Archive

Archive for the ‘Games’ Category

Space Hamsters To Return

January 5, 2022 Leave a comment

So it looks like Spelljammer is coming back.

In case you missed it, Spelljammer  was a setting for second edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons1 which introduced wooden space-ships and let players ‘set sail’ to other worlds (other D&D settings). 

Now you may wonder how that works. Most D&D worlds are pseudo-medieval after all, how does all the space stuff work? The answer is magic. Powerful devices called spelljamming helms ‘power’ the wooden ships and gravity works in a way convenient to the plot. They also borrowed ideas for 2nd Century AD astrophysics2 to add phlogiston and crystal spheres; basically oceans and mountains but ‘in space’. Because fantasy.

The setting blends 1950’s era pulp sci-fi with age of sail style fantasy. So we get pirates, buccaneers, mysterious ports and so on. The setting came out in 1989, a messy time for D&D. The company owned the rights to Amazing Stories3and Buck Rogers4at the time and this informed the game. They’d taken the things that had inspired Star Wars such as John Carter of Mars and added swashbuckling pirates and high fantasy magic.  It was an amazing idea.

Of course, the initial boxed set was a mess. Not enough setting and too many rules, lots of cardboard. The supplements where better and it’s big move was to give the brain-eating squid monsters known as Mind Flayers their own evil space-ships, that looked like horrific sea beasties. On the other hand, it had Giant Space Hamsters. Which worked exactly the way you think they would, big tubes to crawl in and everything.

It did well enough. It also almost became it’s own ‘Video Interactive Boardgame’ – TSR had produced one for vanilla D&D called DragonStrike and Spelljammer: Wildspace would have been next, had the company not headed into financial difficulties. Instead all we have is this:

Spelljammer sort of went away as the game moved on, but was not forgotten. Later editions couldn’t resist dropping it in as an Easter Egg here and there and Third Edition did get a mini-supplement in an issue of Dungeon Magazine. Spelljammer ships have appeared in a couple of the adventure supplements for D&D Fifth Edition as well (I won’t say which ones because of spoilers). The new Baldur’s Gate video game also features something very familar to fans of Spelljammer. 

So why am I saying it’s back? Well there’s two massive clues. One is that Wizards of the Coast recently released an article on their ‘Unearthed Arcana’ blog heavily features beasties from the old Spell Jammer game, as well as a few things from elsewhere. (You can find it here if you fancy a quick look.) These articles tend to ‘test the waters’ before a book comes out.

The other massive clue is a lovely sneak peak we got recently in a “Future of D&D” panel. It seems that one of the books features Boo on the cover. Now Boo is the hamster companion to Minsc, one of D&D’s iconic heroes. But he’s not just any hamster. He’s a miniature giant space hamster.

BOO!


It also doesn’t hurt that lead designer Chris Perkins admitted to having written screen plays based on another old property, Star Frontiers. Which is Spelljammer adjacent, sharing a lot of the feel and mood of the setting. So it really looks like D&D Fifth Edition is about to boldly go into some sort of wild space like setting. It’ll be fascinating to see how this effects more up-to-date D&D settings like Eberron and Ravnica. Will we see the Vox Machina crew take on Space Pirates? We’ll have to wait and see.



1: Nothing terribly advanced about AD&D – the ‘advanced’ was added so Gygax didn’t have to share royalties.  Confused the heck out of me when I was 11 and put loads of kids off. Nice one Gary.

2: The word astrophysics is doing a lot of heavy lifting here.

3: Amazing was a big deal when it came to science fiction back in the day. Deserves it’s own post
.

4: TSR produced a Buck Rogers RPG. It was much better than it had any right to be.

Categories: Games, Geek, Reviews, Writing

Escape The Dark Castle

July 1, 2018 Leave a comment

For those who grew up in the 80’s, it’s odd to think of that decade of having its own distinctive style. The distinctive and simple style is immediately recognisable to many; not just the faded VHS and faux-neon look, but a simpler, scrappy style common amongst fringe magazines and books. Rapid fire adventure game Escape the Dark Castle taps into this retro vibe to create something that feels it could have been 1985’s hot new thing.

Escape the Dark Castle is elegant in its simplicity. You pick a character (A miller, a cook, a smith) etc. You’ve been imprisoned in the Dark Castle and you’re trying to escape. Each character has a bespoke dice and this reflects their strengths. The Smith does well in physical challenges so has lots of fist icons on their die. The Tailor isn’t that strong but is smarter and their die reflects this and so on.

Each round you draw a card called a ‘chapter’. You read out the encounter and roll dice to pass the test. Typically, this is a fight, but not always. You work together to defeat the encounter and move on, until you face ‘a boss monster’. Aesthetically, the whole thing looks great. A jet black box with a line art illustrations that look like they’ve come screaming out of some dark abyss of 1980’s style gothic fantasy. Big chunky dice. All the monsters are ghosts, demons, skeletons, proper old school nightmare fuel, the sort of thing aged moral guardians would make a fuss about. Cracking stuff. Quick to play as well, takes about 20 minutes.

It’s a fun team game with a solid narrative and a proper look and feel. It’s so retro I can imagine the Stranger Things kids playing it, but that just makes us love it even more. Like all good games of this sort, it generates fun stories amongst players. For example, when playtesting we ran into an encounter that lead to some particularly hilarious mental images where one of our heroes kept foul of traps. In-jokes where swiftly formed; it’s that sort of game.

This is a game that feels like it’s from the 80’s and is so good it’s survived the test of time. It’s a new game with an easy to pick up mechanic and feel that makes it feel like a classic. I understand the games producers have big plans for the future, so that’s exciting.

Categories: Games, Old Reviews

Power Grid

January 14, 2013 3 comments

The board game that most of us learn to play whilst growing up is Monopoly. When played incorrectly (which most people do), it teaches the players that managing money is all about luck, bluffing and buying the first thing you see. When played using the rules provided in the box1, it teaches us that managing money is all about arguing and swindling. As life lessons go, both of those are pretty rubbish, which goes to show that if you want to learn about money, don’t learn it from anything called Monopoly.

Instead, you should learn some lessons from the excellent German boardgame, Power Grid. Designed by the award winning Friedemann Friese, this complicated looking but surprisingly simple game actually does what Monopoly only claims to; it’s about seizing corporate control and being the sole controller of a particular resource. As the name suggest, the commodity in question is electrical power; you and your friends via for control of a nation’s power stations. The game is German, so the default map is Germany. However, other boards are available for those obsessed with maps and simulation. The aim of the game is to provide power to as many different cities as you can. Players bid on types of power stations, some more efficient than others.

The game in which everyone wants the Wind Turbines. Except Daily Mail readers, of course.

The game in which everyone wants the Wind Turbines. Except Daily Mail readers, of course.

The twiddle here is that this is really a game about managing cost, making budgets and bluffing. At the start of the game, the less useful stations are the first available to buy. Typically, these are also hungry for fuel, and you also have to buy those resources. The more efficient you are in your bidding power stations the better, as it means you can afford to get better equipment as the game progresses.

You might be wondering how a game about budgeting can be fun; well, it’s all in the way to try to outthink and out-bluff your fellow players. This is a game about picking your moment and purchasing wisely. Instead of the utterly random elements of Monopoly, the player gets rewarded for thinking ahead and out thinking their competitors.

The map provides a number of strategy elements as well, but handling power and cash is the key part of winning here.
Power Grid is a family game, though one that is squarely pitched at teenagers and older. Though the subject matter feels dry, it’s absurdly fun to see that there’s a bargain on the table and then plotting to see how you can be the one to own it. It’s fun but also sneakily educational, which is always nice. Of all the games that combine world domination with shopping (and they are quite a few) Power Grid wins hands down.


1: Johnny Nexus wrote an excellent article on why Monopoly never gets played properly here.

Categories: Games, Reviews

Ordos

November 30, 2012 1 comment

They are a great many of projects that I’d love to do, but I am completely aware that I don’t have the time or resources to handle them with the level of care I feel they deserve. Many of these are LARP1 projects. Despite my huge love of games and a desire to tell wild stories, LARP is very hard to do well.

One of these dream projects is a thing that I call Ordos. Set in the Warhammer 40K universe, players would play members of the Inquisition. Each player would select an exquisitely detailed character from a set list, and it would be quite rules light. Inspired by NWO Games Ars Magica campaign2, this would bring together incredibly powerful characters and make them interact with each other.

There would be 3 games in total; Xenos, Malleus, Hereticus.3, and each would have very high costume standards and set pieces designed to evoke the universe.

(c) Volpin Props

The 40K universe simply begs to have many great props made for it.


Each event would be a High Conclave, and in the game world, the events would be spaced centuries apart. (In reality, you’d get an event every 18 months or so). The site would ideally be a repurposed industrial building, with plenty of places for conspirators to sneak off and talk in hushed tones. The Victoria Baths in Manchester would be ideal.

The idea would be to bring to live the complex and gothic world of Warhammer 40,000 without falling into the clichés that haunt LARP systems. Because the medium began as a way of simulating fantasy adventures, many LARP suffers from a focus on action, typically using rubber or foam weaponry.4 Though this has its place, the real appeal to larp is the same as any other media; it’s ability to bring you out of yourself and explore a fictional world, and this can be done without the need for waves and waves of monsters.

Such games are possible. As we speak, someone is organising a Battle Star Galactica game on an old battleship. It looks marvellous, but it’s unlikely I can afford it. I do hope it is the way that LARP will go in the future and time will tell. To echo the battle cry of many a games organiser, I want to play these sort of games, not run them.


1: LARP, aka Live Action Roleplay, often described as cross-country pantomime, it’s a deeply silly and extravagant hobby that combines the many of the logistical problems of theatre with the heartache and insanity common to novelists. Once you’ve ran the game, that’s it; it will be never repeated, you were either there or not. It’s a great experience that feels brilliant and looks very silly. It’s utterly ephemeral and there really is no other media quite like it.

2: New World Order Games were a merry band of larp organisers who created a series of remarkable and highly detailed game based on the Ars Magica roleplaying game. To give you a hint as to how much work went into briefing the players, you can take a look at 700-page book composed of the all the players briefs for the first game. Later games have two volumes rather than just the one, and an equal amount of love went into the props and costume. Unsurprisingly, several members of that creative team now produce other highly popular games.

3: These are three major factions of the Inquisition. For the uninitiated, Warhammer 40K’s version of the Inquisition is a fear inducing organisation who are utterly above the law. They root out demonic infestation, treachery and alien influence, and can use any means to do so, including blowing up worlds.

4: The game I’m currently writing, Greater Goods and Lesser Gods experiments with these ideas, but goodness will there be a lot of action. It’s a 1950’s Dan Dare style game, and it should be huge fun.

Categories: Games, Geek

Dan Abnett Interview

November 26, 2012 Leave a comment

No blog post update today; way too much to write up. Instead, take a look at this interview I did with Dan Abnett for Starburst magazine.

Link Here.

Categories: Books, Comic Books, Games, Geek

Rockets, Rayguns and Really Nice Tea

April 23, 2012 Leave a comment

As you may have gathered, I ran a larp event sometime ago. It went well, apparently.

Rather than try and explain it, we’ve thrown together a video that combines photos of the event alongside one of the games easter eggs; an audio tape detailing a disastrous mission to mars. Enjoy.

Categories: Games, Geek

Doctor Who, The Adventure Games

November 14, 2011 Leave a comment

The BBC has always been keen to embrace new technology and media. If you grew up in the 80’s, you may remember BBC Microcomputers, TV shows like Micro Live and hi-tech schemes like the Domesday Project. These days, the British Broadcasting Corporation continues to experiment, and the fruits of this work include things such as iPlayer. One of their recent projects is to investigate the notion of video games as a way of telling stories. After all, Auntie Beeb produces some world class stories intended for TV and Radio, why not tell stories using mouse and keyboard?1

The latest result of these explorations are the Doctor Who: The Adventure Games, now in its second series. The games are first person puzzlers, you take the role of The Doctor and Companions (mostly Amy, though we also get to play Rory in the most recent series), and go on a limited adventure through time and space, fighting the usual sort of villains and saving the world in the process. Anyone who has internet access in the UK can download them for free, and they’re designed to run on most PC’s, the spec being rather minimal.

Quality varies depending on each individual chapter, and also on how much of a fan you are of the show. In each case, the actual graphics and interface can be best be described as average and adequate; these games are intended to be played by anyone , so don’t expect fantastic quality graphics or a radical departure from the usual conventions of games control; this can be a little frustrating at times but it does mean that if you’re rubbish at games you should be able to have a much fun as a seasoned First Person Shooter Champion.

The first series featured four stories. City of the Daleks was the first game they ever produced, and it really is there to make the geeks make happy little sounds; it begins in London, 1963, but oh no, the Daleks have invaded.1 . So is London the titular City of the Daleks? Well, not really, and that’s part of the fun. For a first try, it’s a pretty strong opener.

(c) BBC

Voiced by the shows actors, the voice work clearly improves over time.

It’s followed up by Blood of the Cybermen, which is set on an Arctic base where things have gone horribly wrong. Combining classic Cybermen stories with the sort of frozen paranoia you get in classic sci-fi horror stories, and also has some of my favourite (yet cutest) Who monsters.

Game number three, TARDIS, is the weakest of the series, which is a real shame as it’s written by James Moran3, who’s a favourite of mine. It promises a chance to sneak around the famous spaceship and really fails to deliver, mosyly because it’s too short and too small. I suspect it’s a victim of time and budget rather than anything else.

The first series ends with Shadows of the Vashta Nerada, which features horrible shadow monsters and giant sharks. Again, it could be much better, and it’s a little maze-like in places. It’s still fun, though the first two games stand out much more than the last two.

The first series also featured a series of collectable items, little Easter-Eggs that told you either a little about real world history or a little about Doctor Who. They’ve sort of been replaced in the new series, and I have to admit I totally missed them first time, and the reason why made me laugh and groan in equal measure.

The second series has begun strongly with The Gunpowder Plot; again, it features the sort of thing that will make fans of both the classic and new series do a little dance, and the voice-acting has gotten much stronger. There also seems to be a interesting division of labour in this one; The Doctor does all the thinking, Amy does a lot of talking to people and Rory does a fair bit of heavy lifting, which is works quite nicely. It also seems much more keen to talk to you about history, and I did wonder if they had a copy of National Curriculum to hand whilst writing it.4

The series in general suffers from being simplistic and the ‘puzzle’ aspect of Doctor Who: The Adventure Games can be a little literal in places. It’s also a little buggy, but nothing that would hurt your enjoyment. As a video game aimed squarely at a family audience who happen to be fans, it works and I am looking forward to seeing more.


1: BBC projects you may have missed include Ghosts of Albion and the The Torchwood Alternate Reality Game.
2: 1963 is the year the show first aired. They do like to do stuff like this, and I think it’s great that this sort of care and attention is obvious in the work.
3: The rest of the games have been written by Phil Ford, who did a lot of work for that other Doctor Who spin off Sarah Jane Adventures.
4: Hooray for engaging kids in education. And adults, for that matter.

Categories: Games, Reviews Tags:

Let’s stomp some Orks…

October 3, 2011 1 comment

The recently launched Onlive Service gave me the opportunity to try out a recently released video game for the princely sum of £1. Being a massive nerd, I chose Relic Entertainment’s Space Marine. Onlive works by live-streaming the game onto your PC, which means you get to play games that use high-end graphics on any sort of PC, provided you’ve got a decent internet connection.1.

Space Marine is a big bucket of fun. It’s not subtle. It’s not going to win awards for clever storytelling, innovative game design or revolutionary insights into First-Person Shooters. What it does do, very well, it let you play a nine-foot tall genetically engineered super-soldier clad in power armour wielding a chain-sword.2 You run round killing Orks in brutal, almost comical ways, and when you’ve killed enough Orks, you pick up a jet-pack and big glowing hammer kill some more Orks.

The game is breath-taking in its simplicity. You shoot the baddies, and when you’ve ran out of bullets, you hit them with some sort of cool melee weapon. It’s brutal. It’s violent. It’s highly entertaining. At the same time, it evokes the grime and futility of the 40K setting; a world where we’ve conquered the stars, yet mankind is trapped in a Dark Ages mentality, surrounded on all sides by hostile forces that want to see the galaxy burn.

Captain Titus (c) Games Workshop

Ultramarines; The Manchester United of Space Marines

The plot focuses on Ultramarine Captain Titus, and his two squad mates, given the daunting task of preventing invading Orks from looting the most valuable assets from a world under siege. It comes with a supporting cast of normal, everyday humans (The Imperial Guard) who are mostly there to look strong, brave and die horribly. They also make for the most compelling characters in the game.

Level design is a little dull in places, but as the game is set on planet-sized factory, that’s forgiveable. Still, in the grim darkness of the 41st millennium, people seem to use a lot of lifts. The cut-scenes aren’t terribly intrusive, and exist to not only herd the player toward the fun, but also add to the overall atmosphere. They are a handful of stand-out sequences (particularly one on the train), though it’d be lovely to see more. Dawn of War fans will be pleased to know that they are some nods to that series of games, and lends a consistent feel to the ongoing narrative. Warhammer 40K is at it’s a best when you get a feel for the how incredibly big the setting is.

It’s a fairly short game, taking about eight to ten hours to get through, and it really does feel like it needs a sequel (and much more plot). Still, Space Marine is worth a look, if you like first-person shooters, and definitely worth a look if you like FPS and Warhammer 40K.


1: Onlive works fine as a service. There is a very short wait to get your selected game to load during peak times, and it dropped out on me once during ten hours worth of play. That’s pretty good. My only criticism is that other users can watch you play and vote on how well you’re doing. This is bad, because I suck at video games. However, you can be easily turn off this function, which means I can hide my shame.
2: A chain-sword is a chain-saw sword, obviously. American science-fantasy gives us light-sabres. British science-fantasy gives us chain-swords, which are way cooler by a magnitude by awesome. This is why Warhammer 40K is better than Star Wars. Fact.

Categories: Games, Geek, Reviews Tags: ,