Kicks Revalued

With any Kickstarter project, there’s a fair amount of waiting.

Maybe communication is good on the project, maybe it’s bad. Maybe they deliver quickly, or maybe they take a long time. Whichever way, there’s probably a fair amount of time where you’re thinking about the project, but aren’t in a position to actually be playing the game.

It’s at times like this, sat with my spreadsheets, that I start to question the value of the project, something which, I think,  is a fair bit more complex than with a game bought off a shelf (or website).

Spent

GreenHorde
This is the big one…

“Money spent” is relatively simple to track: ideally an old Credit Card statement, otherwise the pledge information on Kickstarter + a historic exchange rate calculator. On top of that, I tend to add on a bit more in the way of “interest” based on how long it takes from when they take my money to when I get my stuff, and I have a notional figure for what I’ve spent.

By that reckoning, the 8 Kickstarter projects that have been “live” (any stage from campaign launch to delivery) at some point this year add up to over £700. That’s a moderately terrifying figure, although it is alleviated somewhat by the knowledge that they were paid for over two and a half years.

Retail

If a Kickstarted game makes it to retail, then I can compare directly what I paid for the game, versus what people buying it now will have to fork out. Was Kickstarting this project a money-saver? Or a money-sink?

For Massive Darkness, the first game to arrive, this was an equation that seemed to work out really well. As this finally sees a retail release, my total pledge including shipping and interest is only £14 more than the RRP of the base game: even assuming a 10% pre-order discount, I’m looking at having made a £30 saving, compared to base game + the first 2 expansions, and there’s another expansion, a set of tiles/scenarios, and the extra dice all yet to come.

Apocrypholder
I don’t remember why I ordered the binder. The sheets are useful, but they tend to get stored in the game box

Apocrypha looks less impressive – You can see my Kickstarter review for the details, but basically it looks like I’ll be very slightly up by the time all is said and done, but not much.

Aeon’s End I spent around £70 on. The starting pledge was $65, which covered the base and a selection of stretch goals (included for me, probably collected later as a retail expansion), and I paid a further $15 for an expansion. Availability is still very limited, but it looks like the base game will be £45ish, £15-18 per expansion, so this seems to come out about even.

For other games, retail prices are trickier: Gloomhaven is currently only listed for silly money, due to the game being out-of-print, and prices will clearly drop once the second wave hits retail. Zombicide will presumably have an RRP around £90, but be available a fair bit cheaper from the online retailers. For 9th World and Legends Untold, it wouldn’t surprise me if even the companies involved aren’t sure yet. The latest thing I jumped on, a mini-expansion for Gloom of Kilforth, cost me £21 – I don’t know whether this will even get a retail release, and I certainly don’t expect it be cheaper if it does. For now, all the games with no RRP go on the spreadsheet with a value of “minus whatever I paid for it.” That leaves me with a figure of just over £400 of ‘lost value,’ but that will inevitably level out a lot over time, and probably end up in the black overall.

 

Exclusivity

Although I’ve looked at the Financial Value of the retail pledge, there’s also the question of exclusives.

Lightbringer Aside from a few bits with retail packaging, the Massive Darkness pledge also came with a “Lightbringer” box – duplicates of monsters from the base game and, crucially, 18 Wandering monsters, 3 hero miniatures, and 1 class sheet, which will not be available separately. It’s hard to put a value on these, especially as I don’t want to sell mine, but I reckon you could easily get (at least) £50 for it. Right now though, I haven’t added anything to the spreadsheet for these. I also spent $8 on some exclusive cards to use Zombicide figures in Black Plague, and vice-versa, and these are currently going for around £20 on Ebay.

For Aeon’s End, I spent $10 to get the cards and mats for the original game replaced with upgraded card-stock, and layout to match the new game. As this won’t be offered at retail, it’s hard to measure that $10 price – on the one hand it offers nothing new mechanically, but it does make the two elements of the game feel like they belong together. Having not paid for the original game (it was a review), I was pretty happy with about 2 games’ worth of cards for not much more than the cost of 1 game.

Apocrypha came with 3 or 4 promo cards. You might be able to get a fiver or so for them online. For the games yet to arrive, I know that Green Horde will have a similar pile of goodies to Massive Darkness, and Gloom of Kilforth has some bonus new Classes and Races. I don’t think Gloomhaven came with anything exclusive, and can’t remember what I’m expecting for the others.

 

Play

In an ideal world, one day a Kickstarted game will actually arrive at your house, and get played. I’ve talked before about how I measure game-value, and that doesn’t change for KS (1 hour of play = £5 value). On that basis, all-but-one of the KS games are currently still in the red, but that’s hardly surprising, given that 6 out of the 7 hadn’t arrived at the beginning of October!

To get into specifics, “value” is currently over £450 in the red – it works out at just over 90 hours of play needed to balance things out!

Now, Zombicide Black Plague managed that by itself last year, so if Green Horde is a similar success, it could knock that down fairly quickly, but it won’t be doing it until 2018.

1Man Much Loot Massive Darkness is already in the black, having clocked up the 25-or-so hours of table-time it needed in less than 2 months.  Overall, the game is currently contributing a respectable £75.98 to the “value of Kickstarter” column, and that figure is only going to grow as the game gets played more and more. I could easily imagine myself getting another 5-10 plays without touching the expansion content, and then we’ve got a Massive set of options for variety, in terms of more heroes, mobs and wandering monsters, a whole extra set of tiles and quests, and all the Zombicide crossover content – it was the first game played in November, and isn’t going anywhere.

MassiveGloom
“Massive” is a relative term…

It’s well documented just how much there is in Gloomhaven: both in terms of physical content and the hours of table-time that are in there. I doubled-down on this purchase by paying for the removable stickers to “de-legacy” the legacy aspect of the game. I personally won’t be getting into a second or subsequent play-through any time soon (if ever), but hopefully it’ll leave me with a near-mint game to move on if I decide that it isn’t justifying its place on the shelf.

For Apocrypha, 20 hours to break even feels like a lot: I lost a lot of enthusiasm for it in the 17 months between when it was due and when it actually arrived. I clocked up 10 hours pretty quickly, mostly because my editor wanted a review by Essen, but some of those sessions were a real grind, and this is back on the shelf, where I can see it staying until the expansions land.

9thI think 9th World must exist behind some kind of perception filter- it’s like my brain is singularly unable to remember that it exists without repeated prompting. This is a game which was backed by virtue of piggy-backing on the goodwill generated by the Apocrypha campaign (a resource which has long-since been depleted).

Lastly is Legends Untold, a proper old-school Kickstarter project from a new designer/company. I played a turn or so of the prototype at UKGE 2016, and followed it from there. I ended up backing this at a higher level than I wanted to (they raised so much money that they doubled the range of stuff they were offering), and have watched the game change significantly over the course of the campaign to where it’s scarcely recognisable. Right now, I don’t have a clear enough sense of what it will be like to get excited, although I’m still optimistic that it will be good. The latest KS update has got this pushed back to January (hopefully!) so it’s going to be semi-ignored for a while.

Old or New?

AeonsThere is some complexity around the fact that 2 of the games I’ve Kick-started this year (Aeon’s End: War Eternal, and Zombicide: Green Horde) are stand-alone expansions. If I lump them in with the existing game, then I’m already covered time-wise, but that’s clearly misleading (as none of the game-play logged pre-arrival was using any of the KS content).

When Green Horde does land, my first step will be to play through the Core Box once, using core box content only (this will require less discipline than with Massive Darkness, as it’s shipping several months ahead of the add-ons). What I’m not quite sure of is how clear the distinction between Black Plague and Green Horde will remain after that, or how I’ll want to go about logging it.

Aeon’s End is currently my 5th most-played game of the year, still 1 of only 6 to make it past 25 sessions. It had been a bit quiet over the summer, but the arrival in early October of better-quality components, mixed with a range of extra cards and options, has given it a fresh lease of life. Again, the question is how to measure plays of old and new? After some reflection, I decided that, in all likelihood, future plays will either be all new stuff, or a mixture, so I’ll just base it on any plays of Aeon’s End after the new stuff landed. Right now, that’s still in the red by some distance (£40-odd), but I’m confident of it catching up in due course. Where a Kickstarter is for a pure expansion (not playable stand-alone) – like Gloom of Kilforth, it’s much more straightforward to just mix it in and measure plays in the same way as AE.

 

Numbers?

Taking pledge vs retail cost (with the caveat of not having retail prices for over half the games), and Cost vs Value (where half the games haven’t arrived), I arrived at a grand, grand, overall total figure, which is devastatingly large. At least it’s still a 3-figure sum!

Now, OBVIOUSLY that figure isn’t final. I know with absolute certainty that a big chunk of that will disappear simply with components reaching retail, and obviously I intend to play these games too. Still, it does give me pause.

 

Regrets?

Of course, one thing that you can never really calculate is the value of making a decision so far ahead of release.

2015
I backed Apocrypha way back in 2015…

If Apocrypha were released tomorrow and I hadn’t backed it, I doubt very much that I’d buy it. I’d probably put my name down for a review copy, but I couldn’t imagine sinking my hand £60 deep into my pocket, let alone £100 for the expansions (which seem to be where the value is). 9th World likewise.

Massive Darkness was a big success, and I’m glad I backed it – I remember thinking many times last year that I wished I could go back in time and back Black Plague: obviously I couldn’t, but I could back Green Horde, and I did.

I’m glad I backed Legends Untold, because it’s the sort of project that I feel Kickstarter should really be for – small, independent, first-time publisher: It’s good to feel like I’ve been part of something that couldn’t have been produced without Kickstarter. As noted above, I’ve kind of lost sight of where we are gameplay wise, so will be interested to see what eventually lands.

 

All of it?

Hellephant
Hellephant!

Even within games that I would buy, there’s the question of whether I’d buy all the stuff I got through the KS campaign – as I’ve mentioned before, I’ve (very deliberately) only used the base-set stuff for Massive Darkness so far, and whilst I fully intend to get the rest of the stuff I have onto the table at some point, I think it’s probable that I’d have done things differently if I were picking the game up at retail – definitely a Hellephant before Lord Tusk or the Cocatrix, probably some Ratlings or Lizardmen before the Troglodytes. As a CMON Kickstarter, this has enough value in it that I’m not too bothered about little quibbles like this, although it would definitely be nice to be able to pick-and-choose more freely. I’d imagine that Green Horde will feel much the same.

Aeon’s End, I expect I would have planned to get it all, although possibly not all at once, and once there’s delay, there’s always the potential to have my mind changed. Gloomhaven I didn’t pledge for any expansions (aside from buying the stickers from a third-party so that I don’t damage the game in playing it). Legends Untold I would definitely have gone for 1 box rather than 2 if I had been confident of the second one being available later, but see notes above on “proper” Kickstarters.

Apocrypha is in a strange place – part of me thinks that the core box experience isn’t gripping enough to want to shell out for the expansions, part of me thinks that it’s only with the expansions that the game will really come to life. 9th World I can’t remember how it breaks down with add-ons (I’m sure it’ll change again before delivery).

 

Closing Thoughts

This article is a bit of a snap-shot, and it’s a snapshot taken at a very unflattering point in time for Kickstarter – money gone out on 8 projects, game in hand for more than a month on only 1. Still it’s a useful reminder for myself, especially as other Kickstarters appear in the future.

I was going to talk here about future projects I’m looking at, but this has got very long already, so I’ll section that off to be its own article another time.

I’m certainly not swearing off Kickstarter in the way that some people have. That said, I was never that deeply ensnared in the first place – over the time it’s taken me to get this printed, I’ve passed on 2 or 3 moderately-interesting-looking Kickstarters – an expansion for a fairly enjoyable game we play occasionally, a highly rated game that’s always priced itself out of my range in the past, and an opportunity for a mega-saving on a game that I’m not sure I really need – I expect I’ll end up talking more about them elsewhere, but for the most part, it won’t be as a backer.

I’ll keep following projects. Keep backing them occasionally. Keep complaining when they don’t arrive in a timely fashion, and keep blogging when there’s finally a game to blog about.

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October Arrivals

It’s feast or famine around here.

As I mentioned last time, although there was plenty of enjoyable gaming in September, the overall feel was a bit flat. Nothing particularly new or exciting.

 

October was the other extreme – shed loads of new stuff arriving, some of it really exciting.

Legend-Five-Rings-Card-Game-BoxLegend of the Five Rings (L5R) finally got its retail release (there have been copies floating around from conventions for a while), and it was everything I’d hoped. The overall visuals were great, and the gameplay is really interesting. As you know, I play a lot of co-ops, and a lot of fairly light stuff, but this one’s a real brain-burner: focused head-to-head play, where lapses in concentration can cost you the game. The game has clearly been heavily influenced by Game of Thrones LCG (2nd Edition), and the Fate mechanic seems a brilliant way to avoid the overwhelming build-up forces that can often stifle that game. Sadly, FFG have announced that the first cycle of expansions, instead of being spread over 6 months (as is normal), is going to appear over 6 weeks in November – there was some argument about bulking out the card-pool, but it makes the game a much tougher proposition financially – 10 sessions of a 1.5 hour game that I can’t play at home in 2 months is far from a done deal.

Kicking Arrivals

GloomNed
Kicking is compulsory when your feet don’t reach the floor…

October was also the month when the Kickstarter chickens started coming home to roost – 3 of them in fact, appearing across the weeks. Gloomhaven only arrived right at the very end of the month, and hasn’t even been unboxed (and what a box it is!), but the others found their day in the sun:

Apocrypha was the prodigal Kickstarter which finally arrived a staggering 17 months later than promised. I was fairly annoyed by the delays in getting it, and somewhat ambivalent about the game itself. It’s a dense, keyword-heavy ruleset that reads more like a logic puzzle: ideally designed for future –proofing (they’ve created a framework which feels sturdier than Pathfinder, and like it will easily support a lot of flexibility in the future). Sadly, the character progression is minimal and the rich theme often gets lost beneath fiddly mechanics. I expect that this one will probably sit on the shelf for a while, then get another run-out once the expansions arrive. I’ve done a fuller post-mortem of the process that you can read here.

Aeon’s End isn’t a new game- I first picked it up in February, but October was when the Kickstarter arrived for Aeon’s End: War Eternal, a stand-alone expansion that dropped a bucket-load of extra cards, along with reprints of all the first edition stuff (with better card-stock), and general component upgrades – we had half a dozen sessions of this in October, and looking forward to more soon.

 

BrimstoneHeroes I mentioned at the end of September that I’d stumbled across Shadows of Brimstone – a Weird West co-op Dungeon Crawler. Sadly it seemed to be more-or-less out-of-print, but I managed to track down a copy of one of the two base sets. Swamps of Death tends to get slightly less love than City of the Ancients, but I really wanted to play as the Preacher (because who doesn’t want to smite Eldritch Tentacles with Sermons? [Sermons. Definitely not spells. Honest]. Sadly, tracking it down was only the first step, but the models all needing to be clipped from sprues, assembled, and based, meaning that month was nearly over before I could even think about playing this: Shadows of Brimstone definitely wins the award for most time spent on a game this month without actually playing it.

 

Old

Encounter
Drawing encounter cards is generally regarded as a bad thing

Despite a lot of newy newness, it was also a good month for established titles, with 5 of the year’s 6 most-played games getting more table-time. Arkham was the biggest winner – we’re still getting a lot of play out of the new Carcosa Deluxe box, and the 6 new investigators that came with it – I really enjoyed taking new character Sefina through the Dunwich legacy, taking dark amusement from my wife’s facial expression every time I played Drawn to the Flame or Delve Too Deep. The release of the final Saga box for Lord of the Rings prompted a brief flurry of play, as I managed to try out both the new heroes, even if the new quests themselves have yet to be defeated (the first one is stupidly hard, and we never got past that). There were also run-outs for some of the longer titles, including Eldritch Horror and Gloom of Kilforth – the latter in particular we had a bit of an epiphany with, combining a change of tactics and a few variant rules for a really enjoyable session. In fact, it was so good, I even jumped on a Kickstarter at the 11th hour for a mini expansion.

 

Unplayed

Scrabble
Not the best letters I’ve ever had

As I mentioned last month, we went on holiday with my parents in October, which meant Scrabble getting its first play of the year – not only 2 games on the nights we were there, but my father even suggested playing a game the night after I’d sneaked off early. I’m not expecting a massive renaissance for this game, but it was a good reminder of why I won’t be getting rid of it. There are 10 games left on the un-played list, 3 of them new, and the rest old ones from previous years. Whilst all of the pre-owned games got played last year, 5 of them were also un-played in 2015, which suggests that that even if they do make it off the list by year-end, they’re still on fairly thin ice.

 

The Break-down

OctoTheme All-in-all, the month ended with Fantasy accounting for about half of what was played: Urban Fantasy (i.e. Apocrypha) dominated that, accounting for about 1/3 of sessions and of time, but Middle Earth, Gravehold, and the good old ‘generic’ featured too. For the first time since April, none of the Terrinoth games made it out of the box, which I’ll be looking to remedy in November. After Fantasy, Lovecraft featured heavily as usual, followed by ‘Japan’ (a not-all-that-accurate categorisation for L5R), and Zombies – small on sessions, but relatively big on time.

Mechanically, we were saving the world about 1/3 of the time, with a bit of mystery-solving thrown in. “Win” was the biggest unusual appearance, with L5R having shifted the overall balance of the month a bit towards competitive.

 

Next?

November also looks full of promise gaming-wise. Shadows of Brimstone should finally make it to the table, I need to play (and review) This War of Mine, and Gloomhaven arrived 2 days ago. There’s (almost) always new content arriving for Arkham, and after a missed month, there are a few titles like Legendary that I’m keen to get back to the table. All-in-all, it doesn’t look like things will be quieting down any time soon.

Kickback: Apocrypha

As part of my ongoing series of Kickstarter retrospectives, I want to talk today about Apocrypha.

Runelords If the decision to back Massive Darkness sprang from 2016’s love-affair with Zombicide Black Plague, then Apocrypha owes its success to our game of choice in 2015 – Pathfinder Adventure Card Game. I’d picked up PACG in April/May of 2014, and we were instantly hooked – a fun fantasy setting with loads of depth to it, transformed into a simple card game.

Apocrypha was a sort of long-lost sibling to the PACG – the theme was Modern Horror/ Urban Fantasy rather than High Fantasy, which didn’t massively interest me, but I’d liked enough of what I’d seen of the designers’ work up to that point to still be interested. Where Pathfinder has a very linear structure, Apocrypha promised powers matched with flaws, and a far more open approach overall to playing the game. Structurally, dice-rolls seemed to work very differently and all-in-all, it seemed like it had plenty to offer.

Apocrypha KS.pngIn May 2015, I shelled out $99 for the game plus all its expansions, and $17 for a folder (I forget what the point of the folder was), add in shipping and all-told, it was just under £100.

The game was due in April/May 2016, but there was plenty of Pathfinder to keep us occupied in the mean-time.

Wrath of the Righteous (3rd PACG set) released as the Apocrypha Kickstarter finished. Sadly, it was by far the least enjoyable of the APs, culminating in the soul-destroying Adventure 6, which saw us put the box away and never play a Wrath scenario again.

The Long Wait

2016 came, and with it no sign of Apocrypha – the April 2016 update came with a note saying

“Since the campaign ended, we said over and over that the increased size of the game would mean that April 2016 was not going to happen.”

– This was news to me, but I’m not always the most observant, so I checked.

looking back, I found a few comments on likely delivery dates:

September 2015

“we’re not sure whether we will quite get this out in April like we hoped, but we are definitely on the right track for a sometime-in-Q2 release” (KS update 22)

December 2015

“Because the game got real big during the campaign, we’re probably gonna miss April, but assuming all our art and graphics stay on the same schedule, we’re on track for a spring release to Kickstarter backers, and a summer retail release.” (KS Update 25).

That didn’t feel as definitive as they were making out that they had been, but a few months delay wasn’t going to be the end of the world – the doomsayers were predicting we wouldn’t have this game in hand until Christmas 2016, but the creators reassured us

“We very much hope to beat that expectation by a lot.”

It dragged on through the autumn: “production beginning in September” turned into “Files sent to the printer at Christmas.” When more understandable delays came up (proofs and tests bouncing back and forth between designers and printers), they were a lot harder to swallow than they would have been a year or so earlier.

Flesh By this time, we’d been told that the game had been split into 3 – a base box, followed by 2 expansions. Release was predicted as core box for backers in August, going to retail around the same time. Both expansions coming to backers in the Autumn, with the first one getting a retail release around November, and the other early in 2018.

I started writing the first draft of this article on 18th August, one day after the game’s street date in North America. Not only were there a stack of copies at GenCon, but any American FLGS that wanted it, could have copies aplenty, long before it made it to backers in Blighty.

The September update told us that EU fulfilment was about to begin, and should be all wrapped up within 2 weeks. My copy eventually arrived on 4/10/2017 – from what I can glean from forum activity, I was one of the lucky ones, with many people still waiting 3 or 4 weeks later.

A Backer’s Regrets

Overall, this campaign has left a bad taste in my mouth. It’s been fairly clear throughout that the designers have been working on lots of other projects: At times this has been blamed on distributors wanting multiple product ranges, each of multiple products. At other times we got a thinly veiled admission that they have real contracts with other publishers so have a legal obligation to actually deliver work by the time they promised, whereas KS backers can be more-or-less ignored. There were some vague claims that certain things (like art) just couldn’t be done any quicker, but in the context of everything else going on, that never really rang true.

Pathfinder Hours
How much of my gaming (by hours) is Pathfinder

My gaming habits have changed a lot in the past couple of years: I played 265 games of Pathfinder in 2015, 81 in 2016, and 22 (so far) this year: A Pathfinder-like game is just less exciting than it would have been in April 2016.

Admittedly that’s about me, not the game, but I think the length of the delay makes it much more likely that I’d be looking for something else. If this had arrived (somewhere close to) on-time, I’d have been more excited by it. I’d also like to think that if they’d originally pitched a game with a 24-month instead of a 12-month delivery estimate, then I might have thought differently about backing.

 

Development

For all my irritation, I wouldn’t want to suggest that the designers haven’t put a lot of time and effort into this game. Clearly they have done a lot.

AppThat said, I wasn’t convinced by the big changes, most notably when the designers decided to get clever with “set in the present day.”

Apocrypha now has an app, and every day you can sign in and find a unique twist added to playing the game today. This felt particularly bad, as it brought a real game-play disadvantage for non-US backers, who didn’t have their game whilst the US retail customers did.

 

Reputation

I think that a lot of people who backed Apocrypha did so because of Pathfinder: either because they liked the game, or simply because they’d heard of the designers – these were people with industry experience, who knew how to put together a card game on this scale.

As a Kickstarter backer, I know that there are risks – that’s why I pay attention to who is manufacturing the game when I decide to back. Clearly, in this case, I was wrong to assume that Pathfinder ACG was any kind of guarantee where this game was concerned: that these people with great game ideas actually knew what they were doing from an industry/production perspective. We assumed that they would actually be able to deliver the game they’d presented in the campaign and do it (somewhere near to) on time.

 

When it actually arrives

Most of the stuff written above was drafted before I had the game in hand. I thought I was just tired and didn’t care about this game anymore. When I sat down to write this, I suddenly realised just how annoyed I was by everything that had happened over the two and a bit years of this Kickstarter, culminating in the August release for the USA and a half-hearted drift into Europe a month or two later.

What I needed was for this game to arrive and blow me away with the experience it provided.

 

4/10/2017 Apocrypha finally arrived.

First impressions weren’t great.

Apocrypha Tutorial The first set of cards were fairly warped, and the rulebook was dense and keyword-heavy. The “Tutorial Video” was in fact just watching other people play the game for a few rounds. After a few minutes they say “we’re off, but why don’t you guys play out the rest of the game yourself” – which might make sense if it came before half a dozen shuffles and dice-rolls.

Still, plenty of good games have lousy rulebooks and poor (or absent) tutorials, so I kept going.

Apocrypha-Card-Game-Contents The box organiser has a lot of space (it should comfortably hold both expansions) and some nice dividers. I built a couple of suggested decks, and took another run at the intro scenario. I rolled badly, which is always a risk in a dice game, but my options felt really constrained- there just weren’t many ways to mitigate bad luck.

Surprisingly, given where I’d started, the theme seemed to be the best thing about the game – the story book did a good job of luring me in to the narrative, and teased the possibility of more cool stuff to come.

Fast-forward a few weeks, and this has made a remarkably fast charge up to ten plays. However, that’s primarily because my editor from Games Quest remembered me mentioning that I’d backed this, and asking me to do a rush-job review of it, ahead of Essen. I promised to avoid the “it would have been fine 2 years ago” comments and I tried to make sure I reviewed the game, not the Kickstarter campaign – if anything, I probably went to the other extreme, not wanting to let my review be coloured by personal irritation, although it was still hardly a glowing review – you can see the results over at the GQ Blog if you’re interested.

 

Speaking with the greater freedom that comes from writing on my own blog, and not a semi-professional job for someone else, I want to talk a bit more about some of the issues I had with the game

Do what now?

Apocrypha-Card-Game-StructuresThe Byzantine structuring of rules and set-up meant that there were lots of occasions where we simply didn’t know what we were supposed to be doing – or worse, thought we knew what we were supposed to be doing, but it was stupid, random, and un-fun (the worst of these turned out to be a missed rule, which wasn’t featured on any of the 4 cards on table that were supposed to be telling us how to play the game, and was only buried in the story-book).

Having played at least 400 games of Pathfinder in the last few years, done game demonstration as a side-job, play-tested a major card-game, and reviewed a lot of other games, I’d like to think that I’ve got as good a chance as most people of being able to pick up Apocrypha and get the hang of it fairly quickly. I’d give Apocrypha about 2/10 for being intuitive and accessible.

 

Losing Theme

Pathfinder Check On top of that, the theme and the mechanics feel pretty disconnected. It’s fairly obvious in Pathfinder what’s going on: My fighter rolls a D10 for his strength. As he’s fighting a Goblin, he plays a short sword to add a D6, and adds his Melee skill for +3. He rolls a 4 and a 2 which equals 9 with the bonus. He exceeds the Goblin’s “Combat 8” and the Goblin is defeated.

Apocrypha CheckCompare that to “My policeman rolls 3 dice to use his body skill against this werewolf. He discards a set of lockpicks to add another dice, and a cup of coffee to add a further dice. Finally, because he has “Sense” he adds a 6th and final dice. He then rolls the 6 dice and gets 1, 3, 3, 3, 4, 6. The best total from these dice is 13, which is less than the Werewolf’s difficulty of 14. As the cop doesn’t have any “Body” gifts in hand, he discards a memory stick…

Now admittedly, that might be a bit contrived, picking a very straightforward example from one game and a convoluted one from another, but I definitely got a sense of not being particularly invested in the story, just of rolling dice, and hoping cards went away.

Saints and Gators I noticed fair few people on BGG forums drawing comparisons between Apocrypha and the Arkham LCG. I think it’s a logical parallel to draw, and I think Arkham is a clear winner. Arkham is my most-played game of 2017 (by sessions, Zombicide is ahead by hours), and it does a brilliant job of blending theme and mechanic, of making your story decisions have a meaningful impact on the effects that you see and the events that unfold.

Maybe the real reason that this game would have seemed so much better in the spring of 2016 wasn’t about being annoyed with the delay at all – maybe it was simply because we hadn’t yet been spoiled by the wonderful Arkham LCG.

 

Time for the Numbers

I spent about £95 on Apocrypha, and with over 2.5 years taken to deliver, my imaginary “interest” charge takes me over £100 for the investment.

Apocrypha Value
I’ll probably come out ahead once the expansions land

The base game has an RRP of £74.99, but seems to be available at £59.99. In the short term, that leaves me down by about £40, although that should improve with boxes 2 and 3. The expansions I have only seen a $$ RRP for, but assuming that $40 turns into about £35, and the same 20% discounts are to be had online, that’s about £28 each – that’s an end point about £20 up on buying them at retail.

£100 needs 20 hours of table-time to count as “value” on my scale, and with an average game-time of an hour, this has notched up 10 hours in getting my review to press. I can’t say that I feel any particular compulsion to finish off out current campaign though, and this will probably sit idle for a little while.

So, right now, £40 down vs RRP, £50 down on game-time. That looks like £90 worth of poorly-spent money. That will certainly improve when the expansions appear, but even £50 down isn’t great, so this will need to get more table-time to justify its place.

Mummys-Mask-Card-Game-Box
In a lot of ways, I think this box is better than Rise of the Runelords or Skull & Shackles – it’s just that other games have got better-er in the meantime

The general level of buzz being created by Pathfinder ACG is well down on where it was 2 years ago. Nearly 10,000 people rated Rise of the Runelords, the first Adventure Path for the game, compared to fewer than 200 for Mummy’s Mask.

I’d seriously hope that, even with the hefty shipping I’d need, I could still sell this on for (more than) £50 all in, so it’s not yet a dead loss, but I don’t think this game will be flying off the shelves, and from a financial perspective, I’m certainly not smiling like I was with Massive Darkness.

Final Reflections

I don’t want to say that Apocrypha is a bad game. I think it’s definitely a game with a lot of issues, and it’s far from being the best I own, but it’s not without its merits.

Realistically, as a Kickstarter backer, you can’t really judge a new game without putting it in the context of the overall campaign. I think that the only solution to that is time. For now, I’ll put this on the shelf and enjoy some other games, and re-visiting this in a few weeks/months, either when the mood takes me, or when the expansions arrive.

Overall, the experience of the Apocrypha campaign is one I’d rather not have had. The game itself I’m still on the fence about: it’s definitely not as clever as it thinks it is, but it might be fine once my frustration at the process has dwindled.

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.

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.