Interesting gaming discussion about player control over plot

A friend and I are having a discussion of an upcoming RPG campaign in which the PCs mentally travel back in time to earlier incarnations of themselves. It’s based on the excellent RealTimeCore rules-ultralight game. Those of you interested in game design might enjoy (and event want to join) our discussion of plot twists, drama points, and bennies.

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Hell yeah, Agricola!

Got another chance last weekend to play one of my all-time favorite boardgames: Uwe Rosenberg’s Agricola. The game came out in Germany a couple of years ago, then American publisher Z-Man Games snapped up the rights to an English-language version. It’s a worker placement economic strategy game, to use some semi-industry specific terms. At the start of game, each player controls one farmer in early-Modern Europe, with no resources but a little spare food, a two-room wooden hut, and some empty land. Each turn the farmer takes a single action–gathering wood or clay, plowing a field, going fishing, having a child, building fences, gathering sheep, etc. There are always more fun and useful actions to be taken than a character can do, but at the same time the most optimum choice may have already been taken by another player on that turn. The available options differ slightly depending on the number of players, and the game supports everything from five players down to solo play equally well. Given the number of cards and the plethora of choices available every turn, Agricola has a higher replay value than any boardgame I know.

Agricola

Agricola

The game uses victory points to determine a winner at the end–how big is your family? Have you improved your house? Plowed field and fenced in pastures? Stored up grain and vegetables?–but it doesn’t seem to matter much in play. Others have remarked on the phenomenon, and it was our experience this weekend as well. It’s so fun to grow your little farm that even the most hardcore gamers don’t start to really analyze and optimize their strategies for the first few sessions. It’s an expensive game, with several boards and many wooden pieces, so it lists for around $70. I still recommend it without reservation–look for a used copy or wait for a sale if you have to, but Agricola is one of the best boardgames out there.

Characters in survival horror

I want to talk about characters for survival horror. These aren’t the hotshot cops of Lethal Weapon, the spies of The Bourne Identity, or the soldiers of Aliens. I’m thinking here of Barbara, the frightened young woman from Night of the Living Dead; Jim, the injured bicycle courier from 28 Days Later; Heather, the teenage daughter in Silent Hill 3. These are everyday people thrust into terrible circumstances–isolated from civilization, threatened by deadly supernatural foes, lacking useful gear, ill-prepared to handle the sudden collapse of the world around them.

Then there are survival horror characters in roleplaying games like All Flesh Must Be Eaten. These can be the same kind of everyday schmoes who barricade themselves inside a shopping mall in Dawn of the Dead. They can even be mystically gifted, destined to lead the human resistance against evil. For gaming purposes, I much prefer survivors: people with a regular, everyday existence who hold some edge that lets them cope with sudden danger and violence.

    a backyard mechanic who can find parts and fix cars to move faster than the undead
    an abuse survivor who’s developed fast reflexes and acute situational awareness to stay out of the hospital
    an office worker who blows off steam at the gun range on weekends
    a fourth-year med school dropout working a dead end sales job

If you make roleplaying characters too powerful, it’s no longer really survival horror. It becomes an action story with zombies instead of Nazis. Characters that are too weak can lend themselves well to entertaining play for a while, but they’re basically Happy Meals with legs. Survival horror requires isolation and danger, and regular folks can’t plausibly survive long under the stresses that horror survival demands. Given the suggestion of one of my players, I’m going to give folks a little more structure for making their characters.

Pretty good!

So my playset took second place in the contest! I won, and I quote, “30 geekgold worth of tax-free wampum from the RPG Geek casino for his excellent playset. No comment from Ward Churchill as yet.” I know it was a small contest for a particular niche of a shrinking hobby, but it’s still a rewarding accomplishment. See earlier blog entries if you have questions about the Fiasco RPG, or if you have no idea what I’m talking about.

Fiasco on the rez

As a followup to my last post, the Fiasco playset I’ve been working on is finished! I found out at the last moment that the rpggeek website was even holding a contest, so I went ahead and entered it. Perhaps it will bring fame and fortune! (Or more realistically mention on another website and maybe a free book.) If you want to check out the playset, a pdf is available gratis at this link.

The Invincible Hammer-Wheel!

From RPGNet poster Soylent comes the best description of a GM vs. clueless player interaction that I’ve ever read.

Player: I hear you’re running a superhero game. Can I play?
Me: Sure. Do you have a character concept in mind?
Player: The Invincible Hammer-Wheel!
Me: Uh… (keep in mind this was to be a “serious” supers game)
Player: He has hammers for hands and wheels for feet! Or, wheels for hands and hammers for feet. I haven’t decided.
Me: And how did he come by these “powers?”
Player: He was born that way.
Me: Must have been rough on his folks…
Player: He was raised by farm implements.
Me: …and his motivation for doing good?
Player: He lives in the woods.

New games!

After going a long time without playing any new boardgames I’ve now played three in less than a month. Last night Suri and I got together with Casey to play Dominion, the latest German boardgame from Rio Grande Games to sweep every boardgame award on planet Earth. (Seriously, what is it with the Germans? Why are they so awesome at making games?) It was a little difficult to understand before we started playing, but once you get the flow the turns go very quickly. It’s the differences from ordinary deck-building card games that throw you at first: you never have ANY cards “in play” on the board in front of you when it’s not your turn and in most variants you have little ability to affect your fellow players. The strategy mostly involves choosing what to buy, especially early on in the game. I had mined enough silver and gold to replace my copper cards by the end of the game; that made my sudden late-game Province-buying spree much easier.

The Stars Are Right is an equally good strategic card game, but with a very different flow. The game board of constellations changes with almost every player’s turn, limiting the utility of planning out your play in

The Stars Are Right

advance. Figuring out the correct moves to summon your unspeakable horrors can take a while, creating a fair amount of downtime. I’d be curious to try this as a two-player game to see if that speeds up the play. Even with the slow pace, this is an elegant, well-balanced strategy game. Lovecraft would likely disapprove of the whimsical art style, but he was afraid of degenerate French Canadians, so we have to take his opinions with a non-Euclidean grain of salt.

Ticket to Ride has been around for a few years now, but I’d never gotten to play until Christmas at Frank and Siobhan’s. I see why this game has been such a smash: gameplay that’s easy enough for an older child to follow, beautiful production values, instant gratification in building routes along the way, and long-term satisfaction at completing long train routes and blocking your opponents from doing the same.

It mystifies me that games as un-fun as Monopoly still sell with all the other great options out there. If your main exposure to board and card games has been beat-up copies of Sorry and Uno during childhood, here are some other great options.

  • Settlers of Cataan
  • Puerto Rico
  • Illuminati
  • Axis and Allies
  • Pirate’s Cove
  • Tigris and Euphrates
  • Frag
  • Formula De
  • Tikal
  • Talisman
  • Kill Dr. Lucky