particular given the sheer volume of great strategy games in this genre available as alternatives. My group thrives on social play elements like deceit and betrayal, but REX accomplishes this at a snails pace with a lot of gotcha mechanic overhead which doesn’t sit well with them and I understand that. I still like the game, I don’t think its quite ready to be cut from the collection, but between this last play and the last time it hit the table about 3 years ago its definitely a dust collector. I would probably recommend this one with caution, do your research and make sure that this is the type of game that would appeal to your group.
Exodus: Proxima Centauri (Revised Edition)
Pros: A much better alternative to the bore-fest that is Eclipse.
Cons: Far too long, very fiddly, some overcooked and insufficiently tested mechanics.
I picked this up a while ago on sale and while I had played it a couple of times with some casual gamers, this was the first time I introduced it to my gaming group. Suffice to say the reception was less then stellar ranging from “I fucking hate this game” to “It didn’t suck that bad”.
The sales pitch of this game is that its a shorter Twilight Imperium, much in the way Eclipse was and the truth is that in the 4x genre of board games there is one king and everything else trails so far behind its barely worth mentioning. Eclipse was absolutely, in no way comparable to TI3, in fact, to claim so is just blatant nonsense. While I think Exodus came a hell of a lot closer, I would still say its a lot closer to being an offshoot of Eclipse then it is one of TI3. It had a lot more spark and interaction then Eclipse, but It was nowhere near the experience of TI3.
More importantly the “shorter version” pitch wasn’t really true either. Between setup, explaining the rules and playing the game to completion we were well into 5+ hours and I’m certain I could have clocked a game of TI3 with 5 players at just a tad bit longer then that and it would have been a far worthier use of our precious gaming time.
There was nothing inherently wrong with the mechanics of the game, it certainly tapped into the 4x genre, but I just felt most of the mechanics were lackluster by comparison to TI3 and as such it kind of suffered as a result of trying to fill those shoes, much in the way most attempts at 4x games do for me.
The political element was rather boring and unnecessarily overcooked. The impact of politics ranged from irrelevant to a minor point of interest. The combat system was ok, but typically predictable, results rarely surprised us. I like the concept of the WMD that could be fired to screw people over, but it seemed pointless since it really didn’t help you score. It acted more like a deterrent to action, which had the resulting effect of an action-less game most of the time.
I think the biggest issue with the game was its fiddly nature, in particularly movement which while conceptually cool as it mimicked simultaneous movement was a slow, fiddly, painful experience. In particular given that most of the time simultaneous movement had no real strategic impact or value. It really didn’t matter much until the final rounds of the game and even then it sort of felt like you couldn’t control the board as a result so there was no way to isolate ships and trap them. Ships would slip past fleets and the only way you could catch people would be to guess their movement actions. I suppose that’s an ok way to do it, but it felt like it was less about strategy and more about guessing right.
As a whole the game didn’t thrill us, it wasn’t without its entertaining moments but it was definitely not worth a 5+ hour time slot in our board gaming weekend. This one is a hard pass for me personally and most of the gaming group concurred. I may give it a another shot in the future, but the stink of this last game is going to take some time to wash off before I work up the interest to try it again.
Raise Your Goblets
Pros: Easy to learn, quick to play, creates lots of tension and funny moments.
Cons: Requires a social group for the interaction to work.
This quirky social game is definitely among my favorites to play with my gaming group, less for its “game” elements and more for its inherent ability to setup hilarious table talk and create funny moments. Among a group of close friends, trying to poison each other in a game of wits and memory is a great formula, especially if you add some real cocktails to the mix which we of course did.
By and large this is a filler game, so it certainly doesn’t have that “lets get together and play Raise Your Goblets” energy on which to base a game night, but its quick to play, easy to learn and accommodates a wide range of group sizes which I think fits the bill of a warm up game quite perfectly. I think this would also qualify as a really great family game, so you have that extension of possibilities for it to hit the table.
I love it personally, most of the gaming group concurred, this one is a keeper.
Lords of Waterdeep (with the Skullport expansion)
Pros: Classic worker placement formula done right, very thematic for a Euro designed game.
Cons: Can be a real brain burner, the Skullport expansion is a must.
Lords of Waterdeep is in my mind one of the best worker placement games out there, perhaps trumped only by Empires: Age of Discovery. Its thematic, interactive and deeply strategic not to mention somewhat asymmetrical. Its always been popular in my gaming group and it see’s several plays each year like clockwork going as far back as I can remember. Its appearance at the big gaming weekend was no surprise to me at all and what’s great about this game for us is that we know it so well so everyone is always really competitive. Our game ended up with everyone scoring at least 120 points and the winner was upwards of 150.
Lords of Waterdeep has real longevity in our group, a big part of that reason i think is that we are all avid D&D fans and we know our D&D worlds well. The theme really works for us though I have read many reviews of the game calling it “theme-less” which always sounded ridiculous to me, but I suppose if you aren’t into D&D, it might just come of as a rather generic fantasy layer. For D&D fans however every card is a reminder of RPG games from the past and their are nuances and inside jokes that come to the surface after years of playing for us.
As a whole Lords of Waterdeep is a more thinky, strategic engagement so its not a game that produces a lot of energy. Games are usually quiet and contemplative, with everyone racking their brains for their next big play. Its also got a bit of an edge over most worker placement Euros thanks to the direct “take that” intrigue cards which can create a bit of hostility and rivalries, though this is a fairly light layer in the game, it won’t appeal to everyone. At its core its all about resource management, playing to the strengths of your lord of waterdeep and picking your quests wisely to squeeze the most points out of every situation. The corruption mechanic of the Skullport expansion is an absolute must in my opinion, I would never play this game without it. It creates a far more interesting and diverse risk vs. reward twist to the game that I think otherwise would be a lot more static.
There is a lot of mastery in this game, plenty of tricks, clever tactics and long term strategies to deploy, nuances that you pick up through repeated plays. This makes this a game of exploring new tactics each time you play and while I don’t think it has that “lets play it again” draw, it does have that long lasting classic feel to it that keeps you coming back with breaks in-between.
Definitely Gamersdungeon.net approved!
Dead of Winter
Pros: One of the best games for people who love betrayal mechanics, very challenging co-op.
Cons: Can be hit or miss depending on how events play out in the game.
Dead of Winter was the highlight of last years event producing a very memorable game and actually shifting the game back into my top 10 list for a brief moment in 2016. This time around I ended up being a traitor in the game but unfortunately I botched it really bad and in the scenario we were playing when you are exiled you are removed from play. The colony ended up surviving and accomplishing their mission without my help or interference and everyone won the game except me and one other player who was exiled as I deflected blame on him and managed to confuse the group for a brief moment.
It was an interesting game but in the end it breached some of the issues I have had with it in the past. For me Dead of Winter is kind of a swingy game, sometimes when everything falls into place and the suspicion and tension of the game rises to climaxes its a thrilling experience. Other times it can just kind of land flat for various reasons, most often the fact that their is no traitor in the game and everyone realizes it or the mission is so hard the game ends pre-maturely.
I think its a great game, but whether it succeeds or fails to entertain on any given evening can vary. Sometimes its fantastic, sometimes its just kind of bleh. Win or lose however the game has a great setup to create tension and tough choices between your loyalties to your own mission and the loyalties to the colony. You kind of have to win two games and because everyone has their own agenda there is a tendency to suspect people of being traitors whether their actually is one or not. I think much of the games entertainment value depends on all players having a vested interest in succeeding but pushing the limits to do whatever they can to complete their own end game goals. Of course if there is a traitor, all the better, though the game can often end up being unwinnable as a result so its a bit of a catch 22.
Its not in my top 10 anymore, but its always good for a play or two on any gaming evening, I certainly give it my stamp of approval with the cautionary that it doesn’t always hit on all of its pistons.
Road Rally USA
Pros: Easy to learn, fast to play, very clever with lots of tension.
Cons: None that I saw, its a great filler.
A member of the gaming group picked this up on a sale and we gave it a twirl since its a relatively quick game. Our expectations were quite low but this one actually pleasantly surprised everyone. Its a good quality racing game built around a track and card mechanic to make the cars go.
Players effectively play matching colored cards to move cards around the track trying to stay in the lead in case someone decides to score one of their checkpoint cards. The trick is that you do not refill your hand automatically. There are three colors, green, yellow and red, each with increasing values, but you draw cards only on the lower colored cards. Green gets you two, yellow gets you one and playing matching red cards yields you none. The result is a kind of hand management where you are trying to stack colors and make big moves at the right time to score at different checkpoints.
There was also a great catch up mechanic where at certain points on the track when your last you get to draw additional cards as well as various positions on the track where you could reshuffle your deck (at the gas station) or stack your deck at the mechanic shop. Hence there is a element of timing and trying to land on specific points on the track, all the while trying to stay ahead to score points.
Very smart, simple and fast game that keeps the tension high and the race close. It was a lot of fun, definitely worthy of table time. I expect we’ll see this one hitting table more often in the future at our regular gaming events.
Avalon: The Resistance
Pros: Without question one of the best deception/deduction games on the market today.
Cons: Must have a minimum of 5 players to play and need at least 7 or 8 to use the various special characters that enhance the game.
Without question one of my favorite deception/deduction games, this is more a social activity then a game but its always a hit at our gaming events and it was this time as well. We ended up playing it half a dozen times.
While the concept is quite simple, this game creates a tremendous amount of table talk as players accuse each other of being traitors and trying to figure out who’s on who’s team. Well balanced and always super fun regardless of which character you end up playing.
This was probably the highlight of the event this time around, though in my experience with the game so far it has always hit it out of the park. Easily one of the best filler games in my collection. The only real drawback is that you need a minimum of 5 players to play the game and to use the special characters and optional rules you need about 7 or 8. Hence, its not for your typical gaming nights.
Deception: Murder In Hong Kong
Pros: A deception/deduction game leaning heavier on the deduction aspect, but does it very well, definitely the best in its unique genre.
Cons: Can hit or miss depending on how difficult the clues are.
Another deception/deduction game, this one has you trying to solve a murder based on clues provided by an oddly silent forensic expert who gives you enigmatic one word clues. With limited guesses you must determine which of the players is posing as an investigator, what murder weapon he used to commit the crime and what clue he left behind at the crime scene.
Its really just kind of a fun, silly game, but surprisingly thinky. In our group the forensic expert player typically creates a narrative of the crime at the end of the game to depict his thinking behind the clues he provided, which always creates a laugh as we discover the bizarre way our friends brains work.
Always a fun time, but not always a particularly great game, this one seems to hit the table pretty regularly since I bought it, a bit of a group favorite but sometimes games can be a bit flat depending on the difficulty of the clues.
Personally I think its great, but has diminishing returns. It scored a 4.00 in my Quick review of the game and while I stand by it, I think between Avalon and this, I would choose Avalon. This is mainly because it can miss fire sometimes when the clues are obvious leading us right out of the gate to a solution, or so unrelated and obscure that its physically impossible to figure out. I have actually found that its a much bigger hit among non-gamer or casual gamers than it is among veteran gamers, but still it seems like my group gives it the stamp of approval and so do I.
Assault Of The Giants
Pros: Clever tight mechanics, quick game despite being fairly deep on the strategic scale.
Cons: Asymmetrical missions are so tight it feels like your on rails.
This is one of the few games in the lineup where my opinion and that of my group don’t see eye to eye. Its beloved by many members of my gaming group for its tactically rich, asymmetrical gameplay and I do get that. Its a tight game where each type of giant has a very specific goal and while you attempt to complete your own quests, you have to get in the way of your opponents just enough to keep them off track. In concept its fantastic and normally it would be right up my alley, in particular given its thematic D&D roots, but I find it has a several problems that spoil it for me.
For one, the entire game boils down to 9-12 actions you will take in the entire game. That’s it. More than that of the 9 -12 actions you will take, some amount of them, depending on the game, that are less of a choice and more like “must take”, actions. I understand the goal is to keep the game short and sweet but this feels extremely limiting taking the concept of a tight game to extremes, to a point of feeling like the game is over far too soon but more specifically feeling like its on rails.
This in turn impacts the second problem which is that because you have so few actions to take, between trying to accomplish your own scoring conditions and trying to stop other players, you simply don’t have enough moves to address the majority of threats or opportunities. You will take a path and once chosen your pretty much committed to it for the rest of the game. There is no time to alter plans. In a typical game you will make 1 to 2 moves and 1 to 2 attacks and that’s it. In all games I have played of this certain actions you simply will never take unless you have already lost like recruiting.
Another issue is the concept of targeting a player. If another player decides “I’m going to stop you”, there is not a whole lot you can do about it and you losing the game is almost 100% assured. He might not win, but preventing a player from winning is very easy.
Finally this is a game of king making
In the end you might be able to affect one or two players, or even successfully defend a position somewhere but you are depended on other players to spur into action and contribute to blocking each other. If a player is left alone that you can’t reach, or if someone decides to block you instead of your neighbor your fate is pretty certain. The impact of an all out attack can very much take both players out simultaneously and open the door for a 3rd and this at least with my limited experience with the game is usually how it goes down.
Now I will say that I’m by no stretch of the imagination an expert in the game, so I’m sure there are nuances and deeper strategies that can be employed to improve your chances of winning, I have no doubt about that. To me though, between the tightness of the game, limited available options and dependency on other players to block the people you can’t, I feel like I have too little control over my own fate. I also feel like the missions for the Giants are so linear, that you’re practically on rails in terms of the actions you have to take to score points.
Its not that I don’t like the game, but it just feels just a bit too anti-climatic. Its certainly clever and I completely understand why people like it, but it would not be my first pick. Its not something I would put into my collection, its a lot more fluff then substance in my opinion. On the behalf of my group however I can say that they would give it their highest recommendations, from me I will just say that I don’t mind playing it, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.
While there were some misses we had a fantastic weekend of gaming. The lineup of games this year varied dramatically from the social activity type to the super thinky. We saw some Euro’s, we saw some Amer-trash. We played some new games and some old classics. To me it was a near perfect weekend.
For those of you planning an event like this, I can offer a few pieces of advice based on this weekends experience.
For one, I think when you get your friends together for a 2 day event, that is not a time to test out new games. Not unless you are certain that its up their ally. We played some games where we new certain players were not going to enjoy it whether it was because of the type of game it was, its genre or what have you and I think that was a mistake. I believe that a weekend like this should be all about playing games you know and love, games you know are going to fire on all pistons and everyone at the table will be thrilled to play. That’s one chance for the next event I certainly will put forth.
Another thing I recommend is that you consider having one or two “main event games” and perhaps even consider making a list of games you plan to play in advance. This way players can prepare a bit by reading up on rules and you can find out if a game on a list is something someone doesn’t like so that you can adapt it. A big event like this should be a weekend for everyone, where everyone is fully on-board and psyched for every single game your going to play.
That’s it for this year, hope you enjoyed the article!
Ok so with my last theory article about the art of GMing, I thought it was about time I created a top 10 list on the subject of RPG’s. Top 10 Modules seemed like a good choice and while I understand that new generations of players might froth at the mouth with a list that insults them by putting old school modules on a pedestal, the fact remains that as an old school player for the most part the modern age of D&D has been largely disappointing. But don’t fret too much, some new-ish stuff made the list as well! Enjoy the list.
Oh and I’m doing this backwards from now on so we are starting at number 10 and working our way down 🙂
10) Queen of Spiders
The Queen of Spiders is actually a module series and it is the only module on this list I have never personally run, but rather participated as a player which kind of makes it both unique for this list and of a different perspective than the others.
I think my favorite aspect of this module was of course the introduction of Dark Elves or The Drow if you will. I recall this being my first experience encountering them and unlike today where we are quite familiar with the species, back then they were truly unique and GM’s weren’t exactly sure how to envision them resulting in some pretty fun interpretations. I had a really great DM who cave the Drow a less sinister and more “Moriarty” vibe, kind of that super intelligent type of villain. It imprinted this module in my mind for all time and I just knew it had to be on this list.
This module featured a compelling story that escalated upwards from start to the most climatic and unexpectedly epic ending, it featured lots of tough fights, lots of dungeon crawling and exploring and plenty of unique role-playing opportunities and problems to solve. These modules are definitely among my most memorable campaigns I experienced as a player and unlike many modules on this list, it has been converted to several modern D&D systems. I had the pleasure of playing both the 1st edition and 3rd edition versions. Both were excellent.
9) Keep on the Borderlands
Nothing says classic D&D to me like Keep on the Borderlands. To this day their is a copy of this module among my collection of books and while I don’t think its a particularly extraordinary module even for its time, what it lacked as a module, it made up in the purity of its D&D’ness. It is the essence of classic D&D game-play and has served as an introduction to D&D for just about every group of players I have ever DM’ed for.
While it was a simple cliche it did feature a sort of open endness that I think Gygax was trying to convey, a sort of mini campaign module rather than a linear story. The idea was that you would explore the keep, areas around the keep and ultimately find your way to the Caves of Chaos. Each area with its classic D&D moves like Giant Spiders, Mad Hermits and those lovable Kolbolts.
More than anything though Keep on the Borderlands is a great introduction to being a DM as its easy to run, offers plenty of workable NPC characters all the while keeping things nice and simple. Great module that has created many great memories, worthy of finding a place on this list.
8) The Tomb of Horrors
There are a lot of reasons to love a module as either a GM or a player but for me personally The Tomb of Horrors is the module I pull out when it’s time for a campaign to end. When characters have become so powerful that there really seems like there is no way to challenge them anymore. In comes Tomb of Horrors, sure to challenge any player no matter how god like they become. The truth is that, there has never been a more sure fire way to ensure a painfully and horrific end for an adventure party then this largely mean spirited, but wonderfully designed module.
Now of course to the players this is the ultimate challenge, if you can simply survive it and walk out with treasure you have done well, if you can reach any level of success beyond that as far as I’m concerned you have won D&D. Pulling it out and setting it on the table lets the players know that, this is the big show, it’s time to put on your big boy pants and most importantly to hug your character sheet one last time.
My groups in the past that I have run this game for have always taken it in the spirit for which it is intended, it’s a challenge, it’s the end of a campaign and everyone simply looks forward to discovering the horrible way their characters meets their maker.
One other thing, as it is a great challenge to be a player in this module, it is also the ultimate challenge for a DM to run. Its an absolute blast to see how this massive dungeon crawl is connected and intertwined, it requires a high level of understanding of the module and for the sadistic GM who loves a challenge, its just pure joy.
7) Dragonlance Series (Dragons of …)
In D&D there are several very famous and recognizable names, Weis and Hickman are among perhaps the most recognizable after Gygax. The Dragons of Novels are among my favorite and of course to be able to re-create the story in an a D&D module series using unique characters creates an opportunity for an epic campaign, and epic is exactly what Dragonlance is all about. There are tons of modules to this series that will take you through the entire storyline, it would be hard to pick a favorite, but as a whole it’s an absolute blast even if you have read the novels and know the story. It’s a little like watching Star Wars, there is a comfort to the story that supersedes the need for something new. It sort of taps into that inner child.
For me personally however it was always an adventure series that introduced us in great detail to the Dragonlance setting which was a kind of cross between being more down to earth middle ages Europe with a extremely high fantasy twist, full of Tolkien epic level storytelling. Of course the core of the story is a great war that involves Dragons giving players an opportunity to face the ultimate in D&D enemies. There is something magical about knowing at a early humble beginning of an adventure that to finish it you will need to fight dragons.
Absolutely love this series and if you have a group of players that don’t know the story, its really a must run campaign!
6) Hollowfaust: The City of Necromancers
I remember when 3rd edition was first released very clearly because the era of D&D being first in line at game tables had come and gone. White Wolfs World of Darkness was front and center, everyone was playing Vampires and the company itself was jam packed with amazing writers who where creating stories unlike anything we had ever seen before. It was very dark, there was a sense of dread to everything put out by White Wolf, in a sense, they evolved the genre of RPG to include adult themes and the timing was perfect as all of us old school RPG’ers were quite a bit older then in the days of D&D.
When White Wolf announced that they were going to create a D&D setting, it was a very exciting moment and really brought us back to high fantasy D&D. What would a White Wolf D&D setting look like!? Well they gave us the wonderful Scarred Lands, without question one of my all time favorite D&D settings. Among some of the themes and concepts of Scarred Lands we got what really is without question one of my favorite places in any setting, Hollowfaust, The City of Necromancers.
Now while its technically a source book and not a module, the Hollowfaust source-book for Scarred Lands was jam packed with adventure ideas, hooks, locations and characters that were more then sufficient to run a very long and exciting campaign. It’s a page turner, one that will inspire you to run a type of D&D adventure no other module could ever really do.
Easily one of the most memorable D&D supplements of the 3rd edition era in what is without question one of the best and most creative D&D settings to be created. No surprise to me at all that it was created by brilliance of White Wolf Publishing who at the time was quite literally the center for creativity in the RPG market. This book is so good that even if you don’t like RPG’s but just like to read fantasy its worth getting and reading, its that good.
If Hollowfaust is one of the most memorable places in D&D, certainly Count Strahd Von Zarovich has got to be one of the most memorable villains in D&D. A rich, fleshed our character that brought a sense of renaissance to D&D, and really showed off how much more creative the game can be beyond the standard fantasy cliches. This module was all about the infamous vampire with whom the players must play a cat and mouse game, one left up to the a wide range of circumstances for which it was impossible to prepare for. I think really that’s what made the module so memorable for me, every time you faced Strahd it would be in unexpected circumstances that no matter how hard you tried to prepare for you never could be quite ready.
While certainly Strahd took center stage in this module, really this entire module is filled with vivid and imaginative writing that really inspire and give you a sense of place and time. The lands of Barovia, Castle Ravenloft and the rich history written into the main NPC’s of the story gave the entire thing almost a sense of proper literature. It inspired an entire setting that was created around it. In my humble opinion this was among the best ever written for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, a part of D&D history that no fantasy fan should miss. Its as valid and exciting today as it was way back then.
4) The Red Hand of Doom
In my humble opinion while the amount of material, in particular modules that where written for 3rd and 3.5 editions for D&D was enormous, there actually where very few that truly stood out from the crowd. The Red Hand of Doom was definitely among them and comes in at number 4 of my top favorites. There is no doubt my love for Richard Baker’s writing and style played a big part in my appreciation for this module, but it was in fact one of the most unique and challenging modules to come out of 3rd edition era.
The Red Hand of Doom was really much more then a module, it was really the basis for an entire campaign, one driven by concepts like mass combat, politics and open ended conflict. It certainly had a structure going from A to Z, but really it gave the players an enormous amount of freedom. It was one of those open play modules that really could and most likely did go just about anywhere for every group that ran it. It was generic enough to fit into any fantasy setting world, yet specific and unique enough to really inspire the imagination and set a strong sense of time and place.
Of course this in itself would not have been enough to catapult it this high on the list, it also boasted some wonderfully written characters and places, memorable not only for their personalities, but for how they where designed mechanically. Among my favorites was the Half-Dragon commander of the force that stood against you Azarr Kul, oh what a bastard he was. This is one of those modules that really had a bit of everything in just the right proportions to keep it fresh, thinky and fun to both run and play. More than any other module on this list, this is one that still very much begs to be played regardless of which D&D system you prefer.
3) Test of the Warlords
Ok into the top 3 now, this is definitely among the best of the best. For me, Test of the Warlords was an absolute must add to this list, I knew the moment I decided to make it. Test of the Warlords is a high level campaign adventure built around the concept of exploration and settling of a wild frontier. Players take on the roles of kingdom builders, working their way from humble explorers to kings of country. This is another end game module, one that will not only test the skills of the players but their ability to conceive and create a D&D empire of their own, one among a politically heated environment designed around some truly fantastic characters.
This was Game of Thrones before there was a Game of Thrones full of life and plenty of room for a GM to get creative. I have run this module as a campaign more times then I can count, its an absolute masterpiece in my eyes.
2) Temple of Elemental Evil
This shows up on a lot of top 10 lists and its no surprise to me. This classic master piece is without question the best module created during the TSR era. It really is the foundation for everything that D&D stands for and aspires to be. From the humble beginnings of would be adventure wet behind the ears to heroes of the realm facing gods themselves.
This is a module that covers the entire spectrum of fantasy adventure from mystery, horror, to dungeon crawls and politics. Players can approach this campaign from a uncanny amount of angles with its open ended experience, with new tests of courage around every corner.
Sure at this point perhaps its a walking, talking cliche, but D&D cliches were invented somewhere and there is no doubt in my that this module defined many of them. Absolutely love it, as valid today as the day it was written.
1) Morricks Mansion
Ok here we go, my top, favorite module of all time for D&D absolutely has to go to Morricks Mansion brought to you by the masters of darkness, White Wolf Publishing. Without a doubt one of the most creative story’s ever put to paper into a D&D module, its creepy mystery, fantastic back story and awesome NPC characters make this adventure absolutely pure joy to run. White Wolf really put their best foot forward with this one, yet oddly I rarely find it on anyone’s top 10 list.
If you really want to surprise the hell out of your players with a true master piece, this is one of those movie moment adventures that will more then deliver. Its certainly very different from your typical fantasy trope adventure and this definitely one of the core reasons why it sticks out in my mind, but more then that its about the fantastic back story that delivers on all pistons.
I rarely write either RPG articles or theory articles, but I think I should given that this blog was always intended to handle all forms of table top gaming and role-playing definitely falls into that category. In particular however that I actually do love RPG’s and play them as often as I can.
I actually kicked off this blog with articles about D&D several years back, so I thought why not get back into the spirit of things by continuing kind of where I left off.
One aspect I love to explore about D&D is its rich history as a game, fandom that is associated with it and the many different versions and variations of D&D that have been released since Gygax’s original work. This goes far beyond simply editions of the game as we have seen offshoots, based on re-imaginings and even spoofs. More than that though I love to muse about the theories and ideas behind being a great GM and this will be the topic of today.
First I would like to say that I think Gygax, no matter what he ever said or thought about how his game was treated after he himself stopped working on it, he certainly should be proud of the legacy and fans he created. His passing was a great loss to the RPG community, but really his creativity lives on and among gamers, having a story about how you played D&D in the past, is perhaps one of the most common things most table top gamers share. Few of us will ever see the day where we create something that wonderful, it really is a lifetime achievement.
Despite this however Gygax’s work is often seen in the light of what he started, rather then a body of work that is relevant in today’s gaming communities. This irks me personally because I actually believe his original writing still trumps everything that has come out since. He isn’t a classic original to me, he is a master who’s work is as relevant today as it was the day it was created.
For me personally their is a lot of nostalgia built into the 1st Advanced Dungeons & Dragons edition as its the first version of D&D and RPG I ever played. That said, I do continue to use it, in particular my Gamemasters guide which I see as a platform for inspiration and as a backdrop for the creation of adventures in fantasy worlds even when using other rule systems. I believe it to be as valid today as it was back then and in a lot of ways, it is behind almost all of the success I have ever had as a GM. No other GM guide ever written since has provided me with the same level of input and conceptual ideas as this book.
People (friends) often ask myself why I value this ancient and outdated tomb to modern books, a question I hate answering in person as it usually leads to conceptual arguments but… in my blog, I don’t have to entertain arguments so I will explain it. I believe the answer is that Gygax spoke of the GM in a unique way, a way that modern RPG’s no longer do, perhaps my biggest beef with modern RPG’s in general.
In Gygax’s writings the GM is the creator of all things, the master of the game and perhaps most importantly the master of the rules. This concept is often frowned upon in modern RPG gaming environments as it has a totalitarian, almost tyrannical feel to it. It suggests that the GM is more important then the rules, the other players and their characters. Its with this interpretation of Gygax’s original GM bible that I have issue with because I believe it to be both a very narrow interpretation and not at all in the spirit of the writing, yet it is a quite common interpretation and outlook on the book in modern RPG communities. In fact its often reflected onto the man himself.
I believe Gygax’s GM guide, the bible as I like to call it, made clear that the GM was the author of the world, the story and the adventure. He is the creator and that does have certain privileges in the participation of mutually experienced, interactive storytelling game that is role-playing. But, and this is the most important message of the book, everything, the writing, the creativity, the adventure, the game session, all of it is created solely for the benefit of his audience, the players. Unlike is often suggested about Gygax and his writings, he valued players most of all. With the caveat of course that the players represent characters in a story that may not necessarily, in fact should not according to the bible, turn out how the players expect or even hoped it does. In fact, like all good story’s it should be filled with trials and tribulations and often end in sadness and tragedy as so often the best story’s do.
In essence Gygax’s was a purist and something of a historian, clearly well read, he understood that happy endings generally don’t make for a good story, an aspect of the art of creative writing and storytelling that has been lost in the 21st century. I think the reason people believe that Gygax and his 1st edition were tyrannical and negative is because people have grown accustomed to a guaranteed happy ending, one that is expected, one that is in line with their hopes and most important one they feel control over.
A good example is the story of Romeo and Juliet. Today, such a story would be rejected, seen as a poor ending, but Shakespeare, quite possibly one of the greatest masters of storytelling understood how powerful a tragic and unexpected ending could be and his writings are full of them. Imagine if that story ended with Romeo and Juliet living happily ever after, would it have been as powerful, as popular and as memorable? I’m certain that it would not.
This is what Gygax was driving at with the GM Guides approach to adventure writing and author control. He understood that it was more important to tell a powerful story, one which surprised, or even better shocked their audience, rather then one that was predictable and concluded in an expected way. The only way to ensure that is to allow the GM license to author, to create adventures that were quite obviously rigged to favor the direction the GM wants the story to go as opposed to where the players are trying to will it to go, which in modern games is done through the manipulation of the mechanics.
In modern RPG’s what we have is two key presumptions that always ring true. The players are the heroes of the story and they will always succeed in the end. A tragedy or surprise in a modern RPG session is that a character dies, a concept in itself often considered controversial, one that should be left to the rules to resolve as opposed to a GM’s interventions and in fact, its expected that the intervention of a GM will come in a form of saving a character, not ending one. Its considered wrong for a GM to rig the death of a character, often its considered wrong to let the rules of the game end a character, all signs of a bad GM in the eyes of modern gaming “think”.
Now what is the cause of this turn from darkness and tragedy to light hearted happy endings? The game. Yes, RPG’s have become more game and less story. We now want the rules of the game to govern when, where and how a character meets his end and when an adventure succeeds or fails with a clear expectation that the GM will drive them to success and prevent tragedy. In my eyes, this is terrible. One of the most powerful pieces of storytelling has been lost, the ability for the author of the story to steer it into the surprises and tragedies for the benefit of creativity and memorable moments.
Now I will argue as devils advocate and say that sometimes the rules do come through and create wonderful moments as well, but we are literally rolling the dice to see if that happens and in my experience these memorable moments are few and far in-between by comparison to the old days of a well scripted and planned tragedy or an unexpected twists. More importantly, they feel more forced then the manipulations of a GM as the mechanics of the game and of the characters can be designed for success. Often it’s something simple like “the door is locked and no you can’t pick it and you don’t know why”. Oh you have lock picking at +1000 and can pick all locks with 100% efficiency so you want a roll to see if your successful? Sure as a GM I can let you roll the dice and lie to you about how you failed anyway, but what is the point of that? In my eyes, obvious manipulation of the rules as defined by modern games, puts to question the reason to have them. Is it not the same thing that Gygax is saying anyway, that, the GM is the master of the game and embodies the powers that govern the laws of the universe? Its called The GameMaster for a reason, these words were not chosen frivolously, there is power in them with a purpose.
I digress, my point here is that Gygax understood how to create a great story and he understood that the GM would need to take a lot of liberties to ensure those powerful moments, those twists, all those surprises materialize. His Gamemasters guide defines these aspects in great detail, even going so far as Gygax arguing with his own words to make the point, a style of writing I often use myself.
The point is that the GM effectively has to cheat and Gygax was ok with it and so am I, but I think its important to note that it was underlined that its not really cheating because the rules are not that well defined very intentionally, hence left for interpretation. Its why I call it a bible as it means something different to each person that reads it, much of what is in the GM guide is, is up for interpretation but its made clear that the authority on how it should be interpreted is the GM. Unfortunately because of this interpretive aspect of the book, people often missed his point of why its setup this way.
The question we must then ask is, is if this is fair? Is it fair that one player in the game gets to decide what happens, rigs the mechanical portions of the game to create the experience he wants everyone else to have and to ensure events transpire as written and planned? No of course its not fair, but the GM is not a player, he is your narrator, the person bringing you the adventure, he is not governed by mechanical rules and its this key aspect of the original GM guide for 1st edition D&D that is at the center of the theory behind how the GM should conduct himself. It a responsibility to create an experience that feels fair, but clearly behind the screen is not.
His story is there for you to experience and since you have no idea how it will turn out, whether its the dice that lead you to that end, or the manipulation of events by the GM is completely irrelevant and would be indistinguishable to you if you were not aware of the rules of the game. The dice are a meaningless component in the story and play a small role at best. You don’t know what will happen either way and it will be surprise dice or no dice, the difference is that the dice will make it random, often anti-climatic, while a storyteller, a good GM that is, will always make it an amazing one or at least that is the aspiration.
This is not to say that players should not have any influence over the story, again the GM guide speaks to this as well. The players should most definitely contribute to the moments in the story in their control. Its their dialogue, their choices, their responses to what is happening that are most important. This however is always an illusion of control, one players insists on having rules dictated in some vein effort to grasp the reigns of control, but the dice are as much an illusion of control as the players involvement in shaping the story. They certainly will experience the story from their own perspective, its why dialogue and the common question from the GM is “what do you want to do”, but at the highest level of storytelling is this simple fact. You will experience the GM’s creation as he has written it, attempting to manipulate it with dice will not change this aspect, or perhaps better to say it should not. Its more likely that using dice to determine the story will derail the planned twists and create a lesser experience, but its not going to give you any additional control.
And so this is the point. The GM is the master of the game, let him do his thing, this is what the 1st edition GM Guide, Gygax’s greatest contribution to role-playing tells us. Its the GM’s job to create the illusion, its the players place to sit back and enjoy it from the perspective of an interactive character. This is what role-playing is to me and while I know countless players would argue the opposite, to me, much of the art and creativity of the game has been lost as a result of this awkward shift to letting rules govern the game. Its also why I consider Gygax’s Dungeon Masters Guide for 1st Edition D&D the single and quite possibly only worthy source for becoming a great GM.
One final aspect of GMing I think the Gygax touched on is the concept of adaptive play, something I think a lot of GM miss the point of. The idea is simple, you create story’s for your players, hence you must know what kind of story’s your players love and give those story’s to them with a twist. Another words, this idea that the GM is a Tyrant and runs the story he wants to run, is wrong and not supported by Gygax’s writing though for some reason its an idea always attributed to him. This is not at all what he is talking about when he talks about the GM’s powers and how to apply them. In his and my eyes, its vital that you create story’s that are built around the characters, around the players preferences and always for their benefit. Hence in a lot of ways, the act of a GM is creating a story that the players requested and often this meta conversation is what doesn’t take place between GM and players. It must.
If your players want a political thriller and you give them a dungeon crawl, you are not going to be successful no matter how well written, planned and executed the story is. More importantly, you will still be a shit GM, because the core, fundamental rule for a GM is that you are a host, the entertainment and your audience is the single most important and only reason you are creating and telling a story. If you miss that, everything else you do right will be in vein.
So that is my interpretation and theory on being a good GM. In short, listen to Gygax, but really listen to him, not to the presumptions and discussions about his work, read the book, absorb the book and understand what ideas about the GM he is presenting. If you can manage to do that and take his advice, you will be a great GM.
Ok here goes nothing. Without question among the list of biggest things to happen this last year in board gaming was the breakup of Fantasy Flight Games and Gamesworkshop, the merger of Asmodee and Fantasy Flight Games and their prompt announcement that they are getting into the Assemble and Paint miniature games market. At least for me personally as I’m a huge fan of FFG, this was a big deal. From these events FFG has spawned their latest collectible love child which they called simply Runewars The Miniature Game, an announcement that might answer the question of why these events took place in the first place, but I digress.
These events are big no doubt, even worthy of their own article perhaps but in my experience, gamers don’t really care so much about the business end of things when you get right down to it, so really the most interesting event was the announcing and now release of FFG’s new miniatures game, our topic of the day.
Creating this review has been a long and arduous process, one that I don’t believe is even in the ball park of complete and might never truly be. It suffices to say reviewing collectible games in general is tough since your review is frozen in time, not accounting for anything that is released afterwards that could improve or make worse a game. Collectible miniature games are even tougher as there is so much more to the hobby than just the game, in its own right it almost feels like the game and the miniatures should be entirely separate reviews. We won’t do that however, instead this review will focus on the Core Set for Runewars, as some call it, the Wave 0 release.
I consider this a premature review and I will admit that right up front here and now, however, I felt it prudent to do the review earlier then later because I believe there are a lot of people out there, in particular Gamesworkshop fans who might have a hole in their dark hearts after the death of Warhammer Fantasy Battles but also fans of FFG’s other miniatures lines that want to know if the juice is as good as the hype in FFG’s latest creation.
Let’s be honest here, if there is one thing that is taking place right now is fanboy insanity, the hype machine is thick. Objectively is thoroughly out the fucking window, hell I even feel the sting of it and its likely to make its way to this review is some fashion, but being the always vigilant internet Evangelist and giving a grand total of zero fucks about anyone’s feelings, I’m going to give you the Gamersdunegon.net take on FFG’s latest creation.
This review will be extensive and far more detailed then normal, so put on your reading glasses, sit back and enjoy. Oh, and If this review upsets or offends your miniature gaming sensibilities, and you would like to complain, please feel free to dial my comments hotline at 1-800-ZeroFucksGiven. <– just kidding, this is not a real number, please don’t call it!
Final Score: (3.9 out of 5 Stars)
Runewars the miniature game falls into the rank and file fantasy battles lines of games, though right off the bat I can tell you that it has far more in common with Star Wars: X-Wing and Armada than it does with Gamesworkshops now defunct Warhammer Fantasy Battles which for the most part defined the genre. Everything before Warhammer Fantasy is ancient history. This fact in its own right makes Runewars a very unique entry into the market. Suffice to say, while the game is rank & file and may even appear to be of the same stock as Warhammer Fantasy, Fantasy Flight Games has borrowed far more from their own miniature game lines, then they have from Gamesworkshop, not to mention broken more sacred cows then 4th edition D&D.
Runewars features FFG creations like movement/action dials that use a pre-programming (hidden movement) systems as we have in X-Wing. It uses a more fixed unit based system where you pay for entire squads in certain formation as opposed to GW’s Warhammer style per model purchases. It also makes use of tokens and effects for easier book-keeping as we see in most of their games, miniature or otherwise. There is also cards for upgrades with fixed slots for each unit and of course in classic rebellious fashion once again FFG brings us specialty dice with symbols rather then numbers because, fuck you that’s why!
Suffice to say, when it comes to classic war miniature design, Runewars is a rebel in the genre for better or for worse. The breaking from tradition goes much deeper, though perhaps only those of you that have spent a thousand hours in front of Warhammer miniatures might notice. For one the miniatures don’t come on sprus and are designed with easy assembly (largely without glue) via a basic hole and peg system. Poses are also in fixed positions, another words you are not going to be messing around with picking a position for your hands, body, heads etc. The level of model detail and general layout of the models is designed very specifically for easier painting to cater to the novice resulting in a lower level of detail. All of these things certainly break from tradition and might even piss off traditionalist (go figure).
Runewars is a very different than your daddy’s miniature game, that much is clear, but in its heart and soul its very much chasing the same classic premise. Players build their armies making a wide range of choices (getting wider with each expansion) and construct a fundamental strategy that they bring to a 6×3 battlefield. Then the battle is on as units march in formation at each other, collide and the dice extravaganza begins. Stuff dies, someone kills more stuff then the other guy and wins the game. In terms of concept, this is a very traditional miniatures game, but much of the design and what leads you to the field of battles is quite un-traditional.
Runewars is also based on its own fantasy world, the same as several of their fantasy based games like Runewars the boardgame, Runebound and Descent. With its own lore, covered in a pamphlet that comes with your core set, you have the basic platform for a fantasy world that defines where stuff comes from. This too breaks from the traditional mega volume rulebooks and army books that are released for your old school miniatures game like pretty much everything from GamesWorkshop.
Pros: Components built to last, core set jam packed with goodies with an amazingly low cost of entry as well as a designed to be approachable by the novice hobbyist.
Cons: Miniatures are not as detailed as the high standards created by companies like GamesWorkshop and Privateer Press.
Of all the things that are tough to talk about and judge in this review, components definitely ranked quite high on the difficulty scale. In particular because components are arguably one of the most important elements of a miniature game as its a defining element of the hobby to assemble and paint with tender love and care your precious miniatures.
The first step to making a judgement is that you have to decide the standard on which it should be based and perhaps more importantly how do you determine whether a shift from established traditions is good or bad?
I think its only fair to explain how I came to my determination. Simply put, I have taken what is the best in the business component wise and measured it against Runewars. Yes that means arguably Gamesworkshop miniatures, which are among the best in the business. GW are masters of their craft honed over the course of 30+ years and while I would personally argue that there are other candidates, I think as a measure of quality this is one of the most well known sources to be judged against and this is exactly what I have done. I think its fair, I think its just. If you are going to enter the miniature market place and tango with the big boys, you will have to fight on their terms.
Let’s first talk about the other components of Runewars. The tokens, the cards, the rules & lore books, dials and everything else in the core set box.
Simply put, everything is of fantastic quality. These are components built to last and last they will. I really only had one major beef with component quality and that was the dials themselves. Its a minor quibble but the plastic stand piece that stands the dial up, rubs against the edges of the dial and after only a couple of games it has already damaged the bottom of the dial base. When you get a new game and after two plays there is already something damaged, its annoying. I suggest gluing the plastic stand to the dial to avoid this the first time you put them on. Minor I know, but with FFG, component quality is almost always amazing so its rare I get the opportunity to bitch about something.
As for the Lore and Rules book, well they are both good and bad. The traditional standard here is a big fat rules book that is not only extremely detailed and explicit but at least more than 2/3rds of it is “traditionally” dedicated to the hobby of paint and assembly and most importantly, the lore. Now Runewars did come with a Lore book, but by comparison to what we get with most miniatures games, this can be described as a very light pamphlet that gives you a very high level birds eye-view of the lore. To me the the size of this book was disappointing, but worse yet was the content.
Well written and detailed lore is absolutely vital to a miniatures game and I’m sorry to say as much as I tried to get into it and like it, the world of Terrinoth is a very boring and generic place. This tiny pamphlet did little to inspire creativity in a game, that is as much a game as a creative hobby as a game, which is terrible news for miniature fans. Miniature games are after all cousins of role-playing games and lore is paramount. We need more, much, much more. Now what was there wasn’t poorly written or anything, it was certainly enough to give you a taste with a bit of pizzazz, but in general the world of Terrinoth is just not very interesting at all at the moment. Its a walking, talking cliche and at best can be described as incomplete. We don’t even get a proper world map to look at.
To be fair however, the cliche was born somewhere and certainly while the world of Warhammer Fantasy is filled with its own mind numbing cliches from the age of D&D and Lord of the Rings, they get a pass because well, they also created a lot of them with Warhammer. There was a lot of very original and very cool concepts in Warhammer Fantasy that jazzed up the cliches and that just doesn’t exist in Terrinoth. Where we had Vampire Counts and Egyptian themed Tomb Kings in the Old World, by comparison the Waiqar are “standard skeleton/undead people”. There really is no culture or uniqueness to them, they are at best, generic. The human army doesn’t do a whole lot better, they are just your standard run of the mill “Knights in shining armor” from a fairly uniform medieval fantasy world with little to get excited about.
Now while the Lore book and Lore in general was disappointing, the rules books, one for learning to play and one reference was a breath of fresh air and this is one change to tradition I appreciated. Gamesworkshop like many miniatures game publishers have this uncanny ability to write a 600 page book and still leave an endless amount of unanswered questions, as well as confuse the living fuck out of you not to mention that they create crappy indexes as a cherry on top. Gamesworkshop was notorious for doing this and despite 30+ years of writing rules-books they absolutely suck monkey balls at it. You could argue that this was all the justification FFG needed not to do it.
Runewars on the other hand gives you a 20 page booklet and after reading through it once and playing two games, I’m quite certain it will remain in the box 90% of all games going forward. It’s clear, it’s easy to understand, it leaves very few unanswered questions and its super easy to reference. I Ioved it, it really just made the game easy to get into and most importantly made the rules easy to remember. A++ for the rulebook.
Ok now its time to get into the real stuff here, the miniatures. I know this is going to be controversial but unless we are going to play favorites here and hold FFG to a different standard then everyone else we have to be honest and objective.
I will say this upfront, despite everything I’m going to say right now, I actually love the Runewars miniatures. For me, every objective issue I list here, is not one I personally share, but the goal here is to make an objective review, not be a fanboy.
The first thing you will notice about Runewars miniatures is that they are not on sprus, they come in baggies in ready to assemble, fixed poses which you will not have the option to change unless you bust out the razor and green stuff to start making conversions. I personally loved this, as I hate dicking around with cutting miniatures off sprus and spending hours just putting them together, but I can understand that in a creative hobby like miniatures gaming, making customization more difficult is a big no no.
The decision here is likely one of catering to a less experienced or perhaps better to say, not experienced consumer. Its clear that this decision makes Runewars more approachable, more likely for a gamer to take his first steps into the world of paint & assemble miniatures which I think is the right move for FFG. That said, its a kick in the ass of a sacred cow that is going to turn off a lot of miniature hobbyist and rightfully so. Tradition is tradition, this market needs an infusion of players, but not at the price of leaving its core audience in the cold. If your a veteran miniature gamer, you might find some of this pretty disappointing.
Miniature gaming is a hobby first, a game second. The creative element where players create their own unique version of an army is of utmost importance to hobbyists. I would argue this is done through painting, but I understand that assembly, posing your mini’s and making custom choices is part of this creativity. It’s simply not to be fucked with as far as veterans are concerned (I get it) and FFG’s decision to not cater to this audience of 30+ years of fandom I think is going to put more than a few frowns on people’s faces.
Now talking about the quality of the molds, I personally believe them to be extremely well done, but I must point out that they are not really comparable to the level of detail we see from Gamesworkshop and other miniature game makers. If you take a Runewars miniature and line it up with a Warhammer miniature, there is no contest, the Runewars miniature looks more like a boardgame piece then the piece of 3d art that GW produces. I don’t think most people getting into the hobby today would find themselves anything but impressed by Runewars mini’s but to the experienced eye and hobbyist who has spent time painting GW mini’s in particular in the last couple years knows how far the art form of miniature sculpting has come. Runewars really just does not stack up.
With that said, the mini’s are definitely above grade for FFG, these are without question the nicest mini’s they have ever produced and for the purposes of gaming, personally I think they are perfect. Painting these mini’s is going to be a much simpler fair and one advantage of this simplification is that the time from opening the box to having an army of painted mini’s on the battlefield has been cut by 1000%. I mean properly constructed and painted miniature army for GW took me the better part of a year and half to paint (yes I’m slow) and I’m quite certain I’m going to have Runewars rocking it color style inside a few weeks.
Its also worth pointing out that the level of detail really only matters upon extremely close inspection, a simple fact of the mini hobby and this is true for all mini games. When your looking at a Warhammer army on the table from a players perspective you are not going to notice the 85 layers of detail on the face of a mini and so really if you want to be practical about it, why bother making them so detailed? Its the old adage, if a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to see it.. but I digress.
The point and the answer to this question is again, because that is what the hobby is, detailed. Very very detailed. Miniature gamers are a meticulous bunch that push the art form forward and to them, this is a very important sacred cow and FFG’s move to scale it back might be seen a step backwards. I think people will adapt and adjust, but the grumbling from the GW community about the quality of the sculpts is almost certain to be debated.
There is also some logic to this hobby first, gaming second approach most miniature gamers have. In the end you are spending far more time preparing for battle then you are having one. A game takes a couple of hours, painting an army takes.. well, it takes a lot longer. So its understandable that this side of the hobby is so important to them. That said, I think its very much FFG’s intention to flip that upside and make Runewars more about the game then the hobby. A controversial move, but one I personally support. I just don’t know that my opinion is representative of the community at large, I have my doubts about that.
For me personally there is a level of detail that miniatures reach, for which, going beyond makes little difference. FFG has made high level of detail miniatures, going beyond this, really does nothing for me but to be fair, I fall into the category of people who see this as a game first and a hobby second (if a hobby at all) as I believe FFG intends it to be. What doing the opposite it does for Gamesworkshop is make their game way more expensive and that is a far bigger negative to me then a lower level of detail.
To be fair and objective however we have to say it so its clear. Runeware miniatures are not as detailed as Gamesworkshop miniatures. Period.
Ok I think that about covers components. I think my conclusion is that after all considerations and comparisons, what FFG has created here is a very low cost miniature game that is easy to get into, has great quality and is more about the game, then the quality of the sculpts. No it doesn’t exceed and perhaps even reach industry standards as they are today, but I don’t believe they where aiming for that, so how can you blame them for not achieving a goal, they never set in the first place. They want people to buy, assemble and paint miniatures quickly so they can enjoy the game, its a perfectly reasonable goal. Their target aren’t artistic hobbyist, their target is gamer’s and I think they have chosen wisely.
Pros: An amazing and diverse set of mechanics that creates fun, easy to get into strategies. Despite the dice, battles are won largely by your wits.
Cons: A few asymmetrical balance issues you might find reason to gripe about.
When it comes to gameplay I think its only fair that if we compared the miniatures to Gamesworkshop mini’s, we should do the same when it comes to gameplay. Unfortunately this will be a wildly unfair contest. If there was one thing Gamesworkshop truly sucks at its creating engaging gameplay. The yahtzee fest that passed as a game that was Warhammer Fantasy was an embarrassment to game design, and Runewars blows the fucking doors off by comparison. So , instead of this comparison, lets just judge it on other miniature games from FFG lines like X-Wing and Armada as much of the player base will come from here anyway and of course Runewars is based mechanically on these games as well.
Runewars is effectively played on three levels mechanically, much in the way X-Wing and Armada is. There is list building, which is of course the construction of your force where you build into it various strategies and synergies. Then there is the actual combat system, with hidden action/movement via dials, template based movement, special unit powers, upgrade cards etc.. all that combine to make of the bulk of the gameplay. Finally there is the mind game element, the sort of deduction and anticipation mechanics which deal with the fact that decisions are not made in the course of the round, but rather prior to the round starting in the planning/pre-programming phase, at this point an FFG tradition when it comes to mini games.
Nothing to my knowledge exists like this in any other miniature game except in those found in FFG lines and game systems based on their signature mechanic (I could be wrong). Runewars however has the luxury of not only using this fantastic core mechanism, but doing so after the experiences gathered by FFG designers from the previous two versions of these systems. In Runewars, it really shows as it is the most advanced and dynamic version of the mechanic to date. Dare I even say an improvement over the amazing Star Wars Armada.
I think I could make this article quite short, aside from a few quirks and arguably questionable balancing, Runewars is the best version of FFG’s signature miniature game mechanics, referred to as the flight system, to date and without question. They have really nailed it home here and while in my first impressions article I got hung up on a few things like Runes for example, after follow up plays of the game I have discovered that their are layers upon layers, upon layers of logic, mechanics, strategies and tactics in the core gameplay of Runewars. Runes are still my least favorite mechanic, but its not nearly as bad as I made it out to be in my first impressions article.
There is a ton to discovery to be made in Runewars mechanics and strategies, its very clear that for every move there seems to be a clear counter move. So much thought has gone into each unit, each dial, each ability and there is an awesome merging of it all into what amounts to a deeply rich gaming experience. I started off quite apprehensive about this game, but several plays later I’m delighted and amazed by how much fun and how much depth there is and this is just inside the core set which by all definitions is mostly a demo game.
Now grant it I cheated a bit, as a blogger, I have the luxury of a little bit of a bigger budget then most gamers to ensure I always have something to write about so I went straight for 3 Core sets. Which I imagine is a much different experience than having 1 core set. None the less, I’m absolutely enamored with this game and while not all the hype about this game is deserved, when it comes to the gameplay, I whole heartedly agree with the consensus, this game is amazing.
I could already write a book about some of the ways this game suprised me and the little secrets I have discovered along the way, but It almost feels like it would be a spoiler to reveal it all. This is a game you really need to experiment with and in a way its almost kind of a built in right of passage, a part of the game to discover it on your own, its a bit rude to spoil it for people.
Still I have to mention a few of my favorite gameplay elements here, this is a review after all.
First without question separating the dials into two sections where you have a main action and a supporting bonus modifier or action is, while simple, genius. This just makes the choices that much tougher and creates a way for each action to carry risk vs. reward, with built in timing, making even simple decisions delightfully albeit painfully tough. Not only are you choosing your action which may involve movement, an attack, a shift, reformation, special action (on and on) but you are also picking your initiative and how that action will be modified. Hence each action has a built in speed variance and while at first it was a bit confusing, there is so much logic to how everything works. It gives each unit a distinct feel as well as purpose, but more than that it gives units variation in terms of how you execute your battle plans. The combos here are so many its hard to imagine that anyone can call this game simple, yet rule wise it certainly is. The reality is that it falls into the category of easy to learn, but impossible to master, as I often say “the design sweet spot”.
Next up is the simplification of the Rank and File system, by creating simple and effective rules for things like lining up, using terrain, movement, charges and re-forms. This system while simple, is something that was never really evolved in Warhammer Fantasy and felt stiff and unrealistic. Its almost embarrassing how much better this system is to anything that GW was able to produce in 30+ years of design. It works so well, I would expect any game designed in the future that doesn’t do it this way is going to have a lot of explaining to do. It puts you in a position of focusing on strategy rather then trying to figure out how the rules actually apply. Its simply put, a beautiful piece of design, simple, to the point leaving few unanswered questions.
Now I will say I wasn’t crazy about the connecting puzzle piece tray and while you might chalk that up to a component flaw, because its such a fundamental element of game play, I put it here. They stick and makes it kind of awkward to remove trays. Its fiddly and it gets in the way, but more importantly its non-nonsensical. There really is not reason to force the connection of the trays. They were going for a system that made the units easier to move, but instead resulted in a system that is annoying to work with. A minor flaw, but a flaw non the less.
Finally, last but not least is my absolute favorite element of the game, the mind game. The pre-programming of actions is among my favorite mechanisms in games and in Runewars this concepts adds so many layers to the game to a point that you often make decisions by looking into your opponents eyes and trying to read him then you do looking at the tactical situation. This is a game about juking, faking and trying to surprise your opponent with your dial. Games are literally won and lost this way and often doing the unexpected is the key to winning. While not exactly a mechanic, this atmosphere is created by the mechanics and I think in many ways its one of the most important elements of Runewars.
When it comes to miniature war games we can’t skimp on the sure to be eternally debated topic of balance. Is the game balanced, how does it balance, is x or y unit too expensive or too cheap. You know, the usual stuff. If you have spent any time playing miniature games, this is going to all sound very familiar and if you are a Warhammer Fantasy Battles player, then you know just how horribly out of balance miniature games can get because you have played without question the worst of the bunch.
My take on Runewars is that by far and large it is one of the most balanced assemble and paint miniatures I have ever played, but this is a far cry from “balanced” in board game terms. Suffice to say, miniature games suffer from asymmetric mechanic blending that simply can never be perfectly balanced from game to game, at least not to any sort of consensus on the topic. In the case of Runewars its actually even more sensitive as each card upgrade you add can easily throw the entire thing off the rails. The fact that they achieve any semblance of balance at all is nothing short of a bloody miracle.
More to the point though its a game of list building and it can be so that while the game is balanced, you and your opponent may have lists that might very well not be, a part of collectible miniature games that always has impact. I don’t think you can blame the game for that, but strictly put, not every game of Runewars you play will be balanced, list building is going to affect the fairness of a game even if you become proficient at it. There are just going to be those times when despite both players building great lists, one player will have a clear advantage as a result of the blending of the two lists. Its just the way it is in these games, an inherent part of miniature gaming that can heavily burden a gaming experience.
Right now I think the main issue with the game is that its meant to be played at 200 points and while I would argue a miniature game should remain balanced regardless of how many points you play at, this might be asking too much of it. I believe if you play a 3×3 fight using just the core set, you are going to get a fairly tight game, its clear the core set itself was tested heavily. With 2 core sets there is a bit of an offset that favors the humans and I think this is largely because the human army relies less on synergy then the undead army and the higher point count you get to, the more redundancy is necessary for the undead to be successful. Given equal skill I think the game favors the Human armies ability to leverage dice odds over the specialties of using synergized elements like Blight and Panic in that weird 150-180 point range. In a sense, the Skeletons are harder to play because of this aspect, but can potentially be devastating if and when the synergies are pulled of. If you don’t pull them off, you chances of winning are greatly reduced in a straight up dice chucking match.
My personal friends argue with me on this matter and I think I can say that I can’t conclusively say this is true. Its certainly debatable and given that perhaps the definition of balance is that there are good arguments on both sides to claim which is best. As long as their is no consensus, perhaps that means the game is in fact balanced. I have personally played the skeletons 6 times at this point, 5 of which where done only with the core set content and the first match I won was when we introduced proxies and used upgrades from the future releases. I believe the game becomes a lot more stable with the upcoming content which of course is not part of this review. In fact for the purpose of this review, the Waiqar have never won a game in my group to date. Its not until we introduced expansion content that this changed and the Waiqar finally won one.
At 200 points with expansion content however, the Undead really come into their own and while I will not say it overthrows balance, I will say that that it allows synergies to be far more reliable and very unlikely to fail outright. It really becomes a game of leveraging your blight correctly rather then hoping you don’t fail to get your synergies going through unlucky dice rolling.
In a 200 point game you have enough on the battlefield that if one of you units get caught in an unplanned position, your ability to synergize isn’t shut down entirely, you will have other units that can continue to work off each other and pick up the slack. More importantly you’ll be able to triple down on things like Archers or Lancers, which are devastating in larger numbers and dirt cheap to field. You really just need the plastic to do it and right now in the core set (wave 0) environment that really means you need to invest in 3 core set to complete a proper 200 point army. I’m not sure I would recommend that, but it does help to even the playing field.
Still even with that said, at round 170-180 points despite the undead having never won to date in my gaming group, most matches are not complete blow outs. Its not like the humans are tearing it up uncontested. Given that the Undead army is a bit more specialized, perhaps requiring a bit more experience with the game to play well, the balance may very well always be there, you just have to know how to tap into it. At this point we are all a bunch of noobs and with the human army you really can arguably get away with just “charging” your opponent and out rolling him.
I also believe the real strength of the undead army really isn’t blight, its a part of it of course, this mechanic is tailor made for them but really their greatest strength is their ability to both hand out panic and resist it, as well as severely out field their competition. Undead units are much cheaper and they are far more effective in small numbers than the humans in smaller numbers. Panic in particular however more often than not is the way the undead army gains a positional advantage on the field and for them its a pretty reliable mechanic that they can tap into thanks to the reanimates secondary ability on attack to hand out panic and upgrades like Terrifying Herald which while expensive are very good at making things difficult in a fight of attrition. Leveraging Panic in combination with Blight which can be used both offensively and defensively is tricky, but when timed correctly its far more devastating then someone who throws a bunch of dice and lets lady luck do the fighting for him. Panic and Blight are reliable, dice rarely are, unless of course your my friend Ola who seems to have made a pact with the devil.
In conclusion in terms of balance, I think the game has some debatable elements but for the most part I think I can safely say the game is balanced enough to keep you coming back. Certainly enough that any argument you make can be countered to give you food for thought. Runewars is a game of skill, tactics and a bit of luck, as all good miniature games should be. In the case of Runewars however lucky gets the short end of the stick here, the dice are stable and results are fairly predictable. You will have the occasional shocker, but you aren’t doing the double or triple rolling thing as we see in a lot of miniature games where lucky gets far more opportunities to rear its ugly head (I’m looking at you X-Wing!)
Pros: Strong mechanic connection to the fantasy battle theme. Its easy to get your army painted and on the table to get the full enjoyment from the games visual intentions.
Cons: The Lore is dull and unfinished, its not going to inspire you.
Talking about the theme of Runewars is a double edged sword, after all its a game of fantasy miniature battles and mechanically it performs amazingly. But theme isn’t just about a mechanical connection, its also about the basis of the game, the lore, the story behind the game and how that inspires our imaginations. Runewars to me is split between being a fantastic thematic representation of a fantasy battle while simultaneously being plagued by a relatively generic and uninspiring fantasy world.
In the end, for me, thematic representation through mechanics to bring out the feel of the game is far more important then the backdrop. Sure, the lore of the generic humans and skeleton people is uninspiring and bland, but once you put those miniatures on the table and start pre-programming dials, it creates an amazing illusion of being a commander behind a massive force clashing into their enemy. The tactics and strategies, the out guessing of your opponent’s actions, the formations and special powers of the units all form a fantastic gaming experience true to the sense of epicness that we look for in a game like this.
It may even be worth pointing out that while I love the lore of Warhammer Fantasy, I rarely played the game, despite having a painted army ready to go. This was mainly because while I loved the backdrop, the game itself was kind of a drag and had a tendency to suck the joy out of the room. So clearly, a wonderfully written piece of lore can’t save a game, but I believe an amazing game experience can do wonders to inspire the imagination and even amidst a boring generic fantasy world get you excited to play.
Of course its a bummer that we can’t get both and its sadder still if you consider that if anyone can create an amazing world full of original and creative lore its Fantasy Flight Games. Just look at the fantastic work they have done with Android, sure future techno hackers isn’t my thing, but you can’t say peep about it not being original and inspiring. Hell I read the lore book even though I don’t play any of the games! Suffice to say I have to give some negative points for Runewars lore as far as theme goes, I think FFG can do better and they should have done better. I think it was a mistake to base this on their Runebound world, even though there is obviously a lot of logic to doing so for them as a business. Its just not a good enough setting for a miniatures game.
In conclusion I can honestly say that for me, lore is an overlookable matter. It’s not the world I would have chosen, but its not a deal breaker in the light of the quality of the game itself. Certainly their is room for improvement but the juice is in the game and when it comes to Runewars the juice is fantastic. I feel a pressing urge to collect, to paint and to play, this is the feeling you want an assemble and paint miniature game to give you. The battles that Runewars offers are epic and full of life, with endless strategy, tactics and presence.
Replay-ability and Longevity
Pros: The blending of mechanics and asymmetrical units and components create a vast sea of possibilities.
Cons: You’ll need more than one core set to really find the game, collecting is without a doubt required to get the most out of the game.
Longevity of a miniature game is going to be pretty tough to predict given all we have to work with is a wave 0 core set. Still, its clear to me that the game is set up for it in three very distinct ways.
First and foremost, despite the lore being a let down, it is for the most part wide open. They have not written themselves into any corners which gives FFG the opportunity to be creative, think outside of the box and add into the game anything they want and make it cannon since they control the IP. This is a fantastic opportunity to expand this game into any direction they like and I suspect this is exactly why the lore has been left wide open with a lot of question marks. This world is far from finished and while we know that we are getting 2 more armies in the near future, there is lots of room for plenty more. FFG may yet surprise us with the backdrop to Runewars.
Secondly the mechanic is so diverse, that their is design opportunity up the ass in this game. Its a designers wet dream really, in particular with the way units are broken down by special ability, formations, upgrades and the double sided dial. The amount of combinations that can be created is seemingly infinite and if there is anyone you can count on to expand the shit out of this game its FFG. They have left the door wide open design wise and created a flexible and dynamic mechanic that can be used to represent just about any concept you can think of. There really is no telling what they could create with it.
Finally and perhaps most importantly, this is not a IP that is in danger of ever leaving FFG. This isn’t part of some sort of deal, or negotiated contract. This is their world. They answer to no one but the fans and they can do with it as they please. This is a big deal, in particular for FFG that more typically works with existing IP’s that have years and years of legacy built into them. This is their world and that is an important distinction from other games even in their miniature lines like Star Wars, an IP license they could very well lose one day ending their control over their own games. We have already seen this happen once with Gamesworkshop, an IP they lost, that among its casualties included wonderful games like Forbidden Stars which never even got a much needed expansion.
In terms of replayability, Runewars like all of their miniature lines already has a built in foundation that very clearly begs to be explored. I believe Runewars will get the same treatment like Armada and replaybility will grow out of it in the same way. Each time a new unit is introduced with new upgrades and dials, the game changes and needs to be re-explored as old avenues are re-openned. More than that though I believe their is room for elements like Campaign sets, also something we got that truly expanded the gaming experiance for Armada. You have other platforms on which to base some assumptions as well like X-Wings epic play or Mission play. Runewars has built into it objectives and as you can imagine, more will be released at some point growing the gaming experience in new directions.
Simply put, I think the replayability here is endless, Runewars is not a game that will dull and while I expect it will certainly phase in and out of popularity in gaming groups as all games do, like X-Wing and Armada, I believe it will always remain on my shelf waiting for the itch to be scratched. I have no doubt about Runewars dynamic gameplay being endlessly replayable, FFG’s are masters of creating such games and Runewars may be their most imaginative and dynamic game yet.
Runewars is definitely not without its flaws, I have my beef with the lore and there are a few very minor issues I haven’t mentioned because this review is already waaaay to long. Suffice to say however, Runewars overcomes its shortcomings by bringing us the most important element of a miniature game with near perfection. Gameplay. This is where this game shines, leave it to a boardgame company to design one of the most playable assemble and paint miniature games on the market and show everyone else how its done right.
Sure, it’s not quite the hobby game we are accustomed to seeing enter the market. The miniature sculpts are not quite up to standard of the industry and some limitations like static poses are going to annoy a few people. We are missing our usual fat army books and mega volume core book too, but for all that is missing the most important bits are there. That said, these miniatures look great, painting them is a joy and I have absolutely no doubt that FFG will continue to step up their efforts and bring us better and better mini’s as time goes by as they have with X-Wing and Armada. This is FFG’s first entry into the Assemble and Paint mini market and in my eyes, its an amazing achievement not just as a first effort, but in general, it has created a new standard in the hobby. Its not a standard based on the sculpts of their mini’s but one focused on gameplay, a place where most assemble and paint mini efforts fail pretty regularly in my eyes.
Certainly there is a ton of hype and fanboyism surrounding this game, but I believe its justified. I look at this game and I see a lot of opportunity for some amazing gaming experiences and while I honestly can say I’m really not the best representative from the assemble and paint community, as a general gamer, to me this game has made just the right compromises to get me involved and the truth is that ordinarily I would not be interested in an assemble and paint miniature game at all. Runewars has changed my mind, an achievement in its own right and I suspect fundementally one of the goals of FFG’s effort here. They have created a game that lets you ease into it as a novice and this was exactly what they were going for. I think my faith in FFG has a lot to do with my conclusion about Runewars, but while it’s not yet the game it will one day be, it’s clear that FFG intends to give it all the support and love it deserves to have a bright future.
It remains to be seen if the assemble and paint hobby community embraces Runewars, I’m skeptical, but given its target audience and goals FFG has set for it, I think it has a fighting chance. What we have here is a bonafide smash hit in my novice eyes, but whether that translates to a hit among experienced miniature gamers is hard to predict. Like all assemble & paint miniatures, it’s usually not the release that matters so much as the longevity of the support and dedication of the publisher to push it forward beyond its infancy. Few games in the miniature market make it that far, but FFG has a proven track record of success and they have infused this game with the same endearing qualities of games like X-Wing and Armada that to me are among the best games ever made.
Gamesdungeon.net gives this the seal of approval, if you’re a miniatures game fan, this is one you cannot pass up, it begs to be played. If you’re a casual gamer looking for your first experience, while I would personally still recommend X-Wing over Runewars, if you want to get into painting, this is definitely the way to go.