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Temple of Elemental Evil Review

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Innovation in game design seems to be in short supply nowadays. Yet you can find it in unexpected places. Take all those wargames that use the same basic rules but have new units, maps and mechanical tweaks for different battles. Playing through these franchises can reveal an ocean of wonder inside those tiny details, making history come to life.

So, just because Temple of Elemental Evil is the fourth game in a series doesn’t mean it’s not going to feel fresh and clever. However, in honesty, it’s going to need to pull out all the stops to impress. A sense of staleness was already present in the last Adventure System game, Legend of Drizzt, back in 2011.

For those unfamiliar, the Adventure System is a series of co-operative dungeon crawl games. The rules are based on a pared-down version of 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons. Players pick a scenario and build a random stack of dungeon tiles. As they explore the turned over tiles will reveal traps, event and monsters. Each creature has a set of simple AI routines to attack and use its special abilities. Easy rules that bring life and colour to the gray flagstones.

It’s a great system. Separate decks of monster, encounter and treasure cards offer a lot of variety from basic mechanics. Yet for all that accessibility, decisions matter. Many hero abilities are one-shot, and timing can be crucial. A particularly neat twist is that monsters often move per dungeon tile. This leaves precise placement to the players, offering the chance of clever strategic combinations.

It also helps to avoid the boss-player problem that’s such an issue in co-operative games. Each player has their own set of powers and controls their own movement and monsters. They can do whatever they like. Yet the standard balance of abilities across D&D character classes encourages true co-operation. Tanks can tank, but it helps if there are Mages for missile fire and Rogues to bust traps.

The first game in this series, Castle Ravenloft, also used scenario setup to add further interest and imagination. The second, and my favourite, Wrath of Ashardalon, had simpler scenarios but chained them together into a campaign. There was some official and some fan-made material to allow owners to use both games together. By the time we got to Legend of Drizzit, there didn’t seem to be much new to offer any more.

So what do we have in Elemental Evil to resurrect this system? Sadly, not much.

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There are precisely two major innovations. First, traps are no longer the result of encounter cards but get placed as tokens on certain tiles. This feels like a step back. They do offer players the choice between spending an action disarming the trap or risking it and hoping for a “clear” result. But many trap tiles don’t have monster spaces, so the tension cranks down. And the actual traps are just numeric damage. A far cry from cool stuff like the rolling rock trap in Ashardalon, which saw players fleeing and scattering like fleshy ninepins.

That leaves us with a new campaign. This was the big draw for me: the campaign in Ashardalon was the reason I liked that game best. The series seemed to be crying out for some more detailed rules. Most of all what people wanted was a way to build their characters beyond the arbitrary second level cap on the cards.

They didn’t get that. Although what they did get offers much of the same feel and is an improvement on Ashardalon’s campaign. Now, most of the treasure cards are gold pieces and you use them to purchase upgrades. A thousand gold nets you second level. Then you buy tokens for things like dice bonuses or power re-use. Players carry these between adventures and can use each token once per scenario.

The campaign itself also does a fine job of linking adventures into a narrative. Together with the campaign rules, playing through them one at a time builds a proper sense of camaraderie. It feels very much like a full-blooded role-playing game, with more strategy and less rules arguments.

The flip side, of course, is that the adventures don’t work so well played as one-shot games. The fact they build in difficulty doesn’t help. Neither does a lack of imagination. Most of these lack the spark of originality seen in Castle Ravenloft.

I don’t want to denigrate this game: Elemental Evil is a good game. It’s worth your time and money. Especially so if you’re really up for playing through the campaign, which is obviously the focus of the design. And I would encourage everyone to own and play an Adventure System game. Maybe even two. They’re ace, and they all integrate well together. But you don’t need all four.

So the question becomes one of which is better. And in spite of the new material on offer here, the answer is still Ravenloft or Ashardalon. Unless, that is, you’re looking for a top value way of obtaining some plastic figures for your Princes of the Apocalypse campaign.

Tyranny of Dragons and Princes of the Apocalypse Review

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Fifth edition Dungeons and Dragons might be the best ever, but the release schedule is molasses slow. That’s on purpose: fans have said they want it that way to give them time to develop their own campaigns.

What’s out so far, though is epic in scope. There’s the two-volume Tyranny of Dragons comprised of Hoard of the Dragon Queen followed by Rise of Tiamat. Now we’ve got Princes of the Apocalypse. Both are full campaigns, starting at level one and going up to fifteen.

The similarities end there, however. In fact, these two adventures are fine examples of the two main, contrasting, approaches to adventure building.

Tyranny of Dragons represents the classic way of doing things. It herds the players through a series of linked locations as they battle the latest machinations of the Cult of the Dragon in the Forgotten Realms.

There’s plenty of variety on offer. Some are classic dungeon crawls, others outdoor adventures. There are encounters based on pure role-playing and some that are little more than sequences of battles. The quality of individual chapters varies. But they all link together into a grand narrative, an epic sweep that groups are likely to remember for years to come.

Although lacking a bit in imagination, it should be a great starting point for new groups. It covers a lot of the arch-typical encounter types and monsters that make D&D so beloved. There’s lots of tips for the Dungeon Master including some “do this” or “read this” box-outs that might irritate more experienced players.

Against this, however, is the difficulty curve. It ramps up sharply after the opening chapters. Right until it gets to the point where the books end up advising the DM to be unafraid to kill players, since they ought to have access to Raise Dead spells.

Whatever magic they’ve got, frequent player death isn’t something to be aiming for. On the flip side, you could always start this after running the Ruins of Phandelver from the starter set. The players would go in at fifth level, and you could tweak some early encounters. But the challenge level should feel less intimidating.

It’s also fond of railroading the players. Not in the awful way that the Dragonlance adventures did, but the more common “go here next because it’s the plot”. I imagine most groups, and especially new groups, will do just that without prompting. For those that don’t, there’s enough background information here for a good GM to wing it. Neophytes may find these departures a struggle.

The adventure got a lot of criticism from seasoned gamers because of the railroads. Mostly, this is unfair. It’s supposed to be suitable for players new to the game, where nudging players along a fixed path is a bonus rather than a boon. And besides, it’s hard to write such a vast narrative sweep without keeping players on the rails a bit. That’s the way campaign-level modules have always worked.

The alternative, a more free form romp through a detailed area with some sort of event timetable, is great in smaller adventures. But on the campaign scale, it’d be a nightmare to organise, right?

Well, here’s your chance to find out. Because that’s pretty much what Princes of the Apocalypse is.

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Indeed, it’s so fragmentary that it’s worthy a look even if you’ve no intention of running the campaign. Almost all of its dungeons, towns and scripted encounters could be split out and dropped in to another campaign. They’re detailed and self-contained enough to survive the transition.

The adventure claims to have taken inspiration from the classic Temple of Elemental Evil campaign from first edition. In truth, the only relationship is the nature of the villains the players will be up against. And the adventure is all the better for it.

The bulk of the book describes a series of locales in intricate detail. There’s the towns and wilderness of the area where the plot is due to unfold. There are lots and lots of dungeons, filled with a staggering array of different traps and monsters. At times it feels like the designers were trying to cram the whole Monster Manual in here.

This material is bookended with a description of the plot, and a chapter full of encounters for an enterprising DM to slot in anywhere for a change of pace. There’s a neat gimmick to ensure the unfolding events keep pace with the players. Each “boss” they encounter has a several slightly different setups, which increase in difficulty depending on how many other big bads have already fallen.

There’s almost nothing not to love about this. It’s bold, imaginative, unusual and well designed yet retains a solid grasp of what makes D&D the classic it is. The one problem is, as you might expect, that it’s challenging to run well. The DM must digest this material in full if she’s to avoid having to constantly reference the book, and to make the most of the opportunities offered by the modular structure.

So, two adventures, two different approaches to adventure design. The first not entirely deserving of the criticism it got, the second perhaps not quite deserving of the level of praise it got. You pays your money, and takes your choice. But with the dearth of published material for the game, Princes of the Apocalypse has to be the better pick. It’ll be more use for those trying to write and run their own campaigns. And as a standalone book, rather than a pair, it’s a darn sight cheaper too.

Thrower’s Tallies: Games of the Year 2014

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Another year, another end of year wrap piece. Time to reflect on the past 365 days as you force down another sweetmeat and another glass of cheap sherry and then to wonder what the future holds.

This has not been the best gaming year for me, personally. Not just in terms of titles released but in terms of finding opportunities to play. For one reason and another, I just haven’t spent the time at the gaming table I’d have liked.

That makes me sad. Real life is important, of course, but you only get one shot at it, a thing I’ve become increasingly aware of as the years slip past. Since gaming is one of my favourite things to do, I ought to be able to find more space for it. Other things just always seem to intervene.

So I look at my collection, much of which is gathering dust in the attic, and wonder if I’ll ever play most of them as many times as they deserve. Or that one day I might look back and regrest not making more time for my favourite things, which so often get lost in the push and shove of family life.

I guess that’s a game in and of itself.

Anyway, enough of the melodrama. This long preamble is setting up the point that a lot of the games I’ve played this year just haven’t lasted beyond the required review plays. Not because they’re bad games, just because they weren’t quite good enough to elbow their way in to a very crowded itenerary.

But when I looked back on what I’d played this year, I conveniently found that there were exactly three games that had broken that trend. Three games that had forced themselves back onto the table after I thought I was done with them by virtue of their brilliance. I was also exceptionally surprised by what they were. Can you guess?

Before I reveal all, I wanted to mention something that’s been bothering me more and more in recent years. I’m just not seeing as much fun in new titles as I used to. I still want to game as much as I ever do, but that itch of excitement when you read a preview or tear the shrinkwrap has gone.

The problem, I think, is that game design has become a process of iterative improvement rather than fizzing creativity. When I got back into board gaming at the turn of the millenium, the design community was still buzzing with the influx of ideas from Germany. Over the next few years, recombining this new paradigm with the traditional American model of gaming proved a fertile furrow.

Now, those ideas seem to have run dry. Genre-breaking games seem to be few and far between. I think this is because, with the market glutted by kickstarter titles, we’re near the limits of what can be done with mere card, wood and plastic. Newer titles are, for the most part, still a step up on older ones. But the improvements are so small, it’s not worth the money or the effort to acquire and learn them over existing games.

We’re done with the misery. On to the awards.

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#3 Band of Brothers: Ghost Panzer

Don’t judge games by their boxes. I was put off the original game in this series, Screaming Eagles, by the small publisher and the bad art. Then, while it had its supporters, it didn’t seem to gain much fan traction either, so I wrote it off.

That was a serious mistake. I enjoyed its perfect blend of realism, accessibility, tactics and excitement so much that I played it solo, something I never do. I enjoyed it so much that I went right out and bought Screaming Eagles second hand in case it never got reprinted. The components still suck, but these may be the best tactical wargame rules ever made.

#2 Splendor

This was the real shocker. In many respects, Splendor represents a lot of what I dislike about modern game design. But it keeps coming off the shelf, again and again. And it keeps finding its way into friends collections, again and again. It’s a keeper and, on reflection, one of the best Eurogames I’ve played.

While everyone was mistakenly raving about the way Five Tribes had cross-hobby appeal, Splendor was quietly doing just that in the background. It has one page of rules, can be played competently by my 8-year old, yet is challenging to win at consistently. It’s got gorgeous pieces, a smidgen of interaction and can be completed in 30 minutes. When you step back, what’s not to love?

#1 Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition

Ok, so I’m cheating slightly. But in terms of table time, this is the undoubted winner this year. I thought I was done with role-playing games. I thought over-heavy rules and anti-social players had ruined the genre for me forever. Then fifth edition came along and reminded me of just how amazing, how limitless and soaring, role-playing can be when it gets things right.

I have never seen a rules system which achieves so much with so little. Yes, there’s still lots of spells and magic items and stats to remember. But the actual play mechanics are lean and mean, yet manage to cover almost any situation, allowing groups to mine whatever rich seam of fantasy they choose. I’m so looking forward to where this system is going to go next year. More so than any board game in the pipeline.

Well, except XCOM, perhaps.

Speaking of which, I guess I spend enough time iOS gaming nowadays to make a best of year list for that platform too. I have an odd love-hate relationship with my iPad. Part of me longs for the hours and hours of total engrossment that only a AAA PC or console game can provide. On the other hand, in a busy life I’m grateful that I can now enjoy such excellent bite sized gaming.

It feels like 2014 is the year mobile gaming came of age with meaty franchises and big studios finding their way to the app store. But these are the top of the pile for me, staying installed long after their peers have been deleted.

#3 Hoplite

I’m a big fan of rogue-like games but the classic model doesn’t tend to port well to tablets. It’s too involved, too stat-heavy. Hoplite hit the nail on the head by reducing the genre to a kind of puzzle game, with role-playing elements. It sounds dull, but isn’t, because the procedural generation ensures every puzzle is unique.

#2 FTL

FTL may be the most perfect game in the most perfect genre ever devised, an endless story generator with strategy and role playing thrown in for free. I’ve yet to beat it, even after about twenty hours of play time. And I’m still trying, even after about twenty hours of plat time. This might be number one, were it not marginally better on PC than tablet.

#1 Hearthstone

FATtie Erik Twice has asked me several times why I complain about it all the time on social media, when I profess to love it. The answer is simple: it’s the same reason drug addicts complain about crack. Addiction is a terrible thing, but it doesn’t make the high point of the trip any the less sweet.

D&D 5e Player’s Handbook Review

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It’s rare that the first thing to strike you about a book is a noise. But here, it was. After being so excited by the Starter Set, I couldn’t wait to get into this. So I ignored the cover and opened the book to a loud crack as the spine flexed for the first time. It was like the sound of the lock falling away from my teenage memories.

Back then, no-one ever read the Player’s Handbook from cover to cover, and I doubt anyone does now. It’s skimmed, flipped, relished. So first impressions count.

They’re good. The pages are thin but printed with a nice fake-age background. Tables are pleasingly infrequent. The art is plentiful, good quality and diverse in its representation of race, class and gender. Male Half-orc paladins stand shoulder to shoulder with scholarly female wizards. Most are sensibly clothed.

This is the first D&D supplement I can remember that encourages players to use the game to explore diversity.
“Don’t be confined to binary notions of sex and gender,” it says. It’s nice to know that D&D has moved into the modern age while preserving the things that made it special in the past.

Alongside those sentiments there are other short, but useful, chapters on role-playing and personification. Mostly, what we want are rules and mostly, that’s what we get.

You have to remember that I haven’t played the game since 2nd edition. So things that stand out to me as big changes might not seem so huge to more dedicated players.

One thing that impresses is the way in which the game has become less about specialists, more about letting players create the characters they want. There are twelve classes now, each with several archetypes.

The Fighter class, for instance, divides into three archetypes. Classic warrior fans can play a Champion. Battle Masters represent tacticians and field officers. Eldritch Knights sacrifice some fighting ability for a modicum of spellcasting power.

At the extremes, this plethora of options blend in to one another. With an Eldritch Knight in the party, you might not need a Wizard. Sometimes the overlap seems too extensive. I can’t quite see why the Barbarian and Sorcerer classes weren’t just folded as archetypes for the Ranger and Wizard respectively.

But on the whole, it works. Specialists are still best at what they do, but players can build characters as they like.

This change of focus is supported by the core mechanics. Everything works on a d20 check now, against a difficulty number. You add ability score modifiers, but also get a proficiency bonus, dependant on level, for things your class is good at.

Fighters get it on all weapons, for instance. But you can now get proficiencies in skills and tools, too. So anyone can use Thief’s tools to attempt to pick a lock. But a Rogue will get their proficiency bonus when they try – double, in fact, thanks to a special feature of the class.

It’s a great way of doing things. It’s more realistic – why, in old systems, couldn’t other classes search for traps if there wasn’t a thief in the party? The broad skill categories make it more comprehensive, so there’s few situations in which you can’t bend the rules to fit.

dnd-phb-02jpg It’s also the mechanic behind the rebalancing of the game. A key feature of this edition is that powerful characters are no longer god-like. A lone fighter will eventually succumb to an army of goblins. It works because proficiency bonuses increase slowly, and max out at +6. So a 20th level figher, with a few stat increases, is only going to get perhaps +6 on the dice more than a 1st level one.

But best of all, people can play the characters of their imagination. Common fantasy stereotypes that were near-impossible in the old system are easy now. Swashbuckling warriors are just as good as armoured tanks. It’s straightforward to combine spell and sword if that’s what you want to do.

To add flesh and flexibility to the character creation process there’s a mandatory background step. This gives you a couple more skills and some starting equipment, as well as a foundation for your character’s back story.

While a welcome addition, it’s perhaps the weakest thing in the book. In contrast to the wide-ranging races and classes on offer, there’s only a limited selection. And they’re painted in narrow strokes where they ought to be board. You can chose to be a Noble, for instance, or a Sailor . But not a Noble Sailor. And there seems an astonishing diversity of semi-criminal backgrounds, from Charlatans to Urchins to actual Criminals.

At the end of the book come spells. These are no longer divided into spells for different classes. Instead, each class has a list of spells they’re able to potentially learn and cast. This makes referencing what spells belong to what class a bit of a nightmare. But it’s nice to see the end of silly duplications of identical effects across different classes.

Casting, like almost everything else in the new edition, has become more flexible. Spellcasters can prepare a wide selection of spells during a long rest. When they cast one, they use a slot rather than losing the spell. There’s also a new idea of casting low level spells with high level slots, for a more powerful effect. These are all excellent changes. No more will wizards find themselves stuck in situations without a useful memorised spell.

The other striking thing about the spell lists is the substantial number of non-combat spells. In previous editions, this felt like lip-service to encouraging nonviolent solutions. Here, it chimes authentically with the greater focus on skills and tools rather than just weapons and armour.

So now you know what’s in the book, it’s time to end on a question. Given that you can download character creations rules for free, why buy the book?

Well, aside from the pleasure of the art and the convenience of a hard copy, it comes back to the overarching theme of what I love about this edition: flexibility. Those free rules have only four classes, with one archetype each, and a cut-down selection of spells. Reading this Player’s Handbook felt like unlocking my imagination to polymorph into whatever fantastic character it desired. That’s in stark contrast to the rules, restrictions and specialisms that characterised earlier editions. The free rules feel a bit like those earlier editions. If you really want to let your mind run free, this is the book for you.

Dungeon! Review

I can vividly remember the first time I saw a copy of Dungeon! Visiting some of my Dad’s friends who had a son a year or two older than me, he pulled a copy out from under his bed and suggested we play. I was gobsmacked, not only because I’d unwittingly stumbled into the company of a fellow geek in the making, but because up until that point I’d only ever considered Dungeons & Dragons as a role-playing franchise. The idea that it could extend to a board game seemed stunningly innovative to my young self.

But it seemed to cover the bases well, with a recognisable premise of heroes venturing into a multi-level dungeon to kill monsters and collect treasure, with danger and reward increasing the deeper you went. And the monsters and magic and treasure that I encountered that afternoon were all bona fide dungeons and dragons exports. So we played, and played, and played again. I was amazed that the considerable complexities of the role-playing game could be boiled down so simply and effectively.

Because it is simple. You pick a hero, and maybe a few spells from a choice of just three, move five spaces per turn and if you walk into a room you draw a monster card appropriate to its level and roll two dice to see if you can beat it. If so, collect a treasure card from that level. If not roll another two dice to see if it beats you. First to collect a set amount of treasure wins. Explore a dungeon, kill monsters, grab loot. It’s Tomb, only much faster and simpler. And much better.

Tomb, of course, was a game made for adult hobbyists. But its problem was it added length and complexity to the basic formula without adding strategy or fun. Dungeon! is a game for kids, and it does what it does in a wonderfully refreshing no-frills manner, caring little for the niceties of modern game design. In fact this new fifth edition of the game, originally published in 1975, has changed one rule, and one rule only: now, a trap causes you to lose a maximum of two turns, whereas previously it was up to six. That’s it. It’s an improvement, but it’s also like 30 years of game design never happened.

But why should anyone care? Remember, it’s a game intended primarily for children, not for adults to play against one another. Children don’t need complexity, or detailed narrative, because they have the imagination and the credulity to fill in all the gaps without the sort of creative hand-holding that adults need. Many of the classic children’s games that make up the staple of occasional family gaming are founded on similar principles to Dungeon! A lot of luck, a tasty serving of narrative and a bit of gambling. They haven’t changed in decades, so why should Dungeon!?

What has changed are the components and the price. Earlier editions were garish, clumsy things, furnished with art that looks laughable by modern standards and with components outsized beyond need which forced the price up. This edition has great art, especially on the new board and it has serviceable components. Cardboard standups instead of pawns is a bit annoying, and the cards have gone too far the other way, now being too small for comfort. But these small sacrifices have been made in the service of pushing the price to bargain basement levels, allowing it to undercut mass-market tat and even put it in the range of teenage pocket money.

One thing has been added, and that’s official solo rules. There are three suggested ways to play, two of which are badly flawed. The third, however, is a lot of fun. In hunted mode, you draw a powerful monster and scamper round the dungeon as it pursues you, trying desperately to gather enough treasure for the win before it kills you. Even more random than usual, but oddly tense and exhilarating. It’s probably the most enjoyable way to play without a child to share the experience with. And frankly, it’s probably worth the meagre cost of the game all by itself.

It’s worth it because it’s plain, dumb fun to trawl your way round the rooms on the board, actually encountering nasties you only ever read about in the Monster Manual, gloating over your hoard of gold, poking your atrophied adult imagination into wondering what might have been perpetrated in named rooms like The Torture Chamber or The Hole. And it’s not like it’s completely skill-free either. Dice win the day, but you can place tiny bulwarks against fate by choosing effective movement paths and balancing the risk to maximise your gain.

And if you do have kids, and you like a good thematic game, you can’t pass this up. The world is awash with mass-market children’s games based on dreary real-world or educational themes, and with European imports made especially for youngsters. The mantra of simple rules and short play times suits children’s games extremely well, after all. The style of game I fondly remember playing as a child, featuring vampires and giant spiders and battling robots, seems to have gone out of fashion. Dungeon! is back to remedy that, a game that theme lovers can use to introduce their offspring to the questionable delights of underworld delving. It’s Gulo Gulo for the Ameritrash crowd.

I hate to remind you all, but we’re coming up to Christmas, the one season where ordinary families can be relied on to gather round a roaring fire and play board games together. Games that, perhaps, have been newly birthed from their gift wrap and shrink after dwelling beneath the antiseptic smell of pine for a few days or weeks. You know the usual culprits: Monopoly, Life, Scrabble and others will be bringing joy and annoyance in equal measure to millions this December. If there is any justice in the world, Dungeon! deserves a place alongside its peers on that list.