Sunday 29 April 2012

Review - Iron Man Battling Card Game

As I have already posted my Marvel Heroes review to this site, I thought it would also be a good idea to put up my review of Iron Man Battling Card Game. This review first appeared on in February 2011.

Iron Man Battling Card Game box

Iron Man Battling Card Game
Published by Milton Bradley
Designed by Craig van Ness
For 2 players, ages 6 to adult

It's actually quite surprising how many fun games are out there just under the radar, and today's offering is really rather good: Iron Man Battling Card Game.

This is actually just a retheme (with a few minor tweaks) of a game that has previously been released with a Transformers theme and a Star Wars theme, but I didn't know that when my wife bought it for me for the princely sum of £1 (brand new, sealed, from a real bricks and mortar store!).

£1 for an Iron Man themed card game is a bargain in my book, even if the game turns out to be a mess. Luckily, this game is well worth keeping in the collection.

It ships in a box big enough for holding two decks of regular sized cards, and I was pleased to note it is a proper box with a removable lid, not one of those horrible tuckbox things with the flaps on the side.

Iron Man Battling Card Game card decks
The decks contain exactly the same cards with different artwork.

Inside the box is a sheet of paper with the instructions for a basic and advanced game, and two decks of cards. The cards are regular-sized, and very nicely illustrated, but they are those flimsy cards that you tend to expect from mass-produced Hasbro / MB games. I honestly don't see the point in sleeving them, but if you did, they wouldn't fit back in the box.

The decks are themed, with one deck for Iron Man, and one for Iron Monger, and each consists of 58 battle cards and five victory cards. So, just to make it clear - this is a two-player game.

I won't discuss the basic game rules (they are basically the advanced rules without using special power cards), but I will give a very brief rundown of how the advanced rules work:

Each player lays out his five victory cards face down, then shuffles his play deck and deals a hand of seven cards. Many cards simply contain an attack value, while other cards have a special power, in which case their attack value is 0.

The game plays in rounds, and each round consists of three battles. In the round, each player selects three cards and places them face down, keeping four cards in hand. Play then begins, with each player flipping over their first of the three cards.

The player who has revealed the card with the highest attack value is winning the battle. His opponent can now either play cards from his hand to add to his attack total, or concede the battle. If he decides to play cards, he must play enough to beat his opponent's attack value. Of course, his opponent then gets a chance to play cards in an attempt to regain the lead, so the battle can rage backwards and forwards or end rapidly depending on cards drawn.

If at any point, the attack values are the same and both players have committed the same number of cards to the battle, then both players must select a card from their hand and reveal it at the same time in an attempt to break the deadlock, and this can happen as many times as required until someone has the highest attack value, at which point the battle can continue in the normal way.

Once one player has retreated, you begin the second battle, which happens in exactly the same way, and then if necessary you play the third battle. Whoever has won the most battles wins the round and gets to flip over a victory point card; a new round then begins. First person to flip over all five victory point cards is the overall winner.

This would be an incredibly simple, luck-driven game if it wasn't for the inclusion of a large number of special cards that can change the flow of play. These special cards do things like allowing you to draw more cards, removing an opponent's card from play, allowing you to retrieve cards you have already played, or doubling the value of every card you have played in the current battle.

The best thing about the special cards is both decks have exactly the same cards included (just with different illustrations), so you will always have a good idea of what your opponent can still play on you, based on the cards he has already used. With a bit of card counting, you will have a good idea when your opponent has exhausted his best special powers, and you will know when to retreat to conserve your own cards for a battle you are sure you can win.

Iron Man Battling Card Game example cards
Example of a basic attack card.

Of course, this is only a light, two-player game, and there is a certain amount of luck involved based on the cards you draw. However, there is definitely more strategy here than I was expecting. Because you keep all the cards you don't play in a round for the next round (you always draw seven more), sometimes it can pay to let your opponent win, knowing you will have the edge later on. This same rule applies for individual battles within a round - sometimes the best thing to do is retreat, allowing your opponent to win a battle, because you believe you will be able to win the other two battles in that round anyway.

There is also strategy involved when deciding which three cards to play face down at the start of a round. You don't really want to play a powerful card face down as your third card, because if your opponent wins the first two battles in the round, then you will waste that card; however, if you play only low value cards, your opponent will always start off forcing you to play cards from your hand, and you can very quickly find you have run out of cards.

The game actually reminds me of Blue Moon, but I actually enjoy this one a lot more (I sold my copy of Blue Moon because I thought it was a bit stale, and my wife hated it). A certain amount of strategy, but not enough to blow your mind, combined with a quick playing time and a theme I really like, all wrapped up in a small, portable game, makes this one a winner for me. It's great when you only have 15 minutes to spare, and it can be good as a light filler before playing something with a bit more meat.

And, you know, it cost a £1...

Friday 27 April 2012

Review - Warmaster

Here's something I don't do very often - review a game that I've only played once. But considering how much fun I had with this game, I really wanted to talk about it. Besides: My blog, my rules. That's just the way it is.

Published by Games Workshop
Designed by Jervis Johnson
For 2 players who are old enough to use a craft knife unsupervised and young enough to read really tiny print

Wouldn't it be cool if we could time travel? We could fire up the flux capacitor and take a little trip back to 1993. Why would we want to do that? Because then we could watch a very young me excitedly flicking to the cardboard centrefold of White Dwarf magazine 161 and being thoroughly disappointed by the advertised free game.

Back then, I was a devoted Games Workshop fan. I bought every game they made, I subscribed to the magazine, I had three armies (undead, orcs, and stunties, naturally). I had it bad, but my parents encouraged me because it was creative and it encouraged me to interact with other people rather than playing on my computer all day. So, I was incredibly excited to see what the free Warmaster game would be like. What I found was an abstract map of a space ship, lots of little cardboard counters that needed to be cut out, and densely written rules including a combat system that seemed very much like maths homework.

Don't get me wrong, I wasn't expecting a 3,000-point army to drop out of the centre pages of that magazine, but what I found didn't look like something made by Games Workshop. It looked like something made by (whisper it) Avalon Hill. It looked like a war game.

But I pressed on, hacked out the counters with a pair of scissors (making a grand mess of them), and tried to get my head around the rules. It wasn't happening. I didn't get it, it didn't sound fun. I liked the theme, but the mechanics... Yuk. Not for me. The game sat in the cupboard for a while, and then it transferred to the bin. I forgot all about it.

Right, back into the time machine everyone... We're heading to April 2012, to the exact point where I was clicking around ebay and noticed somebody selling a copy of White Dwarf 161 with the free game still intact for 99p.

I remembered the game, I remembered my disappointment. But a lot had changed since 1993, not least my hair cut. I'm not scared of war games any more, and I quite like a lot of stuff Avalon Hill made. I felt like I owed this game a second chance. What did I have to lose for 99p?

The magazine arrived a few days later. Ah, White Dwarf... It was nice to see a copy from when it used to at least pretend to be something more than a catalogue for the next set of miniatures to be released. But this magazine was not for keeping in pristine condition. Armed with my craft knife, I hacked the centre pages out, and separated out the board and the game counters. I made a much nicer job of it than I did the first time, and my heart swelled with the sense of accomplishment that comes with a job well done. I even managed to find a couple of tiny dice that came from one of those chocolate Cluedo games - they are just right for dropping into a grip-seal bag with all the tokens so you can take this game out on the road.

Warmaster game components
All the game components in a single ziplock bag - take that FFG!

With the game all made up, there was only one thing left to do - find a suitable victim to try it out on. More on that later, first let's take a quick look at what this game is actually all about.

It's called Warmaster because the action all takes place on the spaceship of the same name. This ship belongs to the treacherous space marine, Horus, who was tainted by chaos and led an invasion of Earth. Horus' little campaign is known as the Horus Heresy, and it is a big part of the Warhammer 40k background fluff. I won't give too much away for those of you who might not know the story, but the climax of the story involves the Emperor teleporting onto Horus' ship with a few good men in order to teach the rascal a lesson, and that's exactly the scenario that this game represents.

One player will play the Chaos-corrupted traitors, led by Horus, while the other player will take control of the Emperor and his very small strike force.

At the beginning of the game, the Chaos player will take a counter for Horus, and counters representing crewmen, traps, and horrors. I have no idea what the traps and horrors actually represent - they are just generic traps and generic spooky things that can be found onboard the ship. All these tokens are placed facedown on the board (one counter per space).

Warmaster board
The board... Yep, this is a war game.

The Chaos player can pick where he places the tokens, but as it doesn't really matter anyway, you might as well just randomise it.

While this is being done, the Emperor player will be organising his meagre forces into stacks of three counters. He gets control of the Emperor, a bunch of other named characters from the campaign such as Sanguinus, and some tactical and devastator marine squads. Some of the named characters have special abilities, like being able to ignore the affects of horror or trap tokens, and most of the named characters also allow you to reroll a combat dice (unless your opponent has a named character in the same battle, in which case no-one gets a reroll, unless one of the named characters is Horus or the Emperor in which case they do get a reroll, unless both Horus and the Emperor are in the same fight in which case no-one gets a reroll... phew).

Once the stacks have been organised, they are teleported onto the ship one stack at a time. You roll a D66 (two six-sided dice, with the first dice representing 10s and the second dice representing units), and you look on a chart. Low results could result in your stack being obliterated before it even arrives on the board, while high results could allow you to choose which location to teleport into. Mid-range numbers are directly linked to a specific space on the board, and if you roll one of those numbers then that is the place you are teleported to. This really sucks if you roll 15, as that is the number for the engine and results in everybody dying instantly. More on that later.

Once teleporting is out of the way, the game proper starts. I'm not going to go through all the rules in detail, but the basic idea is the Emperor player moves around the ship, revealing tokens and searching for Horus. Traps and horrors will slowly whittle down the Emperor's forces, and each turn the Chaos player will get to teleport a random number of additional units onto the ship (in the same way as detailed above). This means the Emperor player is against the clock. The more time he takes, the more enemies he must face, and the fewer units he will have. If Horus can stay hidden for long enough, or get enough of his units safely teleported onto the ship, then the good guys are going to have a hard time of it.

When enemy counters meet, they have a good old scrap. To do this, you add up all your attack values, and all your opponent's defence values, and then divide the attack by the defence to give the odds of success. Then you roll on a table to see what happens. The combat results range from the attacker being wiped out or routed, the defender being wiped out or routed, or both sides fighting to a bloody stalemate (in which case both sides lose a counter and a second combat round is played immediately).

If the Emperor player doesn't think he is going to find Horus, or doesn't think he can win in a fair fight, then he has some other tactics up his sleeve. For example, he can sacrifice a unit to blow up the engine room, and in each turn thereafter the ship starts to burn up as it crashes into Earth's atmosphere (starting with the bridge at the top of the ship, and then working down in number sequence). In a similar way, he can also sacrifice a unit to blow up each of the two weapon stores, which causes a chain reaction of random explosions in adjacent locations (causing those to be destroyed on a roll of 1 or 2, rolling for each location separately). The Emperor player can even seize control of the ship's shield generator, allowing his lasers on the planet's surface to destroy a random location each turn.

All these different options help to reduce the size of the ship and force Horus into the open. However, they also come with a greater risk of accidentally killing your own players. The game ends as soon as Horus or the Emperor dies, so the game is really about pushing your luck and hoping things go your way.

I guess that will be the biggest fault you can level against this game: It really is very random. For a lot of the game, the Emperor player will be moving onto face down tokens. He will have no way of knowing what they are, and if they turn out to be a trap or a horror token, he just has to accept the (random) consequences. You teleport randomly, you destroy locations randomly, some of the units even have randomly generated attack and defence statistics.

There is a small amount of strategy in terms of how you stack your units together and where and how you move to try to seal off Horus' escape paths (or get him out of danger if you are the Chaos player), but most of the time your fate will be decided by dice.

All that randomness might put a lot of people off, but there are three things in the game's favour:

1/ It was free (or 99p, in my case).
2/ It's short (even with set up, a game isn't going to take more than half an hour).
3/ It's hilarious.

I cannot stress enough how much fun this game is.

I have only played this game once, but that one play was so much fun that it made me want to write this review. In that one game, I played Horus, while one of my long-suffering friends played the Emperor.

I can't remember every single detail, but it went a little something like this:

Things started off badly for him. All his units teleported successfully, but they immediately started to uncover traps and horrors which took a heavy toll. But fate is a fickle mistress, and soon I was the one that seemed to be getting all the rough luck. In my first reinforcement phase I only mustered one unit which teleported directly into the engine and died. Damn it.

By the second turn, Horus had been revealed near the bottom of the ship. My opponent knew I would try to get Horus as far away from trouble as possible, so he blew up the engine room. This started to cause the ship to burn up, and began eating away at all the locations I had intended to move to in order to keep Horus out of danger until reinforcements arrived. Damn it.

My opponent also blew up one of the weapon stores in the hope of pinning me down. He didn't succeed, but it meant about a third of the ship was on fire by the time I had my second reinforcement phase. I mustered three units. The first one teleported straight into the mangled remains of the engine room and died instantly. The second unit went straight into the damned engine. The third (weakest) unit, randomly arrived where it could be of no help at all. Damn it.

As the game progressed, the Emperor's forces continued to be whittled down (not least because my opponent insisted on sacrificing them to blow up named locations). But I didn't have many units myself: In my third reinforcement phase I got one demon on the board and the other unit went straight in that f$%*ing engine. Damn it.

Ultimately, it got down to the situation where Horus was pinned between the top half of the ship which was being destroyed thanks to the engine room being blown up, and the sections of the board that were on fire from the weapons store being blown up. I realised I had to be bold and fight the Emperor, but my opponent had other ideas. He knew that if he blew up the second weapons store, it would most likely seal me in the top half of the board with no escape, and therefore he would win as the bit of the board I was in would burn up before the bit of the board he was in. Perfectly valid tactic.

Perfectly valid big chicken wimpy pants tactic. Damn it.

The only problem was, he only had one chance to blow up the weapons room, and he had to do it while the Emperor was next door. That meant there was a chance the Emperor would die and I would win. Time to roll those dice...

Maybe I should leave this story on an exciting cliffhanger...

Screw it - he blew himself up, and I won.

Luck was against me most of the game, I could barely get any of my units into play, and yet I won. I don't feel I won through any kind of skill, but I won. And it was an absolute blast.

I honestly can't say this is a great game. I can't even say it is going to be a game I play often. But I will play it, and if it continues to provide as much fun as that first game, then I would say that it was worth every single one of those 99 pennies.

See if you can track down a copy yourself (or ask someone who has the print-and-play files to let you have them). The game won't change your life, but as a light war game filler (can't say there are many of those around) I think it's a nice addition to any collection.

I guess I have to start hunting for a copy of the original Horus Heresy to add to The Vault now...

Tuesday 24 April 2012

Review - Dragon Strike

This review was first published on in March 2011.

Dragon Strike box

Dragon Strike
Published by TSR
Designed by Bruce Nesmith
2-6 players, ages 10 to adult

Before I begin, let's be clear: I collect old board games. I don't collect them expecting them to make me rich. I collect them because it's my hobby. I particularly enjoy the old thematic games such as Legend of Zagor, Dark World, Heroquest, and the like, and Dragon Strike fits very nicely in that category. It is a game that is long out of print, but it is not particularly rare. I picked up a mint condition unpunched, unplayed copy from ebay for 99p plus postage. I guess that makes it obvious why I'm not collecting these games as an investment. I mention this only because, if you read this review and are interested in this game, I want you to be aware you should be able to get it for next to nothing.

The other thing I want to get out of the way right now is this nonsense about the VHS video that came with the game (you know, the one that's filmed in "Hyper Reality," a heady mix of live-action and computer-generated images). Whenever you mention Dragon Strike, people always talk about that bloody video. It has developed a cult status, and its infamy has somewhat overshadowed what is actually a pretty fun game. So yes - there's this video starring Deron McBee from American Gladiators as a barbarian. It's rubbish. It's not even so bad it's good. It's just rubbish. And it's supposed to teach you how to play the game but it's full of stuff you can't really do in the game. There's one point where the barbarian makes a special attack on a man scorpion and kills it, but the rulebook clearly states such actions are NOT possible. Total fail.

My copy contained the video, and it sits in the box now only for the sake of completeness. You don't need to watch it, and there really isn't a lot of point unless you hate yourself that much. The biggest point of interest regarding the video is that snapshots of the actors are used on the character cards. This is one of the main issues with the game. TSR have a back catalogue of glorious artwork (as proved by the earlier game Dragon Quest) which could have been used on the cards; but instead we get cards showing slightly embarrassed actors in silly costumes. If anyone gets a good laugh out of Flying Frog games like Last Night on Earth because of the cheesy card images, then those people will have a laugh riot with Dragon Strike. Check out the wizard - he looks like Noel Fielding's brother dressed like the pixie from Willow.

Thankfully, the pictures on the monster cards don't make use of images from the video. Unfortunately, they do use photographs of painted miniatures rather than real artwork (they sort of remind me of those old Games Workshop Top Trump cards). The miniatures aren't even the ones that come in the box!

Ignoring the video, and the piss-poor card art, the rest of the game components really aren't too bad at all. However, considering this game came out four years after Heroquest (a game it can be readily compared to in many ways), there is definitely an argument that the components could have been better.

For a start, there are some pretty good miniatures. You get 24 in total, including six heroes, some death knights, orcs, bugbears, an evil wizard, gargoyles, a troll, a giant, a fire elemental, a man scorpion, and a dragon. These are not up to Heroquest standards, but they are pretty good. Interestingly, the miniatures that are the same (such as the orcs), have little discs moulded onto the bases that have unique numbers, so you can tell them apart in play. This is a nice touch, although it does ruin the sculpts a bit.

Dragon Strike dragon and barbarian
Dragon? What dragon?

Having six heroes is a nice. There are some missions that allow up to five heroes to play, but for the missions that have less heroes, you have a good choice - fighter, elf, dwarf, thief, and wizard. The sixth hero is a male version of the female thief. As you aren't allowed two thieves in the same game, I don't really know why they bothered; although I assume it was because they wanted at least one female character in the game, but wanted a male version so any boys wanting to play the thief didn't have to put up with being called hurtful names by his friends.

There are two game boards, and each one is double-sided, giving four unique locations to play in: valley, cave, city, and castle. This sounds like you get more variety than a game like Heroquest, but in an unusual move, the doors on the maps are painted on, so each location is always laid out in exactly the same way. This seems even stranger considering the game ships with a lot of door standees to mark where doors are - it means the doors painted on the map are only there to show you where to place the door standees, and as each mission has a detailed map to show you where everything goes, this seems utterly pointless. If the doors hadn't been painted on the boards, then there would have been even more layouts available for adventures.

I actually really like the board art, but it is slightly cartoony, and there are lots of details painted on (chairs, tables, bones) which actually just make it harder to figure out where your characters are standing. It is also common to hear "can I stand on that table?" or "am I allowed to search the bones?" The answers are "yes" and "no" respectively, because nothing painted on the board is considered to be "in play" (meaning you completely ignore it all). So yes, the boards look nice, and they give the impression of lots of variety, but they are not quite as well implemented as they could have been.

Dragon Strike board
A bridge over troubled waters.

Having said that, the outdoor map is a lot of fun and gives a very different feel to the indoor maps, and the city is also good value. I am sure some people use these maps for roleplaying games too.

The other bits and pieces in the box are pretty standard. There is a very nicely illustrated dungeon master screen, some double-sided cardboard tokens, some dice, the rulebook, the book containing all the details for the adventures, and a book containing all the maps for the adventures. The various decks of cards cover monster reference, game turn reference, enemy spells, hero spells, traps, sneak attacks for the thief, and items.

Dragon Strike rules
The cover of the Dragon Strike rule book

The rule book is very well written, but that is probably because the game isn't very complicated. One player is the dungeon master, who sits behind a screen with a map of the dungeon and controls all the monsters, and the other players are heroes. What the heroes are trying to do is determined by the scenario being played (and there are 16 to pick from). These scenarios are interesting because they cover lots of unusual situations. It is not just a matter of exploring a dungeon until you find something - sometimes you must solve a mystery, sometimes you must protect a carriage transporting a prisoner, sometimes you must ambush a carriage, sometimes you have to escape from a dungeon, sometimes you have to find something. Good stuff here.

What makes the scenarios even more interesting is they are used as a way to scale the game. Each scenario has a difficulty level and says how many heroes (and in some cases which ones) should be used. There is nothing stopping you ignoring the guidelines, but it is nice to know that the scenarios have been designed for certain levels of play and if you only have one or two friends they won't be forced to control multiple characters each (although it is annoying when you want to play a certain scenario but have the wrong number of people round the table). There is even a solo mission, which is surprisingly well thought-out, involving a randomised deck containing monsters and traps that are drawn when you enter certain map locations.

In any scenario, the heroes simply move around the board trying to achieve their goal. They fight (rolling dice), search for traps and treasure (rolling dice), and cast spells (rolling dice). In fact, one of the only things you don't roll dice for is movement - each hero has a set number of movement points to use.

As well as basic actions, there are two unusual actions heroes can take: performing a feat of strength or dexterity, or questioning a monster. These are the elements that make it clear that TSR is trying to get us hooked on the fantasy world in the hope we might progress to roleplaying games. Heroes can pretty much try any feat they can name (break a door, climb a wall) - the dungeon master just picks whether to use strength or dexterity (whichever is most appropriate), and the hero rolls the correct type of dice to see if he passes or fails. The only restrictions are that the feats must be possible (no flying) and feats cannot be used to attack monsters.

Questioning a monster is quite fun, but it is one area where the rules are not very clear as it does not specify how close you must be to question the monster. I always make the heroes go adjacent to a monster on the grounds that having heroes shouting across the room while exploring the evil wizard's castle seems odd. The heroes get four questions, and they can ask whatever they want. The scenario book will tell the dungeon master if a certain monster has anything worth saying and under what conditions that information will be revealed; if the heroes ask the wrong questions, or the monster has nothing to say, the dungeon master just makes something up or makes grunting noises. It's not a very in-depth system, but it is an element of roleplaying that marks this clearly as being something that has slightly more going on than other games of a similar nature.

The only other element of the game that deserves a special mention is the doom track. Each scenario specifies the length of the doom track, and each turn it ticks down. When it reaches the bottom, the big dragon appears on the board, and at that point the heroes are pretty much doomed. Once the dragon appears, heroes need to hurry up and finish the mission. Killing the dragon will also result in a hero win. Of course, the dungeon master wins if all the heroes die - and unlike in a roleplaying game, the dungeon master really is trying to kill everyone in this game (and quite often will).

And that's all there is to it. It's not the greatest game in the world; It's not the prettiest game in the world; but I do think it has some really interesting ideas. I love Heroquest, but I actually think Dragon Strike has more depth and more going on. Heroquest obviously had more expansions and was easier to kit-bash, but straight out of the box, I think Dragon Strike had the edge (I may get burned at the stake for that!).

My copy of Dragon Strike now sits proudly in The Vault, and there it will stay. It occasionally sees the table, but that's because I love rolling out the big dumb games every now and again to have a break from my more serious modern games. This game really is very enjoyable, and well put together; and it is also another fascinating game that attempted to bridge that gulf between board games and the mysterious world of Satan-worshipping, blood-drinking, virgin-seducing roleplaying games.

Man, that video sucks though.

Sunday 22 April 2012

Review - Operation: Aliens

Because I'm lazy, I'm going to be porting across quite a few reviews that I wrote for the website rather than writing all new ones. This review first appeared in September 2011.

Operation: Aliens
Published by Peter Pan Playthings
Designed by some folk who don't want to admit to it
For 2-4 players, ages 6(!) to adult

Operation: Aliens
Operation: Aliens - Good, wholesome, family fun.

Okay, I have to mention this before I start any kind of review: The fact this game even exists is mental. To the best of my knowledge, it is based on an unreleased cartoon series set in the Aliens universe. Who thought such a cartoon would in any way be suitable for kids? I have no idea, but some other people thought it was a good idea too, as the wheels of industry began to churn out ill-conceived merchandise before the whole idea got nixed. You could even buy a plaster of paris molding kit ("hey, look mom, I've made a facehugger!").

Such merchandise is now quite rare, but not in particular demand. So, rare and not very valuable... sign me up!

Operation: Aliens - Hicks
Hicks... I don't recommend using an RPG on the spaceship.

I would imagine a lot of people might be interested in this game for the plastic playing pieces, so maybe I should start my review by disappointing all those people...

The contents of the game are pretty much what you would expect from a game made in 1993. The board is brightly coloured and covered with illustrations of aliens and the main human characters. It is actually quite a small board and a little bit too busy. It is quite clearly a board for a children's game, and just highlights how poorly the Aliens theme fits such a game.

Operation: Aliens board
My eyes! My eyes!

There are two decks of cards (event cards and alien cards) and these are simple text on thin cardstock. More illustrations would have been nice, but considering the theme, maybe it's for the best.

Operation: Aliens Face Hugger card
Sometimes having no art is the right way to go...

There are four character cards that have plastic dials for tracking health points, and there are a few thin cardstock tokens for tracking what weapons you are carrying and how many objectives you have completed (objectives come in the form of self destruct sequence codes in three colours, and you need one in each colour).

In one of the worst examples of cost-cutting cheapass game production, there is a single dice. Considering all combat involves two dice, this is poor.

Finally, there are the plastic playing pieces. First off, let me say that they are very cool. Really nicely sculpted, quite detailed, and with plenty of character. However, people with visions of using these pieces for custom projects, war games, the Leading Edge Aliens game or similar will be disappointed, because they are very small (Ripley is just over 1 inch high).

The four marines you can select to play are Ripley, Drake, Apone, and Hicks. Ripley is carrying what I think is meant to be a flame thrower, but it looks more like the minigun used in Predator, and Hicks is wielding a shoulder-mounted RPG, which is completely out of character. Apone is a good figure, he is throwing a grenade, but the best has to be Drake, who is carrying his smart gun.

Operation: Aliens Ripley playing piece
Ripley, ready for action.

You only get four alien pieces. FOUR. No big alien swarm here - not even enough for a mildly imposing host. And the aliens are called "Scorpion Aliens" and have three heads. Go figure.

There is also a very cool alien queen, but she is hardly the imposing queen you would expect - even though she is the biggest piece, she still only measures 1.5 inches high.

Operation: Aliens Alien Queen playing piece
The Alien Queen.

So, all in all, not the best production quality, but the figures are really nice (just too small and out of character from the movies to be of much use elsewhere).

The game itself is quite a simple roll and move game. One of the most interesting aspects is that everyone plays a marine (there is no alien player), but the game is still not a co-op. The aim of the game is to be the first marine to set the ship's self destruct sequence and escape, leaving all your mates behind to blow up! Remember, this is a children's game.

On your turn, you roll a dice to move, and then travel around the ship, entering named locations. Three of these locations will grant you a piece of the self destruct code. Once you have three of these (one in each colour) you must head to the self destruct space to activate the self destruct sequence. Then you have to get to the bridge to enter the escape pod. This process is complicated by events and aliens.

When you enter an event space on the board you draw an event card, which could be good or bad. Then, once you have finished moving, you draw an alien card. This will either spawn aliens onto the board, or allow you to move an existing alien of your choice to the space indicated. This means the aliens are being controlled by a basic AI system, with the player whose turn it is having a small influence over how that AI is implemented.

If a marine and an alien are in the same room, they fight. Roll two dice, add any benefits from weapons the marine is carrying (either +2 for grenade launcher, or +1 for smart gun or flamer thrower). Roll 2 to 7 and the marine loses, roll 9+ and the alien loses.

And that's it.

It really is a children's roll and move game (the box says for ages 6+) with a hideously inappropriate theme. There is no strategy - you just roll the dice and move around and hope aliens don't randomly land on the room you are in. The rules can be learned in minutes.

Despite the simplicity of the rules, the game does seem to have a lot of design faults. For one, for the first few turns the marines will lose almost every fight, but once they have a full set of weapons they are almost guaranteed to kill anything they meet, including the Queen. This means the game gets less tense as it goes on, which is certainly contrary to how I would like it to play. Furthermore, all of the marines are trying to activate the self destruct sequence - they are all going for the same codes. Once a set of those codes have been used, the escape pod on the ship becomes active and it is a straight-up race to get there first. The problem is, the person who activated the self destruct will be at the opposite any of the ship to where the escape pod is (what kind of crazy ship design is that?) and every other player has more chance of escaping as they are closer. There is very little incentive to be the person who actually activates the self destruct system.

The implementation of weapons is also poor as they just boost dice rolls by varying degrees. It would have been good if they had special powers, but these would be easy enough to house rule. There are also very few ways to lose weapons once you have them, so the game does get easier as it goes along.

Overall, I can't see myself playing this with my daughter when she is a bit older, but it will definitely be rolled out from time to time with my adult friends who will be able to enjoy the crazy theme on a dumb roll and move game. It is now a permanent resident in The Vault.

Saturday 21 April 2012

Review - Dragon Quest

As I recently acquired a copy of Dungeons and Dragons: The Fantasy Adventure Board Game, I thought it was a good opportunity to add some of my other D&D branded products to the vault. First up, we have Dragon Quest. This review first appeared on in February 2012.

Dragon Quest
Published by TSR
Designed by William W Connors, Walter E Johnston, David Wise
2-6 players, ages 10 to adult

First things first, Dragon Quest is not Dragon Strike. Both products were released by TSR in the 1990s, but Dragon Strike came with four maps to play on, lots of groovy plastic miniatures, and the infamous VHS video filmed in "HyperReality." Dragon Quest came out a year earlier, and features none of the above. I'm sure a lot of people know that already, but some people do get the two confused, so I thought I would get that out of the way.

The question is, if Dragon Quest isn't Dragon Strike (or even Dungeon Quest), what is it?

Dragon Quest is a product (note, I'm not calling it a game, for reasons I will get into) that was designed very much with the intention of getting people to start playing Dungeons and Dragons roleplaying games (it even said right on the box "The introduction to adventure games," so they weren't even trying to hide it). It is long out of print.

Quick note: I managed to pick up an unpunched, unplayed copy on ebay for £10 and if you are interested in getting a copy yourself you shouldn't have too much trouble. The set I acquired was the "special edition" including six metal Ral Partha figures (still sealed!), but I am not sure if there was any other version, so the "special edition" tag probably isn't something to get excited about.

As my copy is complete and unused, I am able to give a good indication of the quality of the components, so I'll start there.

The first thing of note is the glorious game board. I am not kidding when I say this is a really fantastic thing. It is large (8-fold) and is similar in design to the Heroquest board (which came out earlier). It shows a fortress or castle, divided up into different rooms of varying size. The rooms are slightly different shades, but are otherwise unadorned. Very crisp, very easy to see at a glance. By comparison, the Dragon Strike boards are incredibly busy with lots of little artistic flourishes that get in the way of the game and what the players think they can do and where they can stand. There are no doors printed on the Dragon Quest board, as there are standees for this, so all you get are the walls breaking up the castle into rooms, giving a very versatile and incredibly simple board to use. If you can pick up this game cheap, you may want to consider it just for that board.

Dragon Quest board
The Dragon Quest board - simple, stunning, useful.

The game also ships with six plastic figures. I love these little guys. They are not up to modern standards (the dwarf has no face - just a sort of lump), but I think they have loads of character. There is a rogue (thief), fighter (knight), fighter (two hand weapons), dwarf (they used to be a class, you know), wizard (magic-user), and a cleric (could also be a knight). The cleric is my favourite - he has a huge studded mace that he is leaning on in a kind of "pray before you slay" type pose. Wonderful characters. However, they may look familiar to some people, as I believe they also appeared in some other products (much like that set of blue heroes from Dragon Strike that also turned up in the introduction D&D boxed sets).

As already mentioned, the possibly-not-so-limited edition box also has six metal Ral Partha miniatures. Bizarrely, these are almost identical sculpts to the plastic models. The only one that is really different is the rogue, who is (gasp) holding his knife at a different angle. My miniatures are sealed, and I intend to keep them that way, even though I am tempted to crack the seal and paint them... Worth noting, I don't think these miniatures are particularly valuable or collectable. You can find loads of them about.

Dragon Quest Paladin and other heroes
These guys means business.

The last thing to note about the miniatures is they don't really represent the pre-generated heroes that come with this game. For a start, there are nine pre-generated heroes and only six miniatures. And one of the heroes is a halfling, so there isn't a plastic model that even closely approximates height and build. However each model does look almost like at least one of the pictures of the pre-generated heroes (and pre-generated is all you can get from Dragon Quest, as there are no rules for generating your own), and there are also illustrated cardboard standees for all of the heroes and these standees DO accurately portray the characters and can be used instead of the minis if it worries you that much.

Standees? Oh yes.

Unlike Dragon Strike, Dragon Quest does not have figures for the monsters. Instead, the game includes four sheets of thin cardboard standees that need to be (carefully) punched out and folded to stand up. They are very thin, almost rip when you punch them out, and would crush horribly if you dropped something on them. However, they are nicely illustrated and perfectly functional. Best of all, because standees are cheap, there are loads of different monsters provided (50 types in total, with duplicates of some types) including a range of dragons that wouldn't have been possible with miniatures.

Dragon Quest monsters
Some of the bad guys.

There are also standees for doors, which can be placed anywhere on the map to create a huge variety of different mazes for your heroes to explore.

I actually quite like the standees. There is something quaint and tactile about them that I enjoy. They are also useful for cheap-ass folk who like D&D but don't like the price point for miniatures. And that really sums up this whole "game" - the standees feel like they are there for use in subsequent D&D games you will play, and not really for this game at all.

Dragon Quest also comes with a lot of card decks. These cover all the basic stuff - monsters, items, treasures, traps. Strangely, they have full illustrations on one side and game text on the reverse. This means that during play, you have to draw from the bottom of the deck, as you can tell what the top thing in any deck is from the picture.

Dragon Quest wizard character card
I think he's a wizard.

The cards are wonderfully illustrated with that good old fashioned D&D art. You know the stuff, where the heroes aren't all wearing shoulder pads that make them look like Space Marines. This artwork (and the artwork which appears in full colour in the adventure and rule book) is all recycled from other sources, but it is still a joy to look through and is another good reason to invest in a copy of this game.

Dragon Quest adventure book
The adventure book, which contains very little adventure.

Dragon Quest rule book
The rule book, which contains very little rules.

I look at the cover of the box and the cover of the adventure book (which doubles, along with the rule book cover, as a dungeon master screen) and I really feel like I want to play this game - I want to go on one of the adventures shown. This isn't a bland, sterile world. This is a world of character and inventiveness. It's just a shame the "game" in the box really doesn't live up to expectations you might have.

Okay, I am spending a lot of time talking about the components, while avoiding talking about the gameplay. Why? Because there isn't really any gameplay to talking about.

Actually, that's not really fair. There is a game here. It's the Dungeons and Dragons roleplaying game, just with a few minor adjustments to streamline the system to fit in a box, and with a few decks of cards thrown in. The adventure book only contains three adventures. They are short, simple, and clearly designed just to give you a taste of what real roleplaying is all about. There is very little game out of the box, and everything is designed to push you towards the "real thing."

I have already said this product is a shameless attempt to get new players for D&D, and as a result this game just encourages you to roleplay everything rather than having the kind of rules a boardgamer would expect. The rules basically fit on six pages, most of which are for combat (roll your fighting number adjusted by your opponent's armour class to hit); the rest of the rules aren't really rules at all.

For example, in the first phase of the game, the Dungeon Master rolls for wandering monsters. According to the rules, "It is not necessary to roll for wandering monsters every turn. If the heroes are getting weak... it is a good idea to skip the wandering monster check." This is the kind of thing a boardgamer will hate - if I can just decide whether or not to check for monsters, why make a roll at all? Why not just decide a monster turns up whenever I feel like it?

Later in the rules, we are advised to ignore dice rolls we don't like and to "pretend that the result that you want has come up." Utter nonsense.

The rules also state, "when there are no monsters to fight, the heroes are free to do whatever they like." The rules don't say how they should do this - the rules don't even explain how you move around the board. They don't tell you if you can move diagonally. They don't explain line of sight. They don't even tell you how to open doors. It is quite telling that over two pages are dedicated to explaining what elves, dwarfs and humans are, but the full instructions for what a hero can do while exploring a room fills just one paragraph.

As you should be able to tell by now, these are not the rules for a board game, they are the rules for a roleplaying game. They could have done away with that glorious board entirely and just asked players to imagine the scenes. The problem is, this makes the product too much of a roleplaying experience for board gamers; but because they have streamlined the rules for mass consumption, I doubt the experience would be strong enough for real roleplayers to enjoy. So yes - this is exactly what it says on the box, a stepping stone to bridge the gap between board game and roleplaying game that doesn't satisfy either way. I should imagine it was not that successful at the time, and years later nothing much has changed. If anything, it is worse now, because D&D has changed, so this game is "introducing" you to something that isn't supported anymore (officially, of course).

So, it's very difficult to rate Dragon Quest, especially so many years after its release. It's a product of its time, designed with a very specific purpose. The best I can do is say why you might want to pick up a copy.

I suppose that people looking for a very light roleplaying experience with familiar trappings (board, cards, etc.) might enjoy this a couple of times. But as there are no real rules for generating your own dungeons (basically, it advises you to buy D&D modules), your experience is going to be very limited. So, no - I can't really even recommend it for that.

If you play Heroquest, you might want a copy of that awesome board so you can create new Heroquest layouts with it. You will also get six (possibly 12) new hero models if you get bored of your trusty barbarian.

If you like attractive artwork, you might want a set for all the pretty pictures on the cards and in the books.

If you collect vintage board games, or iterations of TSR releases, then you will probably want this. It's a piece of nostalgia.

Possibly its greatest asset is its ability to work as a sandbox. As there are no real rules, you get a lot of cool components to do whatever you want with. I intend to use the combat and spell system from Dragon Quest with the rest of the rules to Dragon Strike (which are very much "boardgamey") to create something awesome.

With this box of treats, the only limit is your imagination. And for a roleplaying game, I guess that's the point.

Dungeons and Dragons (TFABG) Arrives

Here's a bit of excitment. On the very first day my new blog goes live, I get a special delivery.

The copy of Dungeons and Dragons: The Fantasy Adventure Board Game that I bought on ebay has arrived, and that can only mean one thing... disappointment awaits.

Throughout history, there have been many attempts to create a product that would bridge the gap between boardgamer and roleplayer: I know this, because my cupboard is chock full of them. The basic premise of any such product is to take the Dungeons and Dragons world and distill the main elements into a board game, the intention being to get boardgamers to sample the delights of the Dark Side before hitting them with the real deal. The resulting products are a mixed bag.

I believe Dragon Quest was one of the fist attempts. I own a copy, and it is basically a really lightweight roleplaying game with paper pieces, nicely drawn cards, and a nicely drawn board. The rules are only a few pages long, and encourage players to "make things up."

After Dragon Quest there was Dragon Strike, which was pretty much the same as Heroquest, except the heroes had extra options like making a feat of strength or dexterity, or questioning the monsters instead of fighting them. The scenario booklet included little scripts to help the Dungeon Master to roleplay the monsters, and it was obvious what the ultimate aim of the product was supposed to be.

You should be able to find my reviews of how successful I think Dragon Quest and Dragon Strike are right here on my blog (just head over to The Vault).

A third attempt to lure unsuspecting children into the clutches of Dungeons and Dragons is D&D:TFABG (it just rolls off the tongue). I have been trying to pick up a copy on the cheap for some time now, and I recently won a copy on that little-known auction site, ebay, for the princely sum of £7.

The listing stated the game was a second copy that was hardly used and 100% complete, so picking it up for £7 was a bit of a deal. Of course, there is a lesson to be learned here. Just because something has hardly been used, and just because it is complete, this does not mean the game is actually going to be in good condition. The box says Dungeons and Dragons on the cover, and it looks like my copy was stored in the former and in close proximity to the latter.

Here's the outside of the box, complete with what appears to be teeth marks.

Dungeons and Dragons The Fantasy Adventure Board Game

And here's one of the character cards. It may not be easy to tell, but it looks like someone drowned it in a puddle, and then stepped on it to make sure it was dead.

Dungeons and Dragons The Fantasy Adventure Board Game

It's not all bad though. This game includes 40 plastic miniatures (really nice ones), and most of the ones in the set I bought were still sealed in bags. It's all swings and roundabouts.

Just check out the cleric. He really does mean business. Not sure why he appears to be wielding a Flump marshmallow and a shield with the Green Man on it though.

Dungeons and Dragons The Fantasy Adventure Board Game

In fairness to the seller, he did offer me a full refund; but I've been wanting to add a copy of this game to The Vault for a long time now, and decided to keep it. For £7 I can't complain too much. The miniatures alone are worth more than that.

This game is very similar to Heroquest, but with a lot more special powers and magical weapons to kit everyone out with. I have never actually played it, so I am looking forward to that. Eventually, I will add a review.

Until then, I will leave you with these important things to remember when bidding on ebay:

1. Always check that the picture in the listing is a picture of the item you will receive.
2. Never take the condition of a product for granted, or make any assumptions of any kind.

And most importantly of all:

3. Don't bid on anything I'm bidding on. It makes me sad.

The Inner Sanctum

Mansions of Madness (designed by Corey Konieczka, published by Fantasy Flight Games) is a fantastic game. It is extremely flawed, but has the potential to produce exciting games with a strong narrative. After playing a few times, I decided to write a session report in the style of a short story. And here is that story. It first appeared on in April 2011.


We stood in the arched chapel doorway, shaking the rainwater from our hair and clothes. The vaulted ceiling was shrouded in the kind of darkness that seemed like so much more than an absence of light - something far more terrible - and my colleague, Sister Mary, clutched a flask of holy water to her chest in trembling hands. I gripped my .45 automatics. Faith, I have come to understand, will only get you so far.

‘Do you really think she’s here, Jenny?’ Sister Mary asked me. Her voice was as trembling as her hands. She had been with me ever since hearing my confession three years ago. After listening to everything I had to say about my sister’s letter and my mission to uncover the truth, she had said the only thing she could think to do was stay by my side. She had said I was on a path of damnation, and if I insisted on battling demons, then I needed a guardian angel. She had become frailer since those early days; weakened mentally and physically by everything time in my world had revealed to her. But she wouldn’t quit. She said she would be with me until the end.

‘She’s here,’ I said, pulling the chapel door closed behind me.

We had been brought to this brooding monastery at the edge of the woods by a letter from my old friend, Marie LeBlanc. I had worked with her and Sister Mary in the past, and she had saved my life more than once. Now, it seemed like I might get the chance to return the favour.
The letter had said she was attempting to infiltrate some kind of cult that was operating here, but something had gone terribly wrong. No-one had heard from her for over a week, and I was determined to find out why.

‘Where do we even start?’ Sister Mary asked.

As she spoke, the soft murmur of voices approached. We backed into the corner and watched with our breath held as two cloaked figures entered the chapel, paused momentarily to touch their foreheads in front of an unusual symbol etched on one wall, and then exited again.

‘We follow them,’ I said.

We hugged the shadows, moving like ghosts through corridors that seemed to breathe with the expectation of a coming disaster. Down into a basement where only guttering candles gave any light by which we could continue our investigation.

Sister Mary was edgy, even then. She jumped at every sound, bit back screams when she imagined some terrible monstrosity lurking in the gloom, and each step she took seemed to me like one step closer to madness. I told her to go back. Of course I told her to go back. But she was a part of this now, and she wouldn’t listen. My God, if only she had listened.

She scrabbled through some old, rotten boxes, and found a small key.

‘What’s it for?’ I asked.

‘How should I know?’ she said. ‘But I know it’s better to have a key and not know what it’s for, then to have a lock, with no idea where the key is.’

She smiled, but it was an awkward smile, devoid of mirth, and so fragile it could shatter at any moment.

‘Just wait here,’ I said. I could hear chanting coming from the next room, and I wanted to get a closer look at what those black-garbed figures were up to.

With a gun in each hand, I kicked open the door, revealing some kind of disgusting ceremonial room. There was a monstrous altar at one end of the room, festooned with human skin and topped with a wildly grinning skull. Torches flickered on the walls, casting the entire scene in an eerie, shifting light that caused the shadows to swell and distend until it was almost impossible not to believe there were vile creatures lurking in the corners of the room.

The two cultists - women, I could see now they were women - turned as I burst into the room, and they were smiling as if they had always expected me to be there. I raised my guns, ready to get answers the only way I knew how; but before I could even speak, both cultists lifted knives to their throats.


My word echoed around that cavernous room, but I was too late. Both women collapsed, their blood pumping out onto the earthen floor.

What happened next seems so unreal I can barely put it into words, even after all the other things I’ve seen. I could smell the blood - that sick, metallic smell that hits you in the back of the throat and just won’t quit - and those poor women were still making this gurgling, rasping sound. I gagged, putting a hand to my mouth as their blood formed into a widening pool from which a green smoke began to pour.

A moment later and a monstrous creature was in the room. It seemed to come out of the smoke, or perhaps it was the smoke. I swung to meet it, firing wildly. I couldn’t seem to hit it. It was moving like nothing I’d ever seen. It darted and twisted, following an angular path through the air. Its tongue darted, its mouth gaped wide. Clawed limbs hammered into my chest, throwing me back against the wall.

For a second everything was black, and then that twisting, unnaturally jittering thing was over me. Its dribbling maw came close to my face, and I could smell the death of centuries on its breath. Its nostrils flared, and its tongue wiped across my cheek.

It was tasting me. Testing me.

Then suddenly its head jerked up, and moving so swiftly I couldn’t even chart its passage, the thing bounded into the next room. That was when Sister Mary started to scream.

I was on my feet in a moment, and barged into the room.

The boxes there had been overturned, and the far door ripped clean from its hinges. Mary was halfway up the stairs to the basement, and that thing was right behind her. She screamed again, and seemed to trip; and I realised then the monster’s tongue was wrapped around her leg. It was dragging her down into its slavering jaws.

I fired off a shot, hitting the creature in the back. Its head snapped around, the neck and spine realigning in a way no normal creature’s skeletal structure could. At the same moment, with a cry of fury and fear, Sister Mary kicked out with both legs. Terror lent her strength, and the beast was surprised just enough to release its hold.

Still screaming, Sister Mary scrabbled to the top of the stairs, throwing herself into the hallway. The fiend was already after her again, snapping at her heels, its great tongue lashing the air as it let out a keening ululation that seemed to cause the very foundations of the building to shudder.

Sister Mary glanced back, and in her haste and disorientation she crashed into a cabinet. The doors flew open and an axe fell onto the floor, just as the beast reached her and slammed her against the wall. She grabbed the axe and held it in a vain attempt to fend off the monster’s vile attentions. Its jaw clamped around the handle, and green fire burned in the beast’s eyes.

By then I was at the top of the stairs, and I fired again. Frantic now. Not even aiming.

Both barrels exploded, hot light stuttered in the dark hallway, and the top of the creature’s head shattered in a fountain of gore. The remains slumped down; the legs kicked once more and then were still. Something long, that I first thought to be some kind of snake, flickered and twisted, lunging hungrily towards me. I approached cautiously, and applied my foot to the thing when I realised it was the monster’s tongue. With a final squelch, the battle was over. But at what cost to our sanity?

I helped Sister Mary up and looked her in the eyes. She was barely focusing, and she wouldn’t release her grip on the axe.

Suddenly she broke away, heading into the nearby bathroom. Through the door I could hear her retching, and then sobbing hopelessly. When she finally emerged, she looked so pale it was like I was seeing a corpse freshly risen from the grave. She smiled weakly.

‘Okay?’ I asked.

‘I’ve got this ringing in my ears,’ she muttered, glancing back along the corridor. ‘I can’t hear so well. And these voices... I hear so many voices.’

I touched her hand, and she looked back at me. ‘Are you still with me?’ I asked.

She nodded. ‘I found out what that key was for. A cabinet in the bathroom... I found a clue. There’s something on the other side of the building. A place of darkness. Marie is there.’

‘How do you know?’

Sister Mary shook her head sadly. ‘It doesn’t matter. Let’s just keep moving.’

I pushed her aside, meaning to go into the bathroom so that I could see what she had seen, but she held on to me.

‘I said, it doesn’t matter,’ she said.

Always my Guardian Angel. Always looking out for me. That was Sister Mary.

What am I supposed to do without her?

We pushed open the door leading back to the chapel, and we could see a robed figure pacing the aisles. I was struck with the idea that those robes could make it easier to infiltrate the heart of this cult, so when the figure headed out of the chapel we followed at a safe distance.

We tracked our quarry through a darkened study, where I forced Sister Mary to sit in one of the chairs to compose herself. She clung on to her axe, rocking backwards and forwards and whispering the prayers she needed to give her strength; and while she continued to mentally deteriorate, I followed the cultist into the next room.

I was in a narrow corridor, and up ahead I could see the cultist. As the door closed behind me, I levelled my gun.

‘Stop right there,’ I said.

The cultist turned at my voice, and even in the gloom I could see long, silver hair, and a wizened face that looked almost inhuman beneath the hood of the ceremonial robes. Another woman. A hag; like something out of a children’s story.

With a scream, she lunged towards me. I pulled the trigger of my .45s, and somehow both guns had jammed. The cultist forced me aside, moving back into the study where Sister Mary was waiting.

What was going on? Why weren’t these things attacking me? Was I being saved for something?

Checking my guns for the cause of the jam, I hurried back into the study. The cultist was looming over Sister Mary, who removed the stopper from her holy water with trembling fingers and dashed some of the water in the old hag’s face.

The witch smiled, licking the water from her face with a purple tongue. ‘Your God has failed you,’ she hissed.

Sister Mary screamed, dropping the holy water on the rug. The bottle smashed, and I was galvanised into action by the sound, firing two shots that both found their mark. The cultist staggered beneath the barrage of bullets, and yet did not even turn to face me. She was intent on Sister Mary, focusing on her even through the pain of hot lead.

Sister Mary took one more step back, and then suddenly she was swinging up the axe that she had insisted on bringing. The blade smashed into the cultist’s face, and the hag dropped like a stone, gurgling and pawing fitfully at the axe embedded in her skull.

I stared at Sister Mary, and she stared back, as the floor turned crimson beneath our feet.

She had never killed a human before. Just how far into madness had she been pushed in the last few years?

With numb fingers, I removed the robes from the corpse and threw them on; and then, holding Sister Mary’s hand, we returned to the narrow chamber where I had first confronted the hag. Beyond that we found a maze of caverns, deep below the ground, where screams echoed, and bats fluttered their leathery wings in the darkness. And it was there, in that darkness, among those screams, that I lost Sister Mary forever.

We reached a crypt, and sitting on one of the old sarcophagi was Marie LeBlanc; but not the Marie I knew. Not the Marie who had saved my life. She hardly even looked the same; and there was something in her eyes - a type of evil - that I did not even think it was possible for a human being to possess.

‘How sweet of you to come for me,’ she hissed. ‘I was so scared here, all alone. But now I must reveal that my little letter was not entirely truthful. We need more souls for our rituals. We need more women for our sisterhood. Naturally, I thought of you.’

She was talking directly to me, but as she said "you" her eyes swivelled, and her vile gaze settled on Sister Mary.

Suddenly, it all became clear. This whole thing had been a trap. Marie didn’t want us to help her; she wanted us to join her!

We backed out of the crypt, desperate to escape. We needed to get out. We needed to find some way to escape. But Sister Mary was already a trembling wreck, and she barely had the strength to stand any more.
‘Leave me,’ she muttered. ‘It’s me they want. Marie knew I was weak. She knew she could break me.’

‘No. Come on.’ I grabbed Sister Mary’s hand, but she pulled away.

‘I’ve seen the darkness,’ she said. ‘I killed that woman with an axe. I’m already corrupted by this place. But you can get out.’

The shadows around us were coming to life as more robed figures appeared, chanting horribly, their faces concealed beneath their hoods.

‘I won’t go without you,’ I said, and I seized Sister Mary’s arm, dragging her to the closest door. Beyond was a rickety wooden bridge spanning an endless chasm that looked like the doorway into Hell itself.

Using all my bodily strength, I dragged Sister Mary onto the bridge; but when she saw that endless gulf of darkness beneath us, she tore free, screaming, with her hands clasped to her head. She stumbled back into the caves, where it seemed that every shadow had taken on the form of a hooded demon and the chanting was so loud it was as if it was the only sound in the whole world.

I saw Sister Mary drop to her knees, and she looked at me with utter hopelessness and despair. The shadows closed in on her, and the door between us slammed shut.

What could I do? What was left to do?

With the chanting still ringing in my ears, I crossed the bridge, ascended a ladder on the other side, and escaped into the cool night air.


It has been a week since I went inside the chapel in search of Marie LeBlanc, but I have returned numerous times since then to spy from the nearby woods. I had intended to sneak back inside, to try to find out what had happened to Sister Mary, my one true friend. But after what happened last night I realise there would be no point.

Just before midnight, a line of robed cultists appeared from the darkness, and filed through the chapel doors. I had ventured closer for a better look, and when there was only one cultist left to go inside, I stepped on a twig. The noise was faint, but enough to attract the cultist’s attention.

My God.

I will never forget that cultist’s face.

I will never forget the face of Sister Mary, as she saw me in my hiding place, smiled wickedly, and then closed the chapel door behind her.

Friday 20 April 2012

Review - Marvel Heroes

With the imminent release of Avengers Assemble here in the UK, what better way is there to start my spangly new blog than to dust off my old review for Marvel Heroes? Well, actually there are lots of better ways, most of them involving free cake and fireworks. But here's the review anyway, which first appeared on Sadly, this game is now out of production, but that's kind of the point of this blog in the first place.

Marvel Heroes
Published by Nexus
Designed by Marco Maggi, Francesco Nepitello
2 to 4 players, ages 12 to adult

Before I begin, a memory from my childhood... When I was very very young, I saved up my pocket money and I ordered a game called Space Crusade from a catalogue. I had saved for that game for a long time, and had spent many hours staring longingly at the little picture in the catalogue that showed all those lovely little plastic space marines and the various monsters they would fight in the stricken Hulks of outer space. When I finally had enough money to order it, I just couldn't wait for it to turn up. I was so excited, I spent all day at school hoping the game would have arrived by the time I got home. It seemed to take forever, but it really couldn't have been more than a few days; and then one Saturday morning the package arrived. Still in my pyjamas, I ripped open the box and... well, the game didn't quite live up to my excitement, but it was a lot of fun and I played it to death.

But what does this have to do with Marvel Heroes? Well, I'm getting older now. I'm married. I have a mortgage.

Yes, yes, but what has this got to do with Marvel Heroes? Okay, the point is simply, I spent a long time thinking about whether or not to buy this game, and when I finally put in the order I got that same sense of excited expectation I had got with Space Crusade. I was ringing up my wife on my lunch breaks just to see if it had turned up in the post while I was at work!! I felt like a big kid again. I hadn't been this excited waiting for Fury of Dracula to turn up. I hadn't been this excited waiting for Arkham Horror to turn up. I hadn't been this excited since Space Crusade.

And why was I so excited? I suppose there are two reasons. First up, it's Marvel. You know... MARVEL! Reason enough to be excited. But also, this was a game with toys. Just like Space Crusade had all those lovely marines and orks and dreadnoughts, Marvel Heroes has 20 hand-finished figures of super heroes and super villains. Hardly any of my other games boast toys like these - Arkham Horror (my favourite game) uses card tokens, Fury of Dracula has only five playing pieces (nice ones though), Blue Moon, Odin's Ravens, Dracula, LOTR: The Duel... mainly cards. The only things that come close to this level of "toyness" are my chess sets (I collect) and my Navia Dratp base set (which I class as a chess set anyway).

So when I finally got the game and I ripped open the box and saw all those plastic heroes, was I impressed? So impressed, actually, that I feel I should very briefly review the pieces before I talk about anything else...

Marvel Heroes - inside the box
Inside the Marvel Heroes box.

I am sure anybody reading this already knows that the game contains four teams of four heroes. In most cases, the heroes selected for each team are the obvious ones you would expect. I know my wife was disappointed that Gambit doesn't appear in the X-Men (he doesn't seem to have a card in the resources deck either, massive oversight!!!). Here are my opinions of each set of heroes and the four supervillains they face:

Fantastic Four: The centrepiece of this team is a big chunky sculpt of The Thing in full Clobberin' Time pose (note: none of the heroes are just standing around, they are all in dynamic "action" poses). This is one of the best sculpts, but is somewhat balanced out by the sculpts of the rest of the team. Human Torch is in a very unnatural-looking "flame on" pose, Invisible Woman is creating an energy field which is quite dull, and then you have Mr Fantastic... My oh my oh my. My wife nicknamed him Mr Tickle because he has been sculpted with stupid bendy arms. I know its his special power to be all bendy like this, but really, it just looks rubbish. Their opponent, Dr Doom, looks fantastic, except there is a very obvious join line where his cape was attached to his back.

Marvel Heroes - Fantastic Four
This is the best disco ever.

Avengers: Hulk stands out here, and not just because of his size. His stance makes him look like he has just taken a missile in the chest and is getting ready to SMASH the launcher of said missile. Captain America is deflecting projectiles with his shield. Thor is wielding his hammer, as one would expect. Iron Man has a very odd Centurions look about him (does anyone else remember that cartoon?). Red Skull, their nemesis, has that typical hands-on-hip evil villain look going on, but lets down what is otherwise the nicest set of figures.

Marvel Heroes - Avengers
"Haven't we got a movie to be in?"

Marvel Knights: Let down by Daredevil, who is sculpted in mid-run, but has been posed too dynamically. He looks like he is about to pass the baton in a relay race or something. Spiderman is web-slinging. Doctor Strange is levitating (sculpted so his cloak holds him aloft in case you thought you got a free anti-grav device in every game), and Elektra is wielding her sai blades. Kingpin is doing a classic fist-clenching "I will crush you" pose while leaning on his cane.

Marvel Heroes - Marvel Knights
Spiderman gets to hang out with characters from less successful movies.

Finally (phew), the X-Men: No surprises for guessing the team consists of Cyclops, Wolverine, Storm and Jean Grey. Seriously! What an obvious selection. Cyclops is probably the best sculpt of the lot, and certainly has the cleanest paint job. He is in energy blast pose. Jean Grey looks like she is concentrating her mental powers. Storm is posed so that you can imagine clouds and lightning swirling around. Wolverine is, of course, in brawling pose with claws exposed. Magneto is nicely done, but again has a very obvious join line on his cape.

Marvel Heroes - X-Men
What, no Rogue?

Okay, that's all the figures. The rest of the game is made up of cards, tokens, and a game board. Oh, and dice... The cards contain comic book art so are obviously beautiful. The tokens are tokens, they is what they is - functional and sturdy. The dice are plastic and have POW symbols all over them. And the board... the board is about as ugly as a board can possibly be.

Now, a lot of people say the board is pointless (the figures too), but I am going to put a little aside here before getting back to the review to give my opinions on that matter.

The board DOES have a purpose. It allows you to easily track EVERYTHING in the game. It shows you who is where in the city, how many heroes they have supporting them (maximum two, so it is important to know), the status of all the heroes that are in play (ready or supporting), and how many victory points each team has. Furthermore (and this is important in a game that involves so many different types of cards) the board has spaces for all the different card decks (and spaces for the discard piles as well). This keeps everything neat and tidy, and you aren't left with loads of cards scattered all over the table. Could you play without the board? Sure. Would I personally want to? Hell no.

And the figures... The figures have a purpose too. They track the status and location of every team member. You need to know this information, so you need a way of monitoring it. Yes, you could use card chits or something, but by using the figures you can tell instantly who is doing what without having to lean all over the board squinting at little card tokens. In a game that can potentially have four teams of four heroes (plus villains) moving around the place, it is really important to be able to quickly see what is going on, and the figures allow you to do this. Also, of course, figures are much easier to handle than card tokens.

Enough about that, back to the review:

I'll try and sum the game up in a few lines. I'm not going to cover rules here, I've already jabbered for quite some time as it is, and this review would turn into a real essay if I started recapping all the rules too.

Basically, groups of heroes attempt to solve crimes by sending the best hero for the job. Got some fighting to do? Send Hulk. Someone needs to be rescued? Send Captain America. Makes perfect sense - if solving the crime involves a lot of scientific research, you want Tony Stark on the case, not Hulk smashing things with his head.

Heroes can play ally cards to strengthen their team, their opponents can play villain cards to oppose them. Occasionally the super villain will come out to play and things get ugly. Solve the crime and you win some victory points. Get enough victory points and you win the game.

There are also a few other game elements to add diversity, such as story cards. Story cards reflect, well... newspaper stories. There are always four cards in play. Every turn a new card is drawn, and the oldest card is removed from play. On your turn, you can advance the track, and the card removed is given to the team the card relates to and that team gets a victory point. Gain three story cards and you get a new power up for your team.

That's pretty much it.

This game is complicated, but not necessarily because there is a lot to do. The complication generally arises when new people playing do not necessarily know what the best thing to do is. For example, on her turn, my wife knows she needs to go and solve a crime and she does this by moving a ready hero (plus support if required) to that location. That's the rule - nice and simple. The complication arises, because she doesn't necessarily know which hero to send, which hero to support, which additional allies to play, what that special super power means, when that ability happens, what it means if someone else is stood over there... The difficulty is not knowing what to do, it is knowing how best to do it.

A lot of people say the rulebook is a nightmare to use. I don't think it's that bad, but it could be better. The problem is that the rulebook tries to deal with each element of the game one at at time. So, the rulebook tells you all about troubleshooting before talking about combat. BUT combat is an element of troubleshooting! This means you get the situation where, in the troubleshooting section it says: "resolve combat using the combat rules, if you win do this, if your opponent wins do that." Note how what happens when the combat is finished is discussed in the troubleshooting section and not in the combat section. If you go to the combat section to find out what to do with your hero who has just been knocked out, you won't find your answer (and neither will you find a note directing you to the troubleshooting section where the answer hides).

I think it would have been easier to discuss each element of the rules in the sequence you would encounter them when playing, so I have written up my own crib sheet where the combat rules are actually embedded into the troubleshooting section (because you only do combat in the troubleshooting phase of the game anyway).

Marvel Heroes
Of course, all the Marvel Heroes art is gorgeous.

I am sure anybody reading this review who doesn't own the game is probably getting pretty confused right now with all this talk of troubleshooting phases, etc. so I will hurry along to the bit where I say if I liked the game or not.

Well, much like when I opened up that copy of Space Crusade all those years ago, my excitement definitely outweighed how good I think the game actually is. Don't get me wrong, I think the game is great (after a few plays). The figures are great, the artwork on the cards is great, the way you play cards to boost your team or hinder your opponent is great. The game is a lot of fun, and anyone who likes Marvel is going to get a kick out of it. BUT it's a little fiddly, and new players will not play with a lot of strategy because they will not understand what a lot of their cards mean. It's never going to be the first game I pull out of the cupboard to play, and I wouldn't dream of trying to get non-gamers to give it a go (tried this once with Arkham Horror, put them all off for life).

Basically, it is a resource management game with some added dice rolling. (By the way, there isn't quite as much dice rolling as you would think. Combat is resolved with dice, but the number of dice you can roll at any point is capped at eight, so you will never get that situation where you are rolling 40 dice and trying to remember what you scored.)

What this game is NOT, is a superhero smack down. It's much more abstract than something like Heroclix, and each hero only has a few special abilities, which often have quite abstract effects.

Here's an example of a special ability in Marvel Heroes: You can move Hulk into support (basically meaning he cannot solve a crime this turn). Then, as an action, you can perform the special ability RAMPAGE where you move him to recovery (meaning he is no longer supporting), draw two resource cards, and then remove the two oldest story cards from the board. Pretty abstract, but if you think about it, it kind of makes sense. Hulk goes on a rampage, smashing up the city. All the newspapers report on Hulk's rampage, and any other stories they were thinking of printing get dropped. Kind of makes sense, but you have to think about it.

So, to sum up (at last). If you like resource management and card management games, enjoy Marvel, like games with a lot of player interaction, and have the patience to wade through the rules, then this game could be for you. If this sounds like your idea of hell, then it's probably wise you stay clear.

I rated this game an eight out of ten for now. It will not get played too often in my house, but whenever it does, I think I will have a good time.