Massive Equipment

 

I recently published an article summarising my thoughts on CMON’s new Dungeon Crawler, Massive Darkness. It ended up being a LONG article, and there were still a fair few things I didn’t get the chance to go into properly, so I’ve decided to pull out a few chunks, and give them a more detailed look at in their own right. This is the first of those articles, and it’s concerned with the issue of Loot.

Starting Equipment At the start of a game of Massive Darkness, each hero gets a starter weapon (which won’t be very good), and some starter armour (similarly poor quality). Luckily, there are plenty of ways for you to find new pieces of gear for your heroes:

  • Every time you open the door to a new room, you will spawn some loot chests.
  • Every time a “Guardian” (any monster except a minion) spawns, it comes with a piece of equipment
  • At the end of every round, an event happens, and a few of these will spawn more loot chests.

Ongoing access to loot in the game is necessary. At any given point in time in Massive Darkness, the game will be at a particular “level” somewhere between 1 and 5. Barring other factors, you will start on tile 1, drawing level 1 loot, and fighting level 1 monsters. When you advance to tile 2, the game’s level will increase, so you’d better find some level 2 weapons to keep the fight on an even footing.

How much loot?

TreasureChestsThere is A LOT of loot: When you open a door, you reveal a door card which will determine the number of enemies and the amount of loot present – typically, each room-space will have 2 or 3 chests of loot (at the level of the current tile), or a single chest of the next level up. Most tiles probably have about 2 sets of 2 or 3 rooms – maybe 12 items per tile.

One of the issues that people have pointed out with loot, is that it doesn’t scale with the player-count. So, if you have the maximum of six heroes, you’re probably only getting 1 or 2 new things per tile, and it’ll probably take a fair bit of horse-trading just to get something vaguely suitable for your character. By contrast, a solo hero will get all of that gear to themselves, allowing them to pick exactly what they want to equip.

Personally, I don’t have a problem with lots of loot: it’s cool to have lots of stuff. Various people have drawn parallels with Diablo, the computer game which lets you smash your way through a multitude of monsters and rewards you with a cornucopia of goodies for doing so. The last thing I’d want to happen with Massive Darkness would be for it to somehow get turned into a Mage Knight-style grind, where getting a single weapon upgrade takes 45 minutes.

 

What do I need?

NoMagic Bow
That bow might look good, but it’s not going to help the Wizard trigger any abilities

It’s also worth pointing out that a new loot card, however powerful it might be, won’t necessarily be any good for your character.

Most characters – or at least their chosen class – will lean towards Melee, Magic or Ranged for combat, and will need to equip a matching weapon to benefit from many of their skills. You can give the battle Wizard a longbow, but none of his “Magic:…” skills will activate.

Magic Staff
Even with the reduced dice, the Staff might be a better option

I think that the need for a specific type of weapon goes some way towards ironing out the scaling issues – with 6 heroes, there’s a pretty good chance that at least one character will want whichever item has just been found, whereas a primarily Ranged/Magic party of 2 Heroes (the campaign my wife and I are playing) won’t want 90% of the melee weapons they pick up, meaning that the “excess” isn’t quite as big as it might seem.

WoundOrHeal
To wound or to heal?

It’s also worth pointing out that when you do have multiple weapons that suit you, it’s still not always an easy decision which to take: 1 sword has better attack dice, but another gives a defence boost. One deals wounds (i.e. unblockable damage) on special symbols, whilst another heals the wielder with the same symbols. Sometimes you’ll be able to make a decision and stick with it, based on the party composition (I’m the tank, I’ll take the defensive boosts, and not care about my low damage output because others are taking care of that), but sometimes you’ll need to switch between the healing weapon and the wounding weapon in the face of an enemy that’s turned up rolling 5 defence dice. Whilst you can keep hold of as much stuff as you like, your character only has 2 hand-slots, meaning a maximum of 2 weapons equipped at a time (often just the 1 in practice as many of the good weapons are 2-handed), and it takes a full action to swap out one weapon for another in your bag.

 

Not all weapons are created equal

BetterBow
There might be times when you’d want it, but it’s hard to say that the level 3 is objectively better

It’s also worth noting that even if you ignore the divisions into Melee/Ranged/Magic weapons, some are simply better than others: a Sword which offers 1 Yellow Dice is not as good as a sword which offers 1 Red (assuming they have no additional benefits, and both use a single hand-slot). The overall trend as you move up the levels will be towards increased power, but a strong Level 1 weapon can (at least situationally) be the equal or even the better of a weak Level 2 weapon. This helps retain a bit of interest in searching for loot, as there is no guarantee of getting something much better than you currently have equipped, and with this chance to ‘fail’ to upgrade, it’s important to have repeat opportunities, in order to avoid a negative experience.

 

Where it Goes – Transmutation

Transmute In low player-count games, even with 2 or 3 weapons you want to keep on hand for emergencies, there’s still going to be some stuff nobody wants, and with no backpack limit [cf Zombicide Black Plague where each survivor is limited to 2x Hand-slot, 1x Body-Slot and 5x Backpack space], you can keep hold of it all. More fun though, is to transmute it!

When you transmute you discard 3 items to draw a new item. The new item comes from the deck with a number 1 higher than the lowest level item you discarded. Assuming you can discard 3 of the same level (generally your current level), that means you can get an item that’s a level ahead of where you and the monsters currently are.

Transmuting is a fun idea, and I think it’s a strength of the game that it’s included. However, the execution is a bit wonky.

As I mentioned above, normally it takes one of your 3 actions this turn to re-organise your inventory (i.e. put away the sword and replace it with the longbow) or to trade equipment with another hero in your space. Transmuting however not only doesn’t cost an action, but it also gives you a free reorganising action!

It’s not the only time you’ll come across this in Massive Darkness, but the idea of adding a bonus to something that’s already really good just feels slightly out-of-whack to me. I think it’s understandable why Transmuting is at the top of a lot of House-Rulers’ hit lists.

Fixes

As I’ve talked about elsewhere, I think that people have been getting very carried away with trying to change too much too quickly in this game, and I certainly can’t claim to have any properly tested house rules. However, I do want to at least touch on the issues around loot

Fix 1: Too Much Loot

1Man Much Loot
Lots of loot for Owen!

There are a lot of suggestions out there around the various different things that people think should be done with loot. Some people suggest reducing the amount of loot spawned, based on player-counts, whilst others think you should draw the required number but then be forced to choose one/some, and discard the rest.

If you want to get really far into it, there are even some fairly involved schemes out there where the chests count as “points” towards getting things, but you need points equal to the current level to get an item – so 3 chests on tile 1 gets you 3 things. 3 Chests on tile 3 gets you 1 thing, and 3 chests on tile 5 leave you still needing to find something else in order to actually get a weapon.

AllPeopleLoot
Doesn’t look quite so impressive now he has to share

Personally I don’t see much appeal to most of these suggestions – I’d certainly be quiet happy to see CMON produce a more involved, more appropriately scaled set of door cards for a future iteration of the game, but beyond that, I don’t want to bring in a level of fiddly bookkeeping where I have to keep swapping things around.

As I’ve already mentioned, a lot of people are drawing the parallels between Massive Darkness and Diablo, and I think that having bucketloads of loot is a good thing. If I really wanted to cut down the piles and piles of cards we were dealing with, then I think I’d just impose a Zombicide-style Backpack limit: Characters may carry a maximum of 5 non-equipped cards at any time, rather than getting too much more complicated (Story mode already does this to an extent, but that’s another story…)

Fix 2: Transmuting

Tweaking Transmute does seem like one of the most obvious places in this game to add a house-rule. Any situation where an activity costs you an action by itself but can be done for free whilst doing something else that doesn’t cost an action is clearly a bit skewed.

3Not4
Sorry, we’ve decided you can’t use that equipment until you reach the next tile…

I think that something as straightforward as “Transmuting costs an action (after transmuting, you may reorganise your inventory for free)” would probably quell the worst abuses without making the game too complex, or requiring additional book-keeping. Equally, for those who want to be more hard-core, adding a limit once per turn, or a limit to the level to which things can be Transmuted (“players cannot transmute above the scenario’s current level” / “Heroes cannot equip items above the scenario’s current level” could be workable. However, with each additional step you’re introducing more complexity into the game, which is potentially a drawback, along with creating a greater workload in terms of play-testing.

 

Final Thoughts

As I say, lots of people have identified the tides of loot with which Massive Darkness is awash as a real point of failure for the game. I certainly don’t see it that way. This game is light and fun, and the gear you have fits that theme. It’s not supposed to be a grind like Mage Knight where you spend 3 hours trying to get enough together for a sword.

I’ve mentioned a few things that could be done, for personal preference, simply because I thought it might be interesting to do so, but I don’t think that any of them are “needed.” Aside from the Transmute adjustment, I highly doubt I’ll try (m)any of them out.

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All the Zombies!

On 17/3/2016, I sat down to play the tutorial of a new game I’d received to review. It was called Zombicide: Black Plague

18 1/2 months and 127 Games (somewhere in excess of 200 hours) of gaming later, I’ve built up quite a collection and today it is, finally finished.

After putting the finishing touches to the last handful of NPCs, I assembled all of the Zombies together for a photocall.

AllTheZombies

That’s a grand total of:

  • 26 Heroes
  • 40 Walkers
  • 14 Runners
  • 14 Fatties
  • 52 NPCs
  • 21 Deadeyes
  • 3 Necromancers
  • 6 Abominations.

AllTheZombies2

(can anyone spot the one figure who was accidentally missed out of this picture? by the time I’d realised, I didn’t have the energy to reassemble them all again.)

Now I just have the entirety of Massive Darkness to keep my paintbrush busy whilst I wait for Zombiecide: Green Horde to arrive…

Concerning Houserules

Or

“If it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it”

A few thoughts of changing games, and how not to do it.

Playtesters As I’ve mentioned a few times in the past, a while back, I was involved in some playtesting for a fairly well-known card game. (I won’t say which one, but if you own the most recent set, you can probably find my name in the back of the rulebook…)

Whilst I never had to sign an NDA or anything like that, there was certainly an understanding that ideas that don’t make it past the play-test don’t get aired outside of the play-test (certainly not in a “I liked the previous version which did X” way), and I wouldn’t want to break the spirit of that. However, at the very start of playtesting, we were introduced to the lead designer’s “Golden Rule of Playtesting,” which is something that’s been coming back to me a lot over recent weeks and months, and which I think I probably can get away with sharing:

“Don’t tell us what you think will happen. Tell us what happened.

There was a bit more detail, but the basic gist was that an opinion is only really of use to a designer if it’s an informed opinion: “I think it would be cool to do X” is nowhere near as meaningful as “I did X, and it was cool.” “Why don’t you change it to this?” is a lot less effort than “I changed it to this, and Y happened” but it doesn’t really tell anybody anything beyond what concepts you find cool.

My playtesting involvement in that game has been limited for a while (various reasons, but the Baby definitely plays a role…), but the quote stuck with me.

 

Personal Testing

Playtest NotesThere are a couple of reasons why this has been on my mind so much in recent times – one is a playtesting project of my own. Over the past few months, I’ve been tinkering with a fairly major variant to a well-known game, trying to create something that captures the positives (at least from my perspective) of the game, yet allows it to be played in a way that would be better suited to our play-group [i.e. co-op], and doesn’t become horrifically complicated in the process.

Overall it’s been positive, there have been some dead-ends, but I’m pretty happy with what’s taking shape. The killer is the time – it’s taken months, largely because I’ve not wanted to inflict it on others until I’m fairly happy with how it works, and time for solo play-testing has been very limited recently. It can also be fairly gruelling, thankless work, doing the same play-through, or the same set-up again and again, but that’s the best way to play-test: if a one-in-a-million chance comes up first time, and makes for a brilliant (or horrific) experience, you probably need to play 3 or 4 times to really understand that this isn’t how it’s going to play out most of the time.

I’m hoping that soon I’ll be able to unleash this variant on family and friends, and then upon the world at large – having previously (and wrongly) predicted June and July for the big unveiling article here, I’m hesitant to give dates, but I’m REALLY hoping that this will be ready to go before the end of 2017.

Every time I’m tempted to just skip to the end, just throw it out there and see what happens, I come back to the Golden Rule. It doesn’t matter what I think will happen, it matters what will happen.

 

Free-For-All

MassiveThe other reason that the question of play-testing has been on my mind is the explosion of the “Variants” forum for Massive Darkness.

Massive Darkness is the new Dungeon Crawler from Cool Mini Or Not, and it’s a game which changed a fair amount between when the original campaign was launched and when the game actually reached its backers. People have been quick to identify what they feel are issues with the rules as written, and even quicker to post their own solutions.

Variants
It’s been barely a week since I took this photo, and already there are a load more.

There are 95 separate threads in the actual “Variants” sub-forum, along with at least another dozen in the “rules” or “general” sections, which are just proposals of House Rules. The game has been out for less than 2 months, and I understand that a lot of US backers have only received it within the last few weeks.

The quality of these suggestions is highly variable – some are well-thought through, look like they’ve been play-tested a bit, and will ultimately produce something really quite solid.

Sadly, a worrying number essentially begin “Whilst I wait for my game to arrive, I’ve been reading the forums, decided that this game is broken, and taken it upon myself to fix it.” (paraphrased)

There’s been a fair bit of back-and-forth on this topic, some people calling out those who write house-rules without playing the game as arrogant fools, others lauding them for their dedication to making the game better.

Doors-Dice-EventsLike with most things, I think that there’s probably a mixture, but every time I go onto BGG and see another thread, it does make me despair slightly. Especially when half the responses are “I also think that aspect of the game is an issue, so rather than comment on your suggestion, I’ll repeat my own variant.” – a few threads have managed to generate some actual discussion / an indication that people have actually tried things to see how they work, and over time it should become easier to sort the wheat from the chaff (thumbs, activity, number of pages of discussion), but at the moment it can be soul-destroying stuff.

 

If it ain’t broke…

It’s also worth taking a step back and considering how far these house rules are even needed to begin with.

There’s a definite irony in the number of comments flying around the forums along the lines of “did they even playtest this?” “clearly they didn’t playtest this” “how did this get through playtesting?” and the like.

CMON Admittedly, CMON / Guillotine Games, best known for the Zombicide franchise, do seem to be better known for giving you loads of cool minis to play around with than for finely-balanced games. However, I’m going to go out on a limb here and make a bold claim about what went on during the design phase of this game – CMON did do some playtesting – definitely more play-testing than the people who haven’t received their games yet, and probably more playtesting than the people who played the game twice then took to the internet to demand a re-write.

 

What are we doing?

It seems to me that there are a few different ways you can play a game (leaving out for a moment, those who decide to ditch it altogether). You can play it as designed, you can make some changes, or you can design a completely new game using the components of the original.

Obviously, that’s slightly simplistic – some changes will be so minor that they blur in with playing a game “as written”, and some will be so extensive, that they verge on becoming a new game, but I think the distinction is worth trying to hold onto.

DarkRitual
We’ll just be off then…

When we play Zombicide: Black Plague, we don’t use the Dark Ritual rule (because it’s stupid and broken), and we tend to leave out the “Invisibility” card because, again it gets stuck in a sort of logical paradox under certain situations – but basically, we’re still playing the same game. Having played it over 100 times in the past 18 months, and having used those ‘rules’ in almost all of our sessions, I feel pretty confident in asserting the value of our approach.

When I launch my big play-test project, it will essentially be a brand-new game, albeit one that’s looking to capture a lot of the flavour of its parent, and is played using exclusively components of the original (this will probably make more sense once it’s live – I’ll try to remember to come back and post a link).

 

Most of what people are looking to do with Massive Darkness: tweaking loot levels, smoothing transmute, or looking for a bit of scaling could probably all be lumped under the second category, and a lot of it is at the lower end. I still think people should play-test before declaring that they have Found The Answer, but it probably doesn’t need to take months. Others are taking things further, wanting to completely alter the way that group enemies operate, how action order and counter-attacks work. A few very dedicated folk are putting together brand new sets of Door and Event cards, along with a brand-new set of “Traps.” Some of these have got potential to be really interesting, and assuming the leg-work gets put in, could turn in to some really interesting and useful benefits for the community. Sadly, a lot of changes of this ilk seem to fall into the “I scribbled this on the back of an envelope and it looked good, so let’s do it” category.

GloomhavenAside from nagging people to playtest properly, I think I want to pose the question (probably hypothetically, as I doubt many of them are reading this) – when does Massive Darkness stop being Massive Darkness? A lot of the “fixes” people are proposing seem to be most focused on “fixing” the fact that Massive Darkness isn’t Gloomhaven. Now personally, I think that if you really want to play Gloomhaven, you’d probably be better off just waiting for the re-print of Gloomhaven, but if people would rather re-purpose a copy of Massive Darkness, that’s their call. If that’s what you’re going to do though, please be honest about it – you’re not “fixing” a game at this point, you’re essentially making a new game (or an existing but hard-to-find game…) That means being honest about the amount of work needed to play-test it before it’s ready to go, and ideally it also means a lot less complaining about how “broken” the game was to begin with whilst you’re doing it.

 

Quick Fix

The thing about house-ruling, is that it’s always tempting to just jump to the result. I know as I start writing articles that delve more deeply into specific aspects of Massive Darkness, there are various points where I’ll have ideas I want to share.

I’m writing this now, as much as a reminder to myself as an appeal to the MD Modders – it’s fine to share an idea for discussion, but it’s not a rule until somebody’s found out whether it actually works.

Carrying on: September

September was another fairly solid month – 17 different games played 52 different times.

Carcosa Box Massive Darkness got the most sessions, as it continued to surge up the charts (it’s already 2017’s 4th most-played game by hours), but there was also a fair bit of table time for Arkham LCG, which got a new deluxe box, Dominion, which continues to tick over quietly, and Runebound which got a shot in the arm from a new expansion that made it playable solo or fully cooperative.

Runewars and Descent both made it back to the table after a few months of sitting on the sidelines, and a few odds and ends rounded things off the month.

Elder Sign snuck on to the table on the final evening of the month, retaining its boast of being the only game to be played every month this year. The Dwarves also enjoyed a late flurry, bringing them up to 10 plays for the year. All told, I now have 17 games played 10 times or more this year, and an H-Index of 13, which all feels fairly healthy.

Fate-of-the-Elder-gods-Board-Game-box Nothing made it off of the un-played list, which still sits at 8 games for the year (it was 9, including Fate of the Elder gods, a review title which came early in the month, but only made it out of the box on 1st October). We’re going on holiday with my parents in a week or so, so I expect that we’ll take Scrabble and/or Articulate with us and see whether we can get them crossed off.

 

Nothing (much) New

CodenamesDuetThere wasn’t all that much in September that was new. Codenames Duet was the only completely new game to get played (I also received Fate of the Elder gods, but haven’t managed to break it out yet). Apocrypha remains frustratingly absent, with constant rumours that it might be arriving, but never any sign of the actual game. and there’s still no sign of Aeon’s End either. I had planned to pick up a few exciting new bits and pieces with some of my GQ store Credit, but everything I tried to opt for was out of stock/print. Whether it’s because I break down and spend actual money to buy elsewhere, or simply because delayed stuff finally arrives, I’m hoping that October will be a bit more exciting in terms of what’s new.

 

What got played?

QuickGames Thematically, September was dominated by Fantasy: 55% of sessions, and a whopping 67% of time. Lovecraft and Zombies also notched up a reasonable number of hours, whilst “Abstract” was big on sessions, but low on overall time (Bananagrams, Boggle and Dobble all being fairly short games).

Within Fantasy the big groups were Terrinoth (Descent, Runebound, Runewars) and Generic (mostly Dominion and Massive Darkness). Middle Earth counted for a fair amount of the sessions (4 out of 28), but got squished on time (only 2 hours of 34).

Activity wise, things remained fairly heavy on Completing the Quest together, but there was a fair amount of diversity around, with notable contributions for Making Words, Solving Mysteries, Building the Best Place.

Moving on

So that was September. Steady, but not especially exciting. It’s odd now I come to write about it, just how flat everything feels – I definitely had some enjoyable gaming sessions this month, both with new add-ons (most notably for Arkham), and old favourites (we even had a few hours of Yggdrasil, which remains resolutely un-expanded). Perhaps I’m just tired.

I’m hoping to have a mini-flurry of content for you over the next few weeks. For now, I just want to share a mini plug for a game I reviewed a while back, Gloom of Kilforth. There’s a second printing / mini-expansion Kickstarter Campaign running right now, and as the designer was the first person in many months to email Fistful of Meeples directly, I thought I’d give him a mention.

Kickback: Massive Darkness

 

MassiveAs I’ve mentioned a fair few times on here now, I’ve had a number of big Kickstarter projects that I’ve been waiting on – some of them for a very long time now.

August was when the first of them finally arrived, and having had a bit of time to play it and reflect on it, I wanted to spend a bit of time talking about it today. This has ended up being a fairly big one, so my plan is to gradually extract sections and replace with links to more in-depth discussions as I get the time. If you’re subscribed to the blog you won’t miss anything, but anyone coming to this article late might find it a bit shorter than when it was first published!

Massive DarkNed
The two largest and most expensive things ordered in 2016 and received in 2017…

I backed Massive Darkness in April 2016 – it was the last of the big KS projects that I backed without the knowledge that there would be a baby in the house by the time things arrived. Whether I would still have backed if the KS had come along a couple of months later is a question I’ll never really be able to answer.

2017 was the year of Zombicide: Black Plague in our house – Massive Darkness came from the same designers and publishers and promised the same dice-chucking, monster-killing action, but with more complex combat, and skills that stayed with you from one game to the next.

The campaign was launched to a lot of noise, and smashed its funding targets in a matter of minutes, but there were concerns. The gameplay video on Kickstarter was a bit bland, and the “campaign mode” looked like it had a lot of holes in it. A hasty fix was offered, more and more stretch-goals were unlocked, and in the end, like a lot of people, I backed it.

Massive Darkness offered a “basic” pledge (still over $100), plus any number of add-ons: I only added an extra set of the custom dice, and the $8 “crossover kit” which made Zombicide Survivors and Zombies playable in Massive Darkness, and Massive Darkness Heroes playable in Zombicide – if worst came to worst, I could call this a really expensive expansion for Zombicide!

Hellephant
Hellephant. Because Hellephant

Everything else I passed on. Some things – like a box of 4 extra Roaming Monsters (for context, the base game has 6, and KS backers were already getting an extra 20) for $40, or a duplicate set of board tiles were easy to pass up, others – were rather more tempting (mostly the Hellephant), but I wasn’t prepared to spend more until I’d had the chance to actually play the game.

Once the campaign was over, things went relatively quiet –the pledge manager opened in the autumn, and there were updates every month or two – inevitably the project got delayed, but this seemed normal by now, and barely registered – in July there was a sudden flurry of activity as CMON provided the details of the container ships bringing the games from China, and one kind gamer on BGG started posting regular updates of where in the world everything was. Finally, on the first Saturday in August, the game arrived.

Crunching the Numbers

Massive Darkness was bought with birthday money, so in a sense, the numbers don’t matter – it was cash I had at the time, and that was how I chose to spend it. That said, I love to number-crunch, and where would the fun be if I stopped now?

MassiveBoxesI paid CMON a grand total of $168 for the whole package, including the add-ons and shipping. By the time I run that through various historic exchange-rates, and add on some notional interest for having paid a year or more in advance, that looks like somewhere around £130 all-told.

The game was originally due around April 2017, but arrived in August, 4 months late. In the world of Kickstarter, and the shadow of a game currently 15 months late and counting, that really doesn’t look like much.

Using my standard “£5 per hour,” I’d need to play about 25-26 hours of Massive Darkness for it to count as ‘value for money’ – with a session averaging 1.5 hours that’s 17 sessions to break even. I’ve managed 15 so far, and am barely half-way through the base game content, essentially having not touched the expansions or KS exclusives.

The KS also looks like good value vs retail. Most UK shops aren’t showing prices for this yet, but based on a US retailer, I’d be looking at roughly £150 for the base game along with the 2 Hero-and-Monster boxes, 1 enemies box and Tile Set that were included as stretch goals – that puts me about £20 up even without accounting for the dice set, and literally dozens of KS-exclusive miniatures and cards. As I learned with Zombicide Black Plague, trying to pick up even a limited selection of KS exclusives after-market can get expensive, so these are significant, even if hard to quantify.

If I wanted to sell-up en masse, I’ve seen pledges going for £160-170 – even allowing for it being a big box to ship, I’m confident that I could cover my costs if I wanted to.

 

Well-Costed – Well-Made?

Dashboard The component quality in Massive Darkness is good – the dashboard isn’t as nice as Black Plague, but it’s ok: you have places for equipment in each hand, along with a body/armour slot, and trackers for health and XP. Skills are tracked on paper sheets which sit nicely next to the dashboard, and with only minimal trimming, can be sleeved, then re-used with a wipe-off marker. Handling equipment felt less smooth than in Black Plague: rather than a defined backpack area, players in Massive Darkness can carry as much extra stuff as they can find – charms which do not need to be equipped to a hand slot, or unwanted weapons that are waiting to be traded or transmuted – there is no marked area for them, you just arrange them near the dashboard in a vague pile, which was quite disappointing for us.

Pointy Hats
All very pointy

For me, the miniatures in Massive Darkness are a step down compared with Black Plague – the enemies are often quite hard to distinguish, and have a lot of excessively pointy hats. The over-jagged aesthetic continues to the Heroes, although the Wandering Monsters were generally fine, and the detail/plastic quality was good. I don’t want to over-state the case though: I’m down to my last 10 Zombicide: Black Plague figures to paint, and once Massive Darkness follows, I still think the look will be good.

Overprint
I already have my replacements – I literally only need these for this photograph.

The board tiles and dice were good quality and nice looking too. There were some issues with mis-printed card-symbols, but CMON have sent replacement cards to backers, and the retail game will be fixed before going on sale. Overall, I’m satisfied with the components.

 

The Play’s the Thing!

Whilst it’s comforting to know that I could cover my costs if I needed to, and reassuring that the components don’t look like they’ll break if I glare at them too hard, ultimately I buy board games to play, not as an investment. Whilst I don’t want to buy games at a bad price, I don’t care how good the price is if the game is rubbish.

Descent
Massive Darkness is not Descent. Some people seem to have a problem with that.

The early reports from the internet on Massive Darkness as a gameplay experience were mixed, with lots of people criticising the game for being big on miniatures, small on game balance.

Massive Darkness was only ever going to be a medium-to-light-weight dice-chucking dungeon crawler – people expecting lots of in-depth strategy probably needed to look elsewhere (Sword & Sorcery, Gloomhaven, Descent etc) rather than criticising Massive Darkness.

Personally, I think that Massive Darkness is plenty of fun. I won’t do a full “review” here, but I do want to give a brief overview and highlight a few stand-out features.

The rulebook for Massive Darkness is fairly hefty, but the rules can be broken down fairly simply: your hero does 3 actions, then any monsters you attacked will try to hit you back (unless they’re all dead). Once all heroes have had their turn, the enemies get a phase of their own, followed by a random event (which could be good or bad), and the start of the next round.

DoorsMD has some nice innovative features compared with Zombicide – opening a new room draws a Door Card – spawning both enemies and loot in linked ratios.

Another feature of the game is the Levels – you start on level 1 with rubbish weapons against fairly weak enemies and as you progress through the dungeon, each new tile brings stronger enemies and access to better gear – this prevents the Z:BP situation where if you stumble upon the powerful weapons in the first few turns, you never need to search again.

Enemies in Massive Darkness can also use weapons against you! – this makes for quite a nice thematic reward when you kill them (take their weapon), but can also make for some very swingy situations – one enemy gets a weapon with no stat synergy, whilst another doubles their defence.

ClassSheets Lastly, the straightforward character levelling of Zombicide (fixed skill, fixed skill, pick 1 of 2, pick 1 of 3) is replaced by a tech-tree of class skills. These come on a roughly A5 sheet of paper, and you can pick and choose particular strands to develop – rather than simply accruing XP, you spend it in a targeted way, paying to unlock individual skills, with more options available as the game-level increases.

Last, but not least is the Darkness. Each space on the game board is either dark or light, and characters get bonuses for being in “Shadow Mode” (i.e. in a dark space) this was a lot more complex when the campaign launched, but the final version is nice and simple, whilst still adding some strategy to map positioning.

 

Problems

All of these features are broadly positive – improvements or fun variations on the Zombicide model. That said, there are definitely issues – here are a few headlines

Loot

There is A LOT of loot: so much loot in fact, that I decided to give it an article all to itself.

When you start a game of Massive Darkness life can be very difficult, as you battle with starter equipment, but as soon as you’ve cleared the first room, and got yourself a bit more kitted out, things get better – so much better in fact that players lamented a lack of challenge as they blitzed their way through the dungeon with powerful gear.

Unpredictability

DiceBamsDiamondsIn a lot of ways, Massive Darkness can be very swingy – some people criticise some aspects as too easy, others point to things that are too hard. A lot of it is the luck of the draw. The dice can also be a major factor: they have an extremely high degree of variance, which can lead to some attacks which do nothing, whilst another wipes a character out in a single blow.

The more dice you get, the more powerful you feel, and the more you will roll Bams and Dimaonds – the symbols you need to trigger even more powerful effects.

Most skills costing 5 or 10 XP, and each time the party takes down a monster there’s some XP on offer for everyone. As a result, it’s quite possible that by the time you reach tile 3, you’ll have ticked off nearly all of your level 1-3 skills, especially if you take your time clearing every room. Combine that with some good armour and a few level 4 weapons thanks to transmuting, and a lot of people felt that this game quickly ended up being too easy –essentially, by the time you made it to level 3, you’d more-or-less won. Even then though, a bad roll can still 1-shot you, so it’s never completely a formality.

 

Scaling

Massive Darkness also has issues around scaling. Taking the above Loot example, in a small party, you’ll very soon have more equipment than you can use, and be able to regularly transmute into weapons that are a tile or 2 ahead of the game’s current level – usually meaning that you can deal with any monsters quite comfortably. We’ve already talked about how scaling affects loot, but it also has an impact on how you deal with enemies.

Guard OverviewSmall parties are also well-positioned in terms of enemies – “Mobs” (enemy groups) are generally made up of a boss and some minions, typically 1x or 2x as many as there are Heroes.

In a 2-player game, the odds of a single hero killing both minions and the boss in a single turn are pretty good – meaning that he doesn’t have to face a counter-attack. In a 4-player game, those extra minions will probably still be dealt with before the end of the round, but it’s quite likely that they’ll get a shot away at one or two heroes first.

Whilst going true solo might cause difficulties with a lack of options or adaptability (or anyone else to tank damage), it seems quite clear that a 2-player game is going to find a lot of things a lot easier than a 4-6 player game. Overall, I think that 4 is probably the sweet spot for this game.

Campaign Play

“Story Mode” is something that was added to Massive Darkness midway through the Kickstarter campaign. It’s attracted a lot of criticism on the BGG forums, and it’s something I’m going to want to talk about separately later, once I’ve had more of a chance to play. For now I want to say that I can see why people have issues, but I don’t think it’s nearly as bad as the forums might suggest.

 

Ready to Play

Overall, that probably sounds a lot worse than it is – for all its faults (and I think that there are plenty), Massive Darkness isn’t a bad game, and I wouldn’t want people to think that it was simply an over-complicated, unscalable luck-fest.

I think that when we play this with groups of friends, then “as is” will fit the bill – standalone scenarios for groups of around 4 are probably the optimum way to play this game anyway.

VariantsRight now, the forums on Board Game Geek are drowning in suggested variants: tougher mobs, less loot, and a million and one other things that range from the simple and sensible to the bizarre and arcane. Overall, it feels a bit premature – especially as a lot of the ideas came from people who hadn’t actually received the game yet.

I intend to play all through the core scenarios using only base-game content (aside from extra dice), in standalone mode, and have a good run at campaign mode, before I make changes. Beyond that point, I might make 1 or 2 minor tweaks for when we’re playing at home, but not much. Overall though, I come back to the starting-point: Massive Darkness is meant to be a simple Dungeon Crawl – kill lots of monsters, get loads of stuff. However I end up playing it ought to retain that.

 

Final Thoughts

It’s hard to say how I would feel if I’d decided to wait until Massive Darkness hit retail – it’s still showing an average rating of 7.8 from nearly 1000 reviews, and as far as I can tell, there aren’t too many “I’m so excited I’ll give it a 10 before it arrives” ratings in there. I don’t think I’d have been scared off on that count. Obviously, we don’t yet have it available in the UK, so it’s hard to know exactly what it will cost, but I’d imagine it’ll be in a similar bracket to other large CMON games – not something to pick up on a whim, but plausible for Christmas etc.

As you can probably gather, I’m fairly happy with this Kickstarter project overall. It’s not the best game ever made, and this is far from being the “only” way to get it, or being a retail product that’s “incomplete,” but it’s given me some fun gaming at good value, with some added engagement from tracking the campaign thrown in.

The Game is Dying!

The near-constant cry of the Lord of the Rings LCG player, the notion of game death has become an in-joke for fans of Arkham Horror, and a rallying cry for the followers of many, many modern board games, but what’s it all about? Does it make any sense? And do us normal folks need to be worried about it?

Monopolies
The internet assures me all of these are real…

At risk of this becoming one of those articles when I talk about the good old days when games were made of lead, and we couldn’t play them anyway because we were too busy dying of consumption down a coal mine, I want to start with a bit of a look back at the past.

 

Nobody buying a board game made by Hasbro or Waddingtons in the 1980s or 90s ever worried about the game “dying” – once you had your copy of Mousetrap, or Cluedo, it would make literally no impact on your life if the publisher’s factory burned down tomorrow, and nobody ever made that game or a related one again (for Monopoly, this may just be wishful thinking). A Board Game came in a box, everything you needed to play was in that box, and that was that.

 

Incomplete I

Nowadays, it seems that things are different. The idea that when you buy a board game that’s it, is no longer a certainty, in fact it can be the exception rather than the norm. Often a modern game is a starting point, a proof of concept, something that comes with an expectation of further content.

At the most extreme level comes the Core Box for an LCG – most of the time, this isn’t even enough to build a ‘legal’ deck, and will come with special starter rules.

Even when a game can be played “properly” out of the box, lots of games look for more. Deck-builders will always have far more richness when there is a greater card pool to build with, and any game that is scenario-based will always want more scenarios to play. Ultimately though, I think that there’s a point where the value drops away- and by implication the danger of the game “dying” diminishes. Let’s look at a couple of examples

ArkhamDeluxesWhen the Core Set of Arkham LCG was released, I bought it, and thought it was a pretty good product as a starting point. If expansions had never materialised though, I don’t know how much life this game would really have had in it – even leaving aside issues of expectation and communication, the core-box-only product was just a bit too limited.

We’ve now finished the first cycle, and the deluxe which starts the next cycle has just arrived (in today’s post. Hooray!).

I enjoy this game, and hope it continues past the second cycle, but I think that 15 investigators, 2 large campaigns, a mini campaign and a couple of standalone scenarios, along with the volume of player cards that we’ll have by the time Path to Carcosa is complete, would still be enough to keep playing the game for a fair few years if the flow of new product did suddenly stop.

LotRBoxes
Ok, when you stack it like this, it looks silly…

For Lord of the Rings LCG, 100+ Heroes and probably a similar number of scenarios in, a new expansion is much less likely to even register – it might only be 1 or 2 player cards that get used, and if the quest isn’t particularly compelling, it may well not get played again once I’ve successfully beaten it. I’m already thinking that I’ll stop buying after the end of the current cycle / final Saga box which should be out by the autumn, but I wonder whether it would be good for the game, not just for me, if they called it a day – like the Kings of Nuemnor before its waning, knowing when to lay down their lives in good health, rather than prolonging their decline.

 

Incomplete II

LegendaryCore
I played Core-only recently. It was an interesting change, but I still prefer all my extra Heroes

Of course, a game doesn’t need to come in a “Living” or collectible format to feel like it needs something more.

For example, Marvel Legendary can very easily be played using only that original box, but a lot of people find the lack of variety and the comparatively low level of difficulty something of a turn-off. In order to get that fully rounded, challenging, game experience that lots of people are looking for, it probably needs an expansion or two.

EldritchPlus
If you ask a lot of people, they’ll tell you that THIS is what the base game looks like.

To take another example, go onto Board Game Geek, and look at any one of the many, many threads about “Which expansion should I buy for Eldritch Horror?” – 99% of the time, you’ll see the same answer. “Get Forsaken Lore first: it rounds out all the core decks and introduces a few odds and ends that should have been in the core game.” Essentially, the consensus seems to be that Eldritch Horror is a game that appears in 2 boxes (Eldritch Horror and Forsaken Lore), then there are the expansions.

 

Impetus?

Risingtide
Heard about this a couple of days ago. Looks interesting. These days we mostly play Pandemic Iberia.

I’ve owned Pandemic for several years. I don’t remember how many exactly, but it was before I moved into my current house, so at least 4 ½. When we first got it, we played it a lot. Then it got put to one side for a while – it wasn’t until the hype surrounding Pandemic Legacy really kicked off that I was reminded of this game that had been sat gathering dust.

Sometimes a new release of content is the impetus a game needs to get back to the table – whether it reminds you of something you already have, or whether it refreshes something that was getting stale.

Firefly
Would I play this more if we owned expansions? I don’t think so, but it’s hard to be sure.

That said, there are dangers – I know that there are games where I’ve been tempted by expansions, but have ultimately held off, simply because I know that the base game has never really been played enough to justify spending more money on it.

What happens to games when there isn’t that relentless pressure to buy more content, that constant string of reminders from the hype machine? Well, to be honest – nothing too terrible. Either you don’t play it, and it sits there, or you do play it, in which case the expansion probably wasn’t crucial. Expansions are good for the game company, because they can sell you more things, but it will vary a lot as to whether they are good for you, the players.

Stale Meta?

Tsarina
Of course, you can also fix a stale meta by removing cards.

In highly competitive games, like the Game of Thrones LCG, you’ll often hear a lot of references to a “meta” – essentially, the general environment of what everyone else is playing. As time passes, people will work out certain tactics and synergies that are highly effective, then more cards will come out that open up a new strategy, and things shift.

In this kind of environment, it seems to be excepted that the last thing you want is a “stale meta” – where everyone knows all the cards, all the combinations have been tried, and there are certain top decks, against which any other strategy is more of less pointless.

Chess
Apparently I still own a chess set! Those don’t look much like Bishops to me, but they certainly aren’t Elephants.

As I say, this is primarily an issue for highly competitive games that have an established history of an evolving card-pool (it need not be cards: insert “dice,” “units,” etc as you prefer). In these environments, the expectations are that the top players will be the ones who can most quickly crack a new release.

Other games, like Chess are still head-to-head and competitive, but haven’t had a new unit since an Englishman asked “what’s an elephant?” and someone decided to replace it with a Bishop – expectation is everything.

 

Availability?

DescentA few months back, I picked up a copy of Descent 2nd edition. I was inspired by the positive experiences we’d had with Mansions of Madness, and wanted to see whether Fantasy Flight’s app-driven games were as good when applied to a Fantasy Dungeon Crawler as a Lovecraftian mystery.

Descent is a good game, after a few plays, you can see why it is so highly ranked on BGG. There are definitely some issues – for me the biggest problem was the level of disconnect between the printed rules (which assume “1 vs many” play) and the app-driven experience – and I need to re-read some of the finer points of the rules, but overall, I enjoy it.

Descent has gone a bit quiet recently, with Massive Darkness getting the “new and shiny” vote for our table-top dungeon-crawling needs. I’m still expecting to give it some serious table-time later in the year though, and at some point, I’d imagine I’ll get an expansion or 2. An expansion will give me more variety of monsters, more heroes and classes to choose from and, if I go for the Shadows of Nerekhall box (my current plan), a whole new campaign enabled in the app.

Nerekhall
fans figure that more people are buying Nerekhall than other big-box expansions, as it adds an additional campaign, and by extension they argue, FFG should make campaigns for the other boxes to encourage sales of them too…

At the moment, most of the big box expansions like Nerekhall seem to be fairly readily available and although a lot of the little Lieutenant packs can be hard to come by, the boxes that add major gameplay changes tend to cycle back in to print relatively often.

That said, it’s been nearly a year since a physical new release for Descent – does that mean FFG are done with it? This is a question which gets asked a lot, and generates a fair amount of heat as people disagree about what can or cannot be known.

Personally, I don’t get the sense that Descent is done with, but if I did, would that change things?

From one perspective, I might be rushing out to get Nerekhall, just in case it disappeared, rather than simply waiting? – once again it’s that sense of what makes a “complete” or incomplete game. On the other hand, I might decide that D2E (as I understand the kids are calling it these days) was fine as a self-contained product that only got fairly limited play, and concentrate my efforts elsewhere (especially if there was a 3rd Edition coming that had full co-op from the word go…)

 

Organised Play?

I do most of my gaming at home, either with my wife, occasionally solo, or with a few friends.

RuneSpears
That’s a lot more Spearmen than I own

Some games though, just don’t hit the table at home. There are generally 1 or 2 on the go at a time, and currently it’s Runewars Miniatures – 2-player competitive games that my wife just isn’t interested in (in the past Game of Thrones LCG, Star Wars Destiny, and various table-top wargames have all fallen into this category).

For these games, I need to venture out to the FLGS, or some other type of club, and that’s when the question of whether a game is alive or not becomes a big issue.

I’ve been enjoying the Runewars games I’ve played recently, and having Fantasy Flight put out regular Organised Play kits helps push a monthly event on a Saturday where I know other people will turn up to play, and I’ll actually get some use out of those figures I’ve been spending my money on.

If Runewars “dies” – i.e. FFG stop supporting it, or putting out new content, I could potentially end up with a lot of boxes of skeletons, and not a lot to do with them, particularly if the other players move on to something newer and shinier. Right now, Runewars is getting a lot of love and attention from FFG, so I’d hope that I’m safe for a year or so, but past experience has definitely taught me the dangers of investing heavily in something that might be unplayable by the time I get it assembled and painted. The boxes and boxes of Dice Masters which sit forlornly in the corner waiting for my son to be old enough to play dice games are a harsh reminder of that.

 

Final Thoughts

When all is said and done, I think it’s fair to say that there is a lot more concern and hype about games “dying” than there really needs to be. Provided a game isn’t played in a legacy format (actually damaging/changing elements as you go along), the chances are that you’ll be able to keep playing with the content you already have for a long while after the manufacturers have stopped churning out extras.

If organised play is important for you, then you do need to keep an eye on what’s happening, simply to avoid running out of opponents – still, this is generally going to be a bigger deal in the world of more competitive gaming, which already has a slightly different level of financial engagement than just buying something to play at home.

Summer Gamin’

August has been and gone, and it’s time to look back on another month’s gaming.

It endued up being a pretty mega month (although it didn’t necessarily feel like it at the time), with more gaming sessions logged than any other month this year, against ultra-low spending (I shelled out a grand total of a fiver on a Legendary Organised Play event).

 

Broadly speaking, August was a month for the classics: Zombicide, Arkham LCG, Legendary and LotR all got more than 5 plays, with a solid majority of gaming going on games that have now been played 5 times or more this year. Elder Sign also kept up its record as the only game to have been played every single month this year (although Zombicide only missed February, being far too big for a hospital table).

MassiveMassive Darkness was the big new arrival, which jumped straight in to the upper echelons (it’s currently the 17th most-played game of the year by sessions, 10th most-played by time) and I’ll be talking plenty more about it in the near future. The only other ‘new’ game to see play was a review – Near and Far arrived in July, but only hit the table in August (I liked it, but my wife hated it), and Codenames Duet which came too near to the end of the month to actually get played.

Thematically, it was a month dominated by Fantasy and Zombies, with Lovecraft and Comics coming in a little way behind. In light of that, it’s not a huge surprise to see that Surviving the Monsters (roughly 1/3) and Completing the Quest (about ¼ ) were the mechanical mainstays.

 

Kittens Whilst getting in big numbers of sessions for the classics was the main theme, I did spend a couple of days at Insomnia with the good people of Games Quest, and was able to cross off a few titles that I’d never been sufficiently interested in to buy, but felt like I ought to have a better awareness of as a gamer: Exploding Kittens has very little going on mechanically, and relies almost entirely on the group dynamics of people playing it (everyone present was quite happy to mess with everyone else, so it gave us an entertaining half-hour or so), and if you take away the anime art (presumably the main reason most people play it), Tanto Cuore is basically just Dominion with poor iconography. There were one or two interesting mechanical twists, but not enough to change my mind on this as a game I really don’t need to own.

 

Un-played

UnplayedAs I mentioned earlier in the year, I didn’t go into 2017 with an “un-played project” in anything like as systematic a way as last year, but now that we’re 2/3 of the way through the year, I’m starting to look at this in more detail. There are 8 games which are currently un-played, with 5 of them being big group/party games. There’s often a brief flurry of activity for games like this around Christmas, so historically this wouldn’t have been a big worry, but it’s hard to know how things will play out with a baby around. Of the remainder, Memoir ’44 is a game that I expect to have a few fallow years until Ned is big enough to play, but I’m intending to keep hold of, Scrabble is always worth owning a copy of, and only Firefly looks particularly dubious as a game to keep around – I like Firefly as a thematic homage to the world Captain Reynolds and his crew occupy, but the game itself has a very large footprint, a somewhat fiddly setup, and is overall just a bit too slow to make it to the table often: realistically, it’s only still around because of sentiment.

Final Thoughts

Comments With so much time going into what are now our Core Games, and Massive Darkness due its own write-up soon, there’s not too much else to say about August – in terms of reflecting on a year two-thirds gone, it feels like we’ve managed pretty well given just how difficult it is to get through a 2-hour game without stopping to be screamed at. With 2017 66% done, I’ve managed 65% of last year’s game sessions, but 75% of the gaming hours. I’ve also spent 75% of last year’s total, which is mildly concerning, but I’m not too bothered as I’ve sold 164% of what I shifted last year, which puts me in a much healthier position overall. I’m still narrowly clinging on to a net gain (more gained from sales than spent on stuff), but the Pledge Manager for Green Horde just opened, which will probably knock that on the head.

ApocryphaMoving into the home stretch of the year, the goals are pretty much the same as ever: keep playing, keep spending low. I’m still waiting on the majority of this year’s Kickstarters, even the ones that were aiming to deliver by August, so 2017 should still have some new twists in store, even if I don’t manage to land any of the particularly exciting autumn releases for review purposes.