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Forgotten Pleasures

bloodborne

One of the unexpected effects of regularly reviewing games is how jaded I’ve become. It takes an enormous amount to impress me nowadays. And even for titles that make the grade, it’s rare that they grip me for a long time. Readers demand novelty, so the old makes way for the new.

Sometimes a game still gets its claws in me and demands play time in the face of all competition. The last video game to achieve that was Hearthstone, early last year. The last board games were Wiz-War and X-Wing back in 2012.

It’s even rarer, though, that an unreleased game grabs my attention. Years of exposure to marketing hype has given me a tough crust of cynicism. The advent of Kickstarter and the ensuing failed promises have just made it thicker. Nowadays, I take nothing about a game at face value until I’ve played it and confirmed it for myself.

I can’t even remember the last time I was dizzy with anticipation about a game.

So it’s remarkable that over the last couple of months, one title has managed to break through. That game is Bloodborne, the spiritual successor to Dark Souls from the same design team.

The latter game transformed my understanding of what a role-playing game should be. It was a blend of genres I’d always wanted to see, a game that felt like real-life fantasy combat combined with the salivating skinner box of experience and levelling up. It was brilliant, but often the deliberate difficulty curve got too much.

Early reviews of Bloodborne make it sound like it’s solved that problem by giving players more information and an easier time early in the game. Then ramping up to the more brutal levels expected once players have adjusted. It seems an excellent solution. Plus, the rich graphics, emphasis on offense over blocking and obvious horror theme had me hooked.

The trouble is, I don’t have a PS4. So I can’t play it. And there’s no way I can justify buying one when I’ve still got Gears of War 2, Halo 4 and Red Dead Redemption I want to finish on the 360. Not to mention Dark Souls, which I’m only half-way through.

So I’m left hanging in a trap of my own construction. It’s something I remember well from my teenage years when I just couldn’t afford most of what I wanted. There’s nothing for it but to knuckle down and carry on, trying to ignore that awful itch of desire. That’s what being grown up is all about.

I understand all that. What I didn’t expect was to find that wanting could be so much fun.

It’s the same principle as the ascetic. In denial, one learns to find satisfaction in self control. Except that this is a thousand times better because I know that at the end there will be a sweet reward. There will be a time that I can cave in, get a new console, and enjoy my game.

And when I do, I’ll enjoy it all the more for having waited.

Finding this unexpected pleasure made me yearn for the days when it happened more often. Because make no mistake: this isn’t just about being a games writer. Fans and commentators alike have been decrying the lack of innovation in big-name titles of both video and tabletop games for years. That’s what’s at the root of the malaise lingering over the current console generaiton, at least until Bloodborne came along.

While there’s plenty of creativity amongst independent designers, arguably it takes a big game to engender a big sense of desire. It takes overwhelming production values and an enormous potential play time. It takes a certain level of marketing polish, too.

Other media have already been through this. Blockbuster cinema was floundering a few years ago. That empty space summoned forth white knights to fill it, and alumni like Peter Jackson and Christopher Nolan answered the call. I’m not sure who their equivalents might be in the video gaming world, but I’m confident the increasing interplay between big studios and small developers is going to throw up some surprises.

Who, though, is going to break through the tabletop barrier? If my money was on anyone, it’d be Rob Daviau or Vlaada Chvatil. But we’ve heard nothing big from either of them for ages. I hope one of them, or someone else, delivers soon. I want to feel that sharp hope of hype about a cardboard game at least once more before I die.

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Wiz-War: Bestial Forces expansion review

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I noticed long ago that when people who tend to run role-playing games choose to play instead, they always pick wizard characters. Why? It’s all about power. If you’re used to having the ability to dictate reality on a whim, you want a character that can do it too. Power is a key part of wizarding’s appeal.

And there’s no greater demonstration of power than being able to summon fantastic creatures and bend them to your whim. It’s what’s always been missing from Wiz-War, and now it’s here with the Bestial Forces expansion. And while there’s no extra player figure and board in the box, there are an awful lot of other interesting spells and variants too.

The central draw here in the monsters, each with their own plastic figure. These beasties operate quite differently from their counterparts in previous editions. Rather than weak creations that tottered round older mazes, Bestial Forces monsters are flexible and powerful. You’ll pay for that power, though. Summoning demands not just a card but a cost in life, too, and activating a creature requires the controller to sacrifice 2 movement points.

Just like the previous Malefic Curses expansion, there are three new schools of magic in the box. The Legendary school has the most monsters. There’s the powerful minotaur which has an odd sort of automatic overwatch attack. The genie who’s an attack spell conduit, allowing you to play an extra offensive card each turn from the genie’s square. Finally there’s the Boggart, the only creature who can carry items and Grendel, who’s a melee powerhouse.

It also a adds a fun new component called relics. These spells create very powerful objects that will be a huge boon in the game. But the catch is they also take up a treasure slot. So it’s a toss up whether to steal the chest or leave the valuable relic lying round where anyone could find it.

Another way in which monsters are different from previous versions of Wiz-War is the addition of creature attack spells. These can be used as standard attack spells by a wizard. But instead, you can employ them to supplement your creature’s attack instead. They belong in the second of the new schools, the Draconic school. As well as creature attacks, there’s a good mix of typical defensive and utilitarian spells. There’s a creature, too, the Drake, who will guard your treasure with fierce determination.

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Oddest of all is the Totem school. These spells create on-board objects which buff their summoner so long as she’s in the same board sector as the totem. They can’t be carried, but can be destroyed so they give rise to a lot of interesting tactics around placement. Do you sit and use your totem, or follow targets to a new sector? Do you destroy enemy totems or lure their owner into a trap on another board? There’s also a Totem Spirit creature which can move though walls, and inflicts damage equal to the number of totems in play. So it’s potentially very powerful.

There’s only one downside to Bestial Forces, which is that you’ll have to adopt a specific mix of optional rules to get the most out of it. Sadly, that includes not using the Giant Book of Spells like you did in previous editions, which is so beloved of many fans. The reason is simple: most of the cards in this expansion are tightly connected. To get the most out of the Totem Monster you needs lots of totems in play. With most of the creatures in the mythical school and most of the creature attacks in the draconic school, they work well played together. Diluting them in a big stack lessens their impact.

Fortunately there’s another optional rule in this expansion to compensate. You make a core draw deck with three schools plus cantrips, then give each player their own draw deck of a specific school. They can then choose which to pick cards from. So if you make the core deck all the schools in this expansion, you can enjoy the way their effects interlock. While individual player decks ensure there’s still plenty of variety and chaos.

Most of the other options you’ll want, like uncluttered minds and permanent creations are common choices anyway. So they’ll have less impact on your games. These are good to use with the expansion just because it leaves more monsters and artifacts and totems in play. Relics, in particular, are a double-edged sword if you can’t get rid of them. Especially so if you use the treasure hunters option. And the more stuff on the board, the better Wiz-War gets.

A part of me misses the classical monsters of wizarding lore. It might have been nice to imagine stiff-limbed skeletons and their ilk stalking through the labyrinth and being felled by the first Zot they come across. But in their place we’ve got a bold and well-designed expansion which adds to both the chaos and strategy of the game. I’ll take that trade, and I’ll wager almost every fan of the base game will be happy if they follow suite.

Wiz-War: Malefic Curses Review

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Wiz-War makes me angry. I get angry when I have the wrong cards, when the dice fall wrong, when the wrong people gang up on me. But that’s good anger. The bad anger is all the years I spent not playing this great game while it was out of print, until Fantasy Flight picked up the license for an eight edition. Now, in true Fantasy Flight style, there’s an expansion: Malefic Curses.

The box contains a board and pieces for a fifth player and three new schools of magic. A lot of people have been waiting for this largely for that fifth participant, but I’m not one of them. Wiz-War is a pretty chaotic game, and works best when clipping along at a premium pace. Five, I think, is too many. The additional interaction is fun, of course, but it’s not enough to compensate for the extra downtime.

Still, the fact that the new board is purple is a bonus since it now means no-one has to play the urine yellow mage from the base game when you’re playing with four. So it’s not all bad.

I was waiting for this mainly for the three new schools of magic: Hexcraft, Chaos and Necromancy. Because what I want most of all in Wiz-War is what every other Wiz-War fan wants. I want creatures. Minions. Foul magical constructs I can summon and send forth to do my bidding. The creatures promised in future expansions by the rules in the base game.

Because seriously, if you’re not going to get minions in Necromancy, where are you going to get them?

Sadly Fantasy Flight didn’t get the memo. Because there are no minions. Not even in Necromancy which is an opportunity so wasted as to be borderline criminal in my opinion.

So if there’s no minions, what is there in the Necromancy school? A surprising amount of attack spells, that’s what. More attack spells is obviously a good thing to keep the game flowing, as well as helping players like me who don’t prefer to use one big card stack to tailor hyper-aggressive decks to their liking.

However these Necromantic attacks, in common with the more defensive cards in the school, tend to also offer the caster a bit of life in return. That offers some quite superb gloating opportunities but it also prolongs proceedings by making it that little bit harder to kill players off. There are some nice flavourful utility cards too, such as the skull servant that acts as a line of sight beacon and the trap-like Boneyard. So it’s a fun school, if a slightly mixed bag.

Speaking of traps, the next new school in the expansion is Hexcraft which, in spite of the fancy-sounding name, is effectively all about traps. On paper, having a bunch of cards that leave dangerous markers all over the board sounds a bit dull. In practice, however, it’s probably the single best thing in this box.

Most hexes have a new range icon that mean they can be cast into any square on the same board as the caster, which makes them very flexible. And given the number of narrow turns and dead ends in Wiz-War, this adaptability makes it incredibly easy to trap enemy wizards into positions where they have to risk crossing the hex and triggering whatever delightfully devious attack it holds for them. It’s like sealing someone behind a wall, only more flexible and more fun. Hexcraft will be going into my decks a lot.

Both the preceding schools bring another new innovation to the game, called Flash Energy. These are in place of normal energy cards and serve an identical function, except they can only be used to power spells and not movement. While this reduces your tactical options, which is bad, it does mean more energy gets used for spells, which is good. Without Flash Energy, most Energy tends to go to movement and the many timer-based spells tend to get neglected. Flash Energy gives them a new lease of life.

The third and final new school is Chaos. As if there wasn’t enough chaos in Wiz-War already. Unsurprisingly, a lot of the cards in the chaos school are dice dependent. The less obvious candidates include things like defence cards that then teleport the caster away in a random direction. At the other end of the spectrum are attack and utility cards where the effect is determined entirely by a dice roll, often including one result that backfires on the caster.

Like the Necromancy cards, this cuts both ways but with an even more evident negative swing. Player interaction and card draw are already quite enough madness and unpredictability without adding more. But on the flip side, madness and unpredictability are half the appeal of Wiz-War.

The problem arises when you cram all these random spells into a relatively small deck. Even the energy cards in the Chaos school are based on the value of a dice roll, so it becomes slightly overwhelming when it’s fully a third of the cards you’re drawing out. Chaos works well when it’s used with the full deck variant, but less so with the original rules as written.

Surprisingly, none of the cards in the expansion are from previous editions of the game, although apparently Tom Joly had an editorial hand in deciding which made the cut. Makes you wonder what else FFG has planned.

And that’s your lot. Nothing game-changing that will win this divisive title new fans, but plenty for the existing fanbase to enjoy. It’s just a shame about the creatures. If I were at once to be cynical yet hopeful, I might suggest FFG is planning a creature-based expansion last, adding monsters to all the schools to try and get players to collect the whole set of expansions. But for now, we’ll have to make do with the dubious joys of Hexcraft.

Thrower’s Tally: Board & iOS Games of 2012

It’s the time of year for lists. Lists of things from the year that’s about to end. Most especially of things that you’ve found to be of surpassing excellence. I am no dissenter, no maverick, not strong enough to resist the pull of seasonal traditions. So here is mine.

Thanks to my slot at Gamezebo I feel, for the first time ever, qualified to make not one list but two. Both in the same article, o lucky reader! First there will be my favourite iOS games of the year, and then my favoured board games. With so much to write there is no longer time for seasonal waffle and chit-chat. On with the picks.

5. Blood of the Zombies

The Fighting Fantasy franchise was something I remember fondly from my childhood 25 years ago, so it’s astonishing that author Ian Livingstone and studio Tin Man Games have managed to ensure it remains relevant and thrilling today. It turns out that Blood of the Zombies makes a superb candidate for the app treatment, having a stripped down combat system and more inherent challenge and replay value than the bulk of the series. And Tin Man didn’t disappoint with their implementation. It’s all spelled out in detail in my Gamezbo review plus more. I’ve enjoyed previous iOS gamebooks but this is the first that was truly special, and made me excited about more Fighting Fantasy and Sorcery adaptations coming next year.

4. Punch Quest

Endless runner games are, in my opinion, a showcase for everything that’s wrong with mobile gaming. Shallow and repetitive, they offer little but the pavlovian rewards obtained from completing arbitrary goals and leaderboard positions. It is therefore a bit of a shock that Punch Quest turned out to be so brilliant. What makes it so is simply depth: there is tremendous variability and enormous skill in this. With a cavalcade of different enemies, items, terrain, bosses and branching paths and the ability to buy and recombine power ups to suit your play style, I’ll quite possibly be running this one endlessly.

3. Summoner Wars

Playdek rarely disappoint in terms of their apps, but I still think this game redefined the bar for board adaptations to mobile. The underlying game is a superb candidate for the treatment in any case being short and having perfectly encapsulated player turns to reduce to-ing and fro-ing. But the app built over it is flawless, looking good, playing smoothly, offering all the functionality you could possibly want. We might have had to wait post-release to actually get a copy but boy, was it ever worth it.

2. Battle of the Bulge

I’ve really said everything I can about this in my Gamezebo review, so go read that. I will add that what makes it better than Summoner Wars is just that Shenandoah Studios didn’t adapt a board game to iOS: they took board game mechanics and created something amazing that actually worked better on a tablet than it would in real life. Can you imagine fiddling with all those ever-changing VP combinations and goals in a real-life game? No, and that’s just the thin end of the wedge in terms of how this app does all the heavy lifting, leaving the gamers totally absorbed in the experience.

The awesome battle academy from Slithering software - a massive, meaty game on a mobile device

1. Battle Academy.

I reviewed this one too, on F:AT. There was never going to be another choice for number one slot: I’ve played this game regularly, as in several times a week, since it was released in late spring. No other game on any platform has managed that feat. It might be expensive, but it’s so, so worth it.

What’s the overarching theme here? Strategy. The strategy genre might be (XCOM excepted) pretty much a dead duck on other platforms but its undergoing a massive renaissance on mobile. That’s not surprising: touch screen interfaces are actually pretty clumsy for most twitch games but they’re perfectly suited to strategy. I suspect there’s going to be some more stellar work in this area in 2013 from the studios behind my top three picks, plus Games Workshop finally entering the mobile market with Space Hulk and Warhammer Quest. Going to be an exciting year.

So, on to the board game picks.

5. Lords of Waterdeep

I’ll probably get some stick for this, but I don’t care. It’s not the cleverest, most innovative game on the block but it made a sterling demonstration of how building on previous designs in a genre, looking at what words and what doesn’t then skimming the cream off the top and recombining it into a single game can create a brilliant thing. Balancing accessibility and fun with some solid strategy, and bringing dreadfully needed interaction into the staid, dull worker placement mechanic, it’s easily the best European-style game I played this year. More details in my review.

4. Android: Netrunner

This earned its slot on the strength of its emergent theme. When you’ve got games like City of Horror that can stick some zombie pictures on top of a generic negotiation mechanic and calling it a theme, Netrunner offers a primal lesson in communicating a sense of place and being through mechanics alone. Playing this you’re no longer a gamer, but for 60 minutes are transfigured into a global corporation or sly hacker. The other stuff, the clever intermarriage of strategy and bluff, the customisation and deckbuilding, is just gravy as discussed in my full review.

Star Wars X-wing miniatures game in action

3. X-Wing

And from one game with wonderful emergent theme to another. It’s much more of an ephemeral thing here, but it’s odd how this game simply *feels* just as it should. Pitch perfect in terms of weight, production, theme and ship handling. Opponents have remarked how they suddenly find themselves humming the Star Wars theme or imagining green and red laser bursts as they play. Personally, every time those little plastic ships come out I’m a child again, even if only for a moment. The game might be a money pit, but how do you put a value on that? If you like, you can put a value on my review instead.

2. Merchant of Venus

I’m still kind of reeling from the fact that thirty years ago someone managed to design an interesting pick up and deliver game and yet virtually everything that followed in its wake was dull as arse. Thus, old as it was, this game came as something of a revelation and a breath of fresh air. That’s why I’ve enjoyed it so much. That and the wonderful manner in which it offers a variable setup that ensures both rich narrative and keeps repeat strategies at bay. Every game re-engages both your logical centers and your imagination anew. Amazingly, here is my review.

Wiz-War Eighth Edition by Fantasy Flight Games game in progress with wizard figures

1. Wiz-War

Remember this, from back close to the turn of last year? I do. It’s so easy to forget early release games when compiling these yearly lists but this has stayed with me, popping out again and again with different groups and in different places, the only game I’ve probably collected a physical dime of plays this year. And every time it’s been ridiculous fun. Hilarious, enthralling, varied, entertaining. Every single time. It’s ticks all the boxes I could want for a short, light game, even offering just enough strategy in the card and position combinations s to keep your brain engaged. An absolute joy: itching to see an expansion. You will be unsurprised by now if I link to my full review of the base game.

The overview on the board game front is a little more troubling. Three out of the top five are reprints. They’re nicely modernised with streamlined rules and high production values, but they’re still reprints. So while it’s great that Fantasy Flight are getting their act together as regards their updating of classic games, and its great to see old material back in the limelight, it’s a bit alarming that so many of the best games I’ve played this year have been reprints rather than fresh designs.

I’ve never been one much for the hype machine. But what I’d like to see in 2013 is some more quality new designs. A deep, interactive deck-builder would be a nice start, something that really makes good on the achingly unfulfilled promise of that genre. In terms of actual titles, the only ones I’ve got earmarked at the moment are story-telling game Story Realms which looks fresh and interesting, Bowen Simmons’ long awaited Guns of Gettysburg, the world war 2 tactical block game Courage from Columbia and the multi-player card driven game Cuba Libre from the designer of Labyrinth. Seeing as it’s felt like a relatively lean year for wargames this year, that’s a nice slice of history for the near future.

Wiz-War Review

If there is genuinely a board game version of development hell, as distinct from the normal travails designers have to go through trying to get a publisher to notice their games, then Wiz-War deserves the award for the longest time spent therein. Originally published in 1985 and much beloved of the early Dungeons & Dragons crowd it went through seven editions before ending up, rather oddly, with dice manufacturer Chessex who promptly sat on the license for 15 years before handing it over to Fantasy Flight Games to release an 8th edition of the game. Shockingly, as someone who was playing board games back in the late 80’s, I never played the original but thankfully Fantasy Flight sent me a review copy so I could finally get the chance to experience this seminal title.

The concept is simple. Each player is a wizard, pitted against one another in some sort of labyrinth where they must gain ascendancy by killing other wizards or stealing their magical treasures or some combination thereof. Wizards have a hand of spell cards which consist not just of out and out attack spells but a very wide variety of magical effects covering such things as altering aspects of the labyrinth, summoning things, buffing, protecting and transforming the wizard and more besides. The range of effects is pretty spectacular and it’s from the unpredictable nature of combining and stacking these effects that the game gets much of its charm. If this reminds you a bit of Magic: the Gathering this is because the designer of that game was heavily inspired by Wiz-War.

Wiz-War has a long history, and a tendency to divide gamers into love it and hate it camps. Those who hate it cite an overwhelming level of randomness from the card draw and an almost complete lack of strategy. The player relationships are free form: you can pick on, ally with, backstab, gang up on and generally interact with whoever you want however you want whenever you want. The victory conditions are easy to achieve and the maze is claustrophobic and restricts interaction in unpredictable ways. The result is that many games are won or lost extremely suddenly thanks simply to being in the right place at the right time with the right card.

The hate it camp is completely right. It is also entirely wrong.

Wiz-War Eighth Edition by Fantasy Flight Games game in progress with wizard figures

I recently played a four-player game (the maximum it permits) of Wiz-War that lasted 37 minutes including setup and rules explanation time. I’ve never had a game run over an hour and in spite of the heavy card text and occasional need to pause and check the rules to figure out precisely how two card effects interact the game is quick-playing and downtime is minimal. It’s a fast, exciting, thrilling game, fast enough that it would almost qualify as filler material. The fact that the game can deliver a scintillating, ever-shifting and unpredictable landscape of allegiances, grudges and desperate last minute attempts to foil someone on the home straight in this short a time is positively a bonus, not a problem. Yes, by all means whine and complain about 3 hour plus games that reproduce this effect and I’ll gladly join in. But this is a sixty-minute game and it’s the perfect place to experience and enjoy the wide gamut of interaction allowed by free-form negotiation that often becomes incredibly tedious in a longer game. You might prefer challenging, logical games with perfect mathematical solutions but for the sake of variety, for the sake of your humanity, you owe it to yourself once in a while to let your hair down and actually interact with your opponents. Wiz-War is the perfect place to do it, cramming virtually every possibility into the smallest possible package.

And whilst it’s entirely true to say that ultimately there is very little strategy to the game, trying to claim it has no meaningful decisions is entirely false. Every turn the seven or so cards you have in your hand combined with your three squares of movement stack up to a mind-boggling array of creative possibilities. Simply waltzing round a corner and power-thrusting a startled wizard is a sign of the terminally unimaginative. In games I have found myself boxed into a corner through a truly fiendish combination of create wall and stone block spells. I have crowed with delight as I have forced another wizard to repeatedly walk in and out of yet another wizards’ thorn bush. I have watched in amazement as a wizard projected themselves across a corridor and bounced a lightning bolt back and forth between the two walls, electrocuting the poor unfortunate in the middle. I have bathed in acid, turned into a pile of goo, eaten walls, reversed gravity, punched people to death with my bare hands and many other things that would make even Gandalf and Harry Potter stand agog.

The endless card combinations together with Fantasy Flights’ innovation of combining spells with the energy needed to power them into dual-use cards where you choose one effect or the other mean the game is packed with creative tactical choices making every round a fun, fascinating puzzle to explore. No, in the end all your creativity and skill might not matter one jot in determining who wins, but it will keep you in the running for a bit longer and it will be tremendously entertaining. I once pointed out that I’d delight in Twilight Struggle even if the game were horribly unbalanced and largely random (Twilight Struggle is neither of those things) because trying to work through all the possible card effects was so engaging. It’s the same here, on a smaller scale. Who cares who wins when it’s just so much fun to try? This is the magic behind how it works 2-player in a straight fight to the death. It’s not as much fun as 3 or 4, but it’s plenty fun enough.

Wiz-War 8th edition by Fantasy Flight Games cards
Aside from combining spells and energy on the same cards, Fantasy Flight offer a variety of other innovations to old fans of the game. The most notable is the division of the spell deck into schools of magic, allowing you to pick school (and thus card) combinations you like and ignore ones you don’t. It also has the effect of focusing card types together, ensuring for example that if there are Create Wall spells in the deck, there will also be Destroy Wall spells and a higher chance you’ll get the latter to respond to the former with thanks to the thinner deck. But pretty much all the changes that Fantasy Flight made – and they’re mostly improvements in my opinion – can be reversed by old-school players thanks to an optional rules set that can configure the game back to its original state.

The publishers have also taken the opportunity to tighten and clarify the rules leading to less confusion over the plethora of possible interlocking spell effects. There’s still some, sure, but they’re minor and can usually be decided in a “sensible” way with the agreement of all the players. Of course this reprint also has the legendary Fantasy Flight production quality with cool plastic sculpts and fine art – I particularly like the fact that the wizards in most of the illustrations on the cards actually look like the wizard miniatures, a nice attention to detail. I originally turned my nose up a bit at the space-age boards but they look fantastic in the flesh, mystical chambers crackling with fluorescent magical energies. It’s great quality stuff for the relatively reasonable asking price.

I love Wiz-War. It’s an unbelievable, outrageous distillation of everything that’s great about multi-player conflict games, take-that card games and fantasy adventure titles into an incredibly heady brew. If I have one black mark against the game its simply that they left out some old fan favourite spells such as Buddy and Amplify and my own personal favourite group of spells that allows you to summon minions, lord it over them and send them to attack your enemies. It’s simply less of a game that you don’t get the chance to be a gloating necromancer. But it’s clear from the rules and spell descriptions that many of the missing effects have been planned for, so hopefully an expansion pack is in the works to rectify this. And in the meantime I’m still going to be trash-talking and smacking down my would-be competitor mages over and over again. I mentioned earlier this is short enough for filler and so it is: but the fact of the matter is that so far it’s never been used as filler because one game to start a session has inevitably lead to it dominating the table for the whole time. Too much, it seems, is never enough.