New Year, Same Games – January 2021

We’re already 1 month into 2021, although Lockdown may have made it feel more like 6 months (and me taking the best part of a week to get this article out probably didn’t help…)

For the most part, the gaming landscape here remained fairly unaltered – Marvel Champions and Carcassonne got played the most times. Arkham Horror and D&D had the most time spent playing them. There were still a few points worthy of mention though, so let’s take a look.

Highlights

wonderfully unnecessary slider-sleeve to cope with the triple hero forms

For Marvel Champions, my current project is a solo Wasp expert campaign through the 5 Rise of Red Skull scenarios, with all modular sets taken from the Once and Future Kang pack. I wasn’t a huge fan of her preconstructed Aggression deck (the cost/resource curve is a bit weird), but once I switched her to Justice, she did a lot better. My latest pivot has been to rebuild her for protection ahead of taking on Taskmaster, as I want to be able to drag this one out and rescue as many of the objective allies as possible, and I was struggling to keep up with the sheer amount of damage he churns out.

For Arkham, we’ve started a remote 4-player campaign through the Circle Undone with a couple of friends. We’re only 3 scenarios in (2 plus the prologue), but it’s already been quite the Rollercoaster: our attempt to math out the prologue and give ourselves a chance of rescuing the allies later in the campaign ended fairly quickly and badly, then we stormed through The Witching Hour, with double-digits of XP, before being once again caught very flat-footed in At Death’s Doorstep: a sudden string of surging Doom in act 1 saw us fail to find the mini boss or any of the objectives allies, and although we made it out comfortably enough, the whole thing felt strangely short and slightly underwhelming.

We kept up our 3-player Innsmouth Conspiracy game, making it through Horror in High Gear safely: I won’t talk any more about the scenario yet, as it’s still pretty new and a lot of folk haven’t had the chance to play it.

Both my Dungeons & Dragons games have started back up for the new year. We’ve had another change of line-up in Waterdeep, but the players are making decent progress, as well as doing their best to become the cities leading purveyors of Cake Tapas. Meanwhile in Out of the Abyss, the party learned the perils of getting a Shield Guardian to break-dance in a small tunnel – on the plus side, it allowed me to railroad them into a fetch quest for a magic item that they’ll probably need later.

Carcassonne continues to be a mostly solo game for me – I wracked up 10 sessions in January, and finally managed to score an 8-point city with 3 colours. Right now, the only objectives left outstanding are to score 4 cloisters in a single game, and to use up all the tiles. 1 down, 2 to go.

Challenge 21

(No, not the campaign to stop under-age sales of alcohol) Once again this year, I’ve decided to set myself a few gaming challenges for the next 12 months. Some will look fairly familiar, whilst others are venturing into some unexplored territory.

10×10 Multiplayer Hardcore

First up, is the 10×10, a fairly well-established feature by now, both of this blog and of gamers generally: play 10 games, 10+ times each. As I’m doing the “hardcore” version of the challenge, I had to pick my 10 before I started playing them (rather than just waiting until you’ve played a game 10 times, then decide retrospectively that this was one of the ones that counted). For the last few years, there has tended to be a fairly consistent pattern to these – some games get completed in next to no time, most chug along steadily, and 1 or 2 are still sat on 8 games by late autumn, whilst a couple that weren’t on the list are well into double-digits.

After a bit of deliberation, these were my final 10 for 2021:

  • Aeon’s End
  • Arkham LCG
  • Cthulhu: Death May Die
  • Harry Potter Hogwarts Battle
  • Journeys in Middle Earth
  • Legendary: Marvel
  • LotR LCG
  • Marvel Champions
  • Shadows of Brimstone
  • Xenocide

Just like every year, some of these will be much easier than others – Arkham and Champions will, in all likelihood, be done by about Easter, without too much thought. Other games like Shadows of Brimstone will require a bit more of a concerted undertaking.

One additional feature of this year’s challenge, is that I’m not including solo games for this. I’m honestly not sure how big an impact this will have – I definitely play several of those games solo, but I’ve never previously sat down and calculated the single/multiplayer split. For a game like Champions, it should only be the difference between completing in January or April, but I’ll be intrigued to see how quickly I get to 10 multiplayer games of something like Lord of the Rings.

10×10 Solo

2 of those didn’t take long at all…

Having taken the solo games out of the Hardcore challenge, I didn’t want them to disappear completely, so decided to do a separate 10×10 challenge that looked only at solo plays. I’m not doing this in hardcore mode, as I didn’t want to lock myself into something that I end up not enjoying – whilst I’ve not really kept a close watch on solo gaming specifically, I do know that it can definitely vary quite a bit in terms of how enjoyable it feels: sometimes it can be really good fun to squeeze in a quick solo session of something during a random spare hour (or less) that might not otherwise be enough time to set something bigger up, but equally, it can easily turn into a chore if not managed properly.

Looking back at the sheet, I think that there were somewhere between 20 and 25 games that I played solo last year, and of those 11 were games that I played 10+ times. However, that’s 10+ games at all player-counts, and I’m certain that for several of those, I only actually managed 1 or 2 sessions solo. It’s quite possible then, that this challenge will turn out to have been a huge mistake, and that I won’t get anywhere near the target. We shall just have to see.

5×5 New

ok, so this one wasn’t really worth a chart just yet…

The last challenge is – in every sense of the word – a new one. I’ve set myself the challenge for 2021 to get some decent play of some new games. I mentioned in the 2020 round-up what a fallow year 2020 was for new titles (as opposed to expansions), with only a few things acquired, and most of those not really played in much depth.

For 2021, I’m setting myself the target of playing 5 new games 5 times. In the interests of transparency, I’ll say that I’m including Flash Point: Fire Rescue in the category of “new” – technically it arrived at the very end of December last year, but never made it out of the box.

Beyond Flash Point, I expect that this challenge will mostly be down to the various Kickstarters I’m waiting on – provided enough of them actually arrive in the first half of the year (which shouldn’t be too much to ask when you consider that 2 of them were due in 2019!) The only 2021 new release that I’m definitely intending to buy is X-Men: Mutant Insurrection – with a Feb/March release date, that’s another that should easily clock up 5 games this year.

Brushing off the Dust

A couple of games from last year’s un-played pile made it to the table early in January. I’m not sure that Flash Point really deserves the “un-played” tag having been around less than a fortnight, but either way, this got played a fair bit – 5 times total between solo and 2-player games. Overall, this seems fun, if very light. After watching the house literally burn down and crush me in game 1, I feel like I got the hang of this one fairly quickly, and the difficulty of the ‘Family’ version is pretty easy. Next task is to start working in some of the other components from the second half of the rulebook, in the hope that these will give the game a bit more challenge/complexity.

Mapominoes is a strange creation – in many respects it’s more of a geography teaching aid than a game per se – the gameplay decisions often feel quite on-rails. In fact, the most interesting aspect mechanically, is that if players approach the game really aggressively (trying to block each other etc), you can end up with a situation where it’s impossible to finish the game (although this is a lot more common with higher player counts and/or when mixing sets). We had a couple of games, and I think that in both case victory probably went to the person who got the best starting hand. Still, in a few more years, it’ll be useful for teaching Ned Geography.

I honestly don’t know why Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective didn’t get played last year. We got it out in early January this year, and finished off the original box, which is one that I got way back in 2016 – this version is no longer published, although a revamped version exists. Now that this box is finished, I’ll sell it (as soon as I get round to it, honest), but we have another half-finished box sat on the shelf for future plays.

New Year’s Savings

January was a pretty cheap month – for a while, it looked like it might end up being a zero spend month, but that possibility vanished at the 11th Hour (well, the 28th day) when the Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch packs for Marvel Champions appeared on the pre-order sheet. Given how quickly everything Champions has been selling out, and the length of the reprint cycles, I jumped in with a couple of pre-orders. (This turned out to be a very good decision, as Asmodee UK then put out a press-release, saying that they’d just realised Scarlet Witch wasn’t meant to come out until March, and that any stock that they hadn’t already sent out to retailers would be held until the official date).

“Hug Bear” included at all pledge levels…

Although there weren’t any big costs in January, there’s a couple of large outlays on the horizon, including a pair of three Pledge Managers. Massive Darkness 2 has been making waves over the past few weeks, after it opened up containing some remarkably hefty VAT charges. CMON’s official stance is that due to a change in the law, they now have to be very explicit in demonstrating that VAT has been charged, hence the additional cost to customers. The underlying suspicion raised by many is that this means they weren’t paying (or at least weren’t paying enough) VAT previously, hence the new charges. Either way, it means the MD2 (and any other CMON project) is likely to be more expensive from hereon in. I still need to decide exactly what I’m going to get for Massive Darkness – my wife is still keen to get the game, but I’m almost certainly backing off slightly in terms of the expansions I go for.

obviously, not officially the Mandalorian – mostly for legal reasons I’d imagine.

Pledge Manager #2 is for Nova Aetas: Renaissance. This is a fun-looking Fantasy meets Renaissance Italy game where you get to play as the Mandalorian! (sort of…) I suspect that I’ll end up just going with the base pledge, simply because of how many other things there are competing for my time, and not knowing how much interest it will generate from my wife, although there’s definitely a whole pile of stuff that I could end up adding if the mood took me. “More big boss monsters” isn’t that appealing, but there are plenty of added mechanics and gameplay in the bigger-box expansions, and they do seem to be fairly heavily discounted vs the notional future retail price, so that’s something to keep in mind.

The 3rd, and somewhat unexpected Pledge Manager to open up (I was expecting it a couple of months later) was for Freedom Five. This is a co-op dice game in the Sentinels of the Multiverse… Multiverse? I played a game on TTS during the campaign, and backed at the $5 level (they’ve clearly got wise to the $1 trick and decided to squeeze us all a bit harder). It’s something of a re-skin of Defenders of the Realm, by Richard Launius, with Adam and Brady Sadler also involved in the design, all names which caught my eye. Sadly, the various levels of pledges and add-ons seem needlessly complex, with not only multiple different levels of add-ons included or not, but the divide between minis and standees. Standees are appealing from a cost perspective, but I’m struggling to figure out whether there’s an amount of gameplay between the extremely minimalist “retail version” and the “gameplay all-in.” (the more middling option definitely exists in miniatures form, but obviously costs more than its (possibly hypothetical) standees equivalent.

In terms of long-term shortfalls, it’s the same old story: Tainted Grail, Call to Adventure, and Death May Die. Death May Die has been played a couple of times, and is nearly at break-even, but the others are still lagging. Next month I’ll need to start counting Flash Point and Vadoran Gardens, my 2 December purchases, but as noted above, I don’t anticipate Flash Point staying in the red for long. Kickstarters aside, the main games that I’m anticipating upcoming spending on are the Marvel Champions and Arkham, both of which have been played plenty, so shouldn’t suddenly be falling back into the red.

Next?

For February, I’m looking to re-start my Call of Cthulhu RPG campaign, and start delving a bit deeper into some of the titles that didn’t get much table time in January. It’s also my son’s birthday, so we’ll see whether we can give him another nudge from Orchard to Haba games with a couple of new titles.

The Long and the Short of it

Pour yourselves a strong caffeinated beverage, it’s time for one of my stats and number-crunching muses…

As I’ve mentioned many times before, at Christmas 2014, I started keeping track of the games I play – what game, who I played it with, how many times (if we played it multiple times in a day) and win or lose for co-op games. By this point, I’ve filled multiple notebooks with the information.

Not long after that, I decided that I needed to track not only how many times I played each game, but how much time I spent: mostly because it just felt a bit odd to say “I’ve played Middle Earth Quest and Dobble 2 times each this year” and somehow pretend that that amounted to the same thing.

Up until 2019, I’d always tracked how much time I spent on any given game by estimating the average session length, then multiplying it by the number of sessions. I think I originally took length-estimates from Board Game Geek and the side of the game box, but there was also an element of gut-feel to it. This method is quick, easy, and very spreadsheet-friendly. Unfortunately, it’s not always that accurate, which was why (in 2019) I started making a particular note of outliers, and manually adding or subtracting time where appropriate. This probably gave me a more accurate picture of things, but it was still far from perfect, and was a lot more faff.

I began 2020 then, by buying the BG Stats app, which let me log games on my phone – the major advantage of this, is that you just press “start” at the start “stop” at the end, and it times the game for you. Assuming, of course, that you remember. I’ve had a decent number of missed starts which I’ve then had to guess retrospectively, and at least one “14-hour” D&D Session, where I went to bed without pressing stop! (I went back and changed it). At this point the notion of a session length becomes slightly redundant, and I stopped paying particularly close attention to it.

Looking Back

As a Christmas activity (it was a slow day) I decided to look back at my notional “session lengths” and compare them to the actual average time spent on the various games I had played in 2020 – unsurprisingly, when you start measuring in exact numbers of minutes, rather than quarters of hours, none of them were 100% accurate, but overall, the picture wasn’t too bad. Out of 75 games played, 2 had an average session length that was over 30 minutes longer than anticipated (Tainted Grail and Massive Darkness), whilst 2 were more than 30 minutes shorter (D&D and Carcassonne).

None of these are hugely shocking – Tainted Grail is a “play until you feel like stopping” game, and with it only really being played in Ned-at-nursery afternoons, a few big sessions made sense.

Massive Darkness is a bit of a tricky one to pin down: some games will run extremely short (there are timed scenarios where if you don’t make enough progress in the first ten minutes, you’ve essentially lost), but completed games, especially on a non-against-the-clock scenario will invariably run very long indeed – the figure here probably reflects 2020 having a slightly more favourable than usual ratio of long, drawn-out victories to nasty, brutish and short defeats moreso than it does anything else.

For the overestimated games, this was more about a shift in the type of game we were having. For D&D the onset of lockdown brought an end to “going out to professionally run 3-hour sessions” and meant that over three quarters of the year was instead “Zoom, after kids’ bedtimes until we’re all too tired and need to go to bed ourselves” length sessions.

For Carcassonne, it was even simpler: playing Carcassonne the traditional way still takes about 45 as estimated, but last year I played 50-or-so games of the new solo variant, and these rarely made it to 10 minutes.

Reconsidering?

For some games, this has been a really useful exercise – Aeon’s End very confidently states “1 hour” on the box, and I’ve never really questioned that too closely. However, if you take out set-up/tear-down time, our games come out pretty consistently around the 40 minute mark. Likewise Death May Die is much more a 45-50 minute game than the 1-hour estimate, which is not a million miles away, but definitely starts to mount up when the game has been played 30+ times in the year.

The main reason that this matters is when I’m considering whether a game I own is justifying the money spent on it. If I’m telling myself that it’s ok to spend £20 on an expansion because I’ve already played 5 hours of that game this year, then I need to know if actually I’ve only spent 3. Likewise, if I’m thinking I can’t justify shelling out because this has only been played for 2 hours, then it’s good know if really it was 4 or so!

It’s Quicker if you do it yourself…

One thing that this activity did show me was the big disparity in session-lengths: some games play for a very consistent length of time, but others can vary wildly, which has always been part of the problem in keeping track of things.

Sometimes these are just weird aberrations. Shadows of Brimstone is an all-evening dungeon crawl – most of the time – but there’s also a High Noon Showdown scenario which is just one player-character vs one bandit – I played it on one occasion last year, and it clocked in at a mighty six minutes!

But beyond the weird outliers, there are also some games where there are very distinct patterns, and I thought that these warranted looking at a bit more closely. Most striking for me were the games where player-count has a big impact, and as this felt like it was true for the 3 co-op LCGs, I decided that I had enough data to break it down and look a bit harder into the numbers. The results were quite striking.

For each of the 3 LCGs, in 2020, there was a significant increase in average session-time as the player-count increased. Solo games tended to be very short, with Arkham being just over half-an-hour, Marvel just under, and Lord of the Rings less than 25. By the time I got 2 4-player by contrast, I was looking at 2.5 hours for Marvel, and over 3 hours average for a 4-player game of Arkham.

Overall, Lord of the Rings had the lowest average times for each player count, with a much flatter curve, and an average of only 80ish minutes at 4-player. However, it also had a much higher proportion of games played at 3 and 4-player, giving it a fairly middling average, somewhere up around 45 minutes. Looking back, I’d historically classed Lord of the Rings as a “30-minute” game, but had worried about the outliers – 3 solo games set-up and scooped in 20 minutes, or a 4-hour multiplayer epic.

I think that Lord of the Rings far more than any of the other three suffers from the sudden-death syndrome (although Solo Champions runs into this a little bit), where even with a consistent number of players, it can be possible to lose in a few turns, but victories can take hours to grind out.

Marvel Champions had a fairly steady progression: half an hour, an hour, just over 1.5 hours, just over 2.5 hours. However, 72 solo sessions, versus only 5 with more than 2 players, the overall average skewed fairy short at 40ish minutes (the shortest of the 3). Again, this was a game that I had been treating as a 30-minute game under the old system, so it suggests that I was probably under-counting slightly, definitely the better way round to be doing it, as I was under-valuing the game, and it still looked like money-well spent.

Arkham Horror is fairly consistently the longest of the three (technically Marvel beats it by a hair at 2-player), and it has the lowest ratio of solo games, with 2/3 of our Arkham being 2-player. As such, it averages out at noticeably over an hour per game. Historically I had been treating Arkham as a 45-minute game, which I revised to 1-hour in 2019, so again, good to see that this had been under-estimated in terms of value, rather than over.

Final Thoughts

I don’t have any plans for huge upheavals in how I track my time spent gaming over the coming year – thanks largely to the app, I’m confident that my records of time spent on games is as accurate as it ever needs to be. I have used the 2020 data to give myself updated average session-times, which are useful for projecting forward (i.e. “if I need to play this for 5 more hours to justify the money I spent on it, roughly how many actual games is that?”). For the moment, I’m just leaving the 2020 figures and not revising them constantly, but I may do a periodic update if I get bored.

Aside from all the financial minutiae, it’s good to know how long a game is likely to take for more mundane reasons like “I’ve got this much time, what game can I play?” as I continue to work from home in the face of the ongoing Pandemic, knowing what games fit into a 30-minute lunchbreak is a particularly important factor (not to mention evening games with a wife who gets grumpy if a game drags on past the point at which she was hoping to be asleep!)

That’s all from me for today, but I’d be interested to know how closely other people track the time they spend gaming: are there others out there counting the seconds and the minutes? Or do you mostly go with a ‘gut-feel’ approach? Or simply not care?

Over at Last – a Look Back at 2020

So, that was 2020.

It’s hardly a great leap to note that – for pretty much everyone – 2020 was a strange year. Personally, I haven’t been into the office since March, had about 2-3 months where my son didn’t go to Nursery, and for at least half the year, we haven’t been able to have guests in the house. As I write this, the UK is back into general lockdown, so the chances of things going back to normal any time soon aren’t looking great!

Whilst it pales in significance compared to the big picture issues of death, unemployment or potential socio-economic collapse, I’m going to focus today on the impact of 2020 on my gaming, because, ultimately, this is still a gaming blog.

Lots of games on Zoom this year. Costumes are optional…

I haven’t played a face-to-face game of D&D since March – I played in some online games via discord, but found the audio-only format really difficult (they were large group games, often with people I didn’t know, and it was just too much like work keeping track of who was doing/saying what to actually be enjoyable). The 2 D&D games I’m running have continued, mostly via Zoom or Facebook rooms, but the impact was still felt.

D&D in 2020 involved lots of hastily-photographed maps – complete with annoying glare patches…

There was a rather prep-heavy period when the players all wanted to meet weekly as they couldn’t do any of their other evening activities, or the players we lost along the way, as the pressures of lockdown/discomfort with the virtual format made them decide that it just wasn’t worth the effort anymore. I’ve also mostly abandoned the map and minis for theatre of the mind when it comes to combat, which does take some of the tactical edge of things, but I think the solid character-based roleplaying has made up for that.

Since the reviewing work came to an end at the end of 2018, 2019 had seen me lean pretty heavily on working game shows in exchange for store credit, and 2020 was looking set to be a good year in that respect, having managed to get time off of work for both Insomnias, UK Games Expo, and a return to Essen Spiele. Sadly, Covid-19 had things to say on the matter here as well, and all of them were cancelled (I did ‘attend’ the virtual UKGE, but from a retail stand perspective, it didn’t really work that well).

Looking a bit closer to home, I think my parents set foot in my house exactly twice after the beginning of February, which is why I didn’t play any Scrabble, or Mah Jong this year! Likewise, it was a bad year for party games – with no Dixit or Articulate getting played. In all honesty, since we (and loads of other people we know) had children, the big group gathering has been pretty rare and most party games are more-or-less resigned to just gathering dust, only kept around because of the low re-sale value.

A few more of the unplayed pile

By the time the curtain fell on 2020, I had 9 games sitting unplayed, which is the most in a single year since 2018. Of those, a couple have already hit the table in the first couple of weeks of 2021, but I definitely want to keep a closer eye on that potential pile of shame this year.

Before things get too negative, let’s look at what did get played.

Let’s make no mistake, 2020 wasn’t actually a bad year in terms of how much gaming I got done. In fact, being largely unable to do anything else, I clocked up a whopping 827 game sessions, totalling around 750 hours (that’s comfortably the most sessions of any year so far, slightly fewer hours than 2019)

There were 3 big games for 2020, both in terms of hours and sessions: Arkham Horror LCG, Marvel Champions, and Dungeons and Dragons. D&D is still my most-played game by hours, although in a strange parallel, it’s also the game that’s seen the biggest drop in hours (down from over 200 hours in 2019 to about 115 in 2020). I’ve mentioned above the reasons for why I’ve stopped playing (as opposed to running games), but I hope to get back to spending some other time on the front side of the DM-screen next year.

Arkham Horror held pretty steady as a game – 4 years in a row now, it has been in second place by hours (it was 8th in 2016 which isn’t bad when you consider that it only came out that November!) and this is the second year it’s had the second-most plays (it was most-played in 2017 and 2018) this year’s roughly 98 hours was a new high, probably due in part to more high-player-count/remote games, which typically take longer. I also feel like Arkham scenarios generally are getting longer: the further we get into the game’s life, the more the designers are experimenting with the format, and this has inevitably meant longer and more complex scenarios.

Marvel Champions was the real star of 2020, definitely my game of the year. Only 3rd most-played by hours, but easily the most sessions and well over a hundred games by the end of the year. I’ve been really pleased with how this one has developed, despite a difficult year in terms of production and delivery: we now have 14 heroes, 12 Villains, and many modular sets, making for a vast number of combinations, even with only a single year’s content. I’ve been hearing a surprising amount of griping and grumbling from people online about rules minutiae, and delays to the release schedule, but to my mind, much of this stuff is 1) explained by Covid and 2) not nearly as big a deal as people make out. I’m definitely looking forward to seeing where they can take the game now that the foundations have been established, but for a first year of an LCG, I think they’ve done really well.

Rising to the Challenge

Beyond the “Big 3” there, I did set myself a few gaming challenges again for 2020, and managed to complete them all successfully – a Hardcore 10×10 challenge, needing to play a specific, pre-chosen 10 games 10 times, as well as a more open “play any 12 games 12 times.” By final count, I had 10 games played 20+ times, 23 played 10+ times, and a very respectable 40 games played 5 or more times. All-in-all, I played 75 different games over the course of the year, 63 of those at least twice: it’s some way down from being the most different games played in a year (2016-2019 each had 90+ different titles played), but it still feels like a good, broad range, as well as allowing games to be played enough times to get a proper feel for them, rather than just ticking things off of the list for the sake of it.

Final H-Index for 2020 was 13

I’ve set myself a few slightly different challenges for 2021 (variations on a theme, don’t expect too much excitement), and I’ll try to give them their own article in the next week or so, or possibly get tag them onto the January round-up.

The Big Picture

Taking a step back, the overall thematic picture is a variation on a familiar theme – Cthulhu-Mythos games and Fantasy-themed games were both down a bit compared to last year, each accounting for just over a quarter of gaming time all-told. Comics were the big increase area, up to 17% of all gaming thanks to the explosion of Marvel Champions, and overall the top 3 categories account for about as much as last year (70%). Historical (mostly Carcassonne and Dominion) was down to 4th place as, whilst I’ve played a lot of Carcassonne this year, the vast majority of that was sub-10-minute solo games. Sci-Fi and Zombies swapped places, on just below 6% and 4% respectively: in general, Zombicide looks like the biggest faller this year, only just making it into the 10 most-played games, but it surges back up to a more familiar 4th-ish if you lump together the space-age “Xenocide” stuff with the Medieval.

Expanding Horizons

Blue is expanded, Yellow is RPG, Brown is Old. New games are Green!

The sheet where I track the status of my various games (old, new, added to etc) saw an overwhelming swathe of blue at the top this year – “expanded.” Out of the 20 most-played games, 13 were expanded (mostly just by me buying expansions), and 2 were RPGs (for both of which I bought new content). The only “non-expanded” games were Carcassonne (which owed its popularity entirely to a new solo ruleset printed by the publisher), Zombicide Medieval, Eldritch Horror, Gloomhaven (for which I actually paid a fiver for an App to streamline things) and Dominion. All-told that’s 16 expanded games, accounting for 53% of all gaming.

By contrast, 2020 was a really barren year in terms of brand-new games. All-told, I played a mere 9 new games this year, which includes 2 new RPGs, and 3 games played remotely on Table-Top Simulator (after a bit of deliberation, I decided that a game still counts if played in real-time and with human opponents, even if the components are virtual.) For comparison, the previous few years had each seen me try out somewhere between 25 and 50 new titles.

Of the new games I did play, 4 were titles that I’ve actually acquired – Carcosa, Call to Adventure (Stormlight Archive), Vadoran Gardens, and The Dwarves: The Duel. I also acquired Mysterium, which was new to own, but we had played before. None of these games have particularly set the world alight, with Mysterium, my #25 most-played game of the year having commanded the most table-time. Carcosa is interesting, but a little bit fiddly (and made slightly redundant by the Carcassonne solo rule-set). I need to dig into this one a bit more in 2021, and see whether the solo challenges make it worth keeping hold of.

 Mysterium is definitely a solid game, and we have managed to play it both 2-player and over Zoom, but I think it really shines for in-person 4+ players. Vadoran Gardens only arrived a few days before Christmas – my first impressions are really positive, but it might be a bit puzzle-y for my wife’s tastes: I’ll definitely give it another try or 2, but this could well be another for the ever-growing pile of “once we can go to other people’s house and play games again” games.

Call to Adventure was slightly disappointing as a title (it’s currently the only game I own which is “poor value” by player-count) with an interesting theme, but not quite enough mechanical crunch to it – it’s the sort of game where you can make perfect decisions and still run – repeatedly – into a brick wall if the runes land the wrong way. On top of that, although this version of the game was billed as having a redesigned/improved solo/co-op mode, there are significant elements which just don’t feel like they work at all in a single-player game. Lastly, the box and components all feel slightly over-sized: Cards that are too big for the amount of information that they hold, and a box that could fit the game in 3 times over. That may seem like a fairly ridiculous gripe, but that excess shelf-space its occupying just starts to grate when there are already multiple mechanical things that aren’t quite singing for me.

New Activities

On the subject of “new” there are a couple of other projects that could probably stand another plug. The Card Game Cooperative, a podcast about Lord of the Rings LCG, Arkham Horror LCG, and Marvel Champions LCG is nearing its first birthday, and it already feels like we’ve come a good way from that first session huddled around a tiny table that we repeatedly kept kicking (glad I’m not the sound-editor). You can check out our back-catalogue via our website. We got given 2 cards by FFG to officially announced, and even got the chance to interview LotR/Marvel Champions lead designer Caleb Grace, so all-in-all a pretty exciting first year. In relation to all this extra LCG-activity, FFG actually let me write an article for their website, which is worth a read if you haven’t already.

A seemingly lesser, although sometimes just as time-consuming, endeavour, is my foray into reviewing books. With the rise of Aconyte, the fiction-publishing arm of Asmodee, it has been a year for Arkham Horror novels, Marvel Novels (!?!) and L5R Novels (no additional “Lord of the Rings novels yet, unsurprisingly) – a part of me definitely hopes that Aconyte slow down their new title rate, otherwise I’m going to have to start being a little more selective with the titles I request as I struggle to keep up with everything. Check out the reviews so far on the Story-Board page.

2021?

I honestly don’t know how 2021 is going to play out. Nearly 2 weeks in, the global picture is hardly looking any better, given the 3rd lockdown we’re facing in the UK, and the riots in the US last week. Game-wise I’m optimistic that Arkham and Marvel Champions are going to continue releasing regular content: Marvel has been hit by a lot of delays, but there’s plenty to keep me going and, if anything, Arkham has been releasing faster than I can process (we still haven’t played Return to the Forgotten Age).

In terms of Kickstarters, 2021 should be a much bigger year than 2020. I’m currently expecting The Everrain, Sword & Sorcery, Oathsworn, Marvel United, Massive Darkness 2, Intrepid, and Nemesis Lockdown. Theoretically those should be joined by Trudvang Legends, Shadows of Brimstone Adventures, Freedom Five, and Nova Aetas, but realistically I’m expecting those 3 to slip into 2022. I’m currently sitting on a $1 pledge for ISS Vanguard which could start to ship this year, but I’m tempted to hang on until after Wave 1 has reached the public, so that I can see how the reviews are and just get stuff in Wave 2 if it seems good.

Most of those Kickstarters are money already spent (although there are a few Pledge Managers yet to resolve) and beyond that, it’s really hard to know what’s coming: between the ongoing Covid-delays, and the continuing uncertainty around just how much long-term impact Brexit will have on import/export costs and practicality, it seems likely that some, if not all, games are going to be harder to come by, and more expensive to acquire.

I’m hoping that this time around I’ll be able to make it to Essen, as well as a few shows closer to home, and as well as catching up with a lot of folks who I haven’t seen face-to-face in way too long, that will hopefully bring a bit of store credit with it. If not, then 2021 could be a lean year, as I probably ought to ease back on spending compared to 2020.

In terms of games that I actively follow, there will inevitably be more expansions for Marvel Legendary, and I’ve already got my eye on Into the Cosmos (a 2020 release in the United States, but not reaching the shores of Albion the same year). It certainly wouldn’t surprise me to see more content for Journeys in Middle Earth or Aeon’s End, although I’m slightly unsure whether I’d necessarily get them if there were, simply based on the number of hours in the day.

In terms of new games, I’m hoping to get FFG’s first X-Men game, Mutant Insurrection when it comes out, which looks to be a new twist on Elder Sign (hopefully with a significant improvement on the 1st edition rulebook that my copy of Elder Sign has!) I’d love to get my hands on the new Descent, but the enormity of the price tag is daunting, to say the least.

I’m not going to set make any specific resolutions regarding the amount of content I manage to put on here. I definitely want to do more, but I’ve found repeatedly that the combination of a child and a full-time job doesn’t make that easy. Incredibly, Ned will be starting school in September (assuming the schools are open), so I’ll have to wait and see what impact that has on things. I want to finish the first season of Chance Encounters, and revive the Investigators Revisited series, but somehow it just hasn’t been happening up until now.

As always, at the very least, I’ll be back at the end of each month to let you know what I’ve been upto in the previous 30-ish days (generally in less than 2500 words, unlike today, and I hope to see you all then.

In the Bleak Midwinter – December 2020

December has been and gone: it was mostly cold and wet, but thanks to Covid, I still spent much of it outside. All-in-all, this was a month which proved that my ability to predict the future is pretty lousy! Aside from the cancellation of Christmas* (well, the family visiting/being inside part), the month also saw my computer dying on me (now more-or-less-fixed), defied a few predictions, and brought 2020 to its gruelling end.

All the new things

Having confidently said that there was nothing new on the horizon, I ended up getting my hands on multiple new titles this month. Flash Point Fire Rescue and Vadoran Gardens are both games that have been on my radar for a while and which were being sold cheaply second-hand on Facebook. Vaodran Gardens got played a few times, and seems like a fun little puzzle, although I’m not sure it’s really my wife’s cup of tea. Flash Point has yet to hit the table, so no thoughts to share there yet.

I also picked up a second-hand copy of Zombicide Invader – as I think I’ve mentioned in the past, this was a Kickstarter that I was sorely tempted by, and would almost certainly have backed if I’d had a bit more time to consider my options (the pledge manager closed on a very tight turnaround). Part of my indecision was caused by not being a big fan of the art-style (the “Xenos”, not even referred to as zombies in the game) are a bit funny-looking, and I significantly prefer the look of Zombicide: Darkside, which was playable as a standalone, but (within the KS) was only purchasable as an addon. Over the couple of years that I’ve had to rue my decision, I’ve picked up a copy of Dark Side (minus all the KS extras), and even managed to get hold of some of the KS extras from a friend, in exchange for painting his Invader base game. However, the more I look into it, the more obvious it becomes that CMON’s support for what I tend to dub ‘Xenocide’ as a whole starts and ends with Invader, and any cross-compatability with Dark Side is just a happy coincidence. (For example, compare the 15 scenarios on Zombicide.com for Invader vs just the 1 for Dark Side!) This one also got wrapped and stuck under the tree, so didn’t actually get played, but I’m optimistic for 2021.

I also ended up spending money on some expansions for The Dwarves, a game which I’ve toyed with the idea of giving my wife the expansions for for some time – once again, this was a second-hand Facebook sale, although it came with the slight complication that I ended up re-buying the base-game, as the seller didn’t really want the hassle of separating everything! (the plan is to sell the excess base game as soon as I get round to it, to recoup a good chunk of my expenditure.)

Grail Games?

Finding the story excessively Grimdark at times, my wife has requested that we only play Tainted Grail during hours of daylight – not an unreasonable request, but a decidedly restrictive one when you have a toddler. We managed two games this month, finishing off chapter 3, and then completing 4a (although we are now perilously close to running out of resources). The combat/diplomacy resolutions are still a little punishing, but we’re starting to get the characters fairly powered-up, and getting more of a sense of how to lean in to the characters’ strengths.

Just the stretch goals, and therefore not nearly as huge as some of the folks who went all-in on the extras have been posting…

December was when the stretch-goal box arrived, containing the centuries-later-epilogue campaign and the centuries-earlier-prequel campaign. I had hoped that this would enable me to run my own solo campaign in parallel, so that I could get this to the table more reliably, but now that I actually have the components in hand, it’s looking a lot more complex logistically, in terms of how many cards are shared across campaigns. Still trying to make up my mind on the best way forward here.

Money

Money-wise, December was fairly expensive, because of all the new acquisitions mentioned above. From a shortfalls perspective though, the new games aren’t counting yet, and the only backwards step was for The Dwarves – I managed to get some plays of all my current shortfallers, with Tainted Grail, Death May Die, and Call to Adventure all getting played. A couple of New Year’s Eve zoom-sessions of Mysterium mean that this one has now been played enough to justify the purchase price. Overall, things are looking relatively similar to where they were 12 months ago.

RPGs

We only managed the one session of D&D, with a few others having to be cancelled last-minute due to end-of-year stresses, exhaustion and general busyness. Our Abyss game hasn’t really hit its stride since the soft-reset, whilst the Waterdeep game has seen a few cancelled sessions, and a couple of players on temporary hiatus due to dog-sitting responsibilities, so I want to try and get them re-started with a bit of momentum in the New Year. On the up-side, we got in 2 sessions of Call of Cthulhu, finishing off Dead Man Stomp, from the beginners box. I got given “The Wicked City” for Christmas, a sourcebook for running Eldritch RPGs in Weimar Germany, so we’re going to be starting there with some new characters for 2021.

Everything Else

Aside from that, December was fairly unremarkable: most play was for the well-established games, Champions got the most sessions once again, but we also had multiple games of Arkham LCG, Lord of the Rings LCG, Carcassonne and Aeon’s End. In Arkham, we got to try out War of the Outer gods the newest Massive Multiplayer scenario, thanks to the folks at the Warrin’ Around the World (previously Blobbin’ Around the World) Discord Server, and their funky werbsite which tracks although the relevant info you need to run the game across loads of different sites.

We’re also doing a run-through of the Innsmouth campaign, where I’m finally trying out one of the Alternate/Parallel/Dark versions of a core set investigator that FFG are making available from their website as print-and-plays. So far Skids seems to be handling himself pretty well against the Deep Ones, although my token-draws when triggering his ability have been really poor.

Xenocide got more play than it has in a while, partly because I’ve finally finished painting my friend’s copy, so no longer feel bad about using the add-ons that I’m getting as payment, and partly in anticipation of the new Invader box mentioned above.

Probably the end of the world…

As is generally the way, we gave a couple of “Ned is in Nursery and neither of us are at work” afternoons over to playing Eldritch Horror – we came out with a 50% win-ratio, which is good for this game.

Next?

That’s about it for December’s round-up. I’ll do a more general lookback at 2020/look forward at 2021 in the next couple of weeks.

October – the Best-Laid plans

Not all Do(o)m and Gloom

In a lot of respects, October was a month of “might-have-been”s – a full day’s Arkham cancelled (because tightened Covid restrictions meaning we couldn’t send Ned to his grandparents for the weekend), a few days of annual leave earmarked for gaming, blogging and painting instead swallowed up by renovating the bathroom and taxiing the family around. Various plans not-quite coming to fruition.

It wasn’t all Doom-and-Gloom though (although there was a spot of Dominion and Gloomhaven!) let’s look at what we did manage…

Madness

Sister Mary, whatever are you doing that cave with a half-naked man?

For Arkham, we managed to squeeze in a couple of 3-player games of the new Innsmouth Conspiracy box, back at the start of the month, when we were still allowed people in the house. (the remainder of the campaign will inevitably relocate to Zoom). Meanwhile George and I continued with our Investigator Starter Deck pre-build campaigns through the Dream-Eaters. Winnie and Harvey got badly trounced on the Dark Side of the Moon, but Nathaniel and Jacqueline fared rather better through A Thousand Shapes of Horror and the Point of No Return. I like what FFG have tried to do with the Investigator starter decks, but we’ve definitely run into frustrations playing them, due to not having access to particular cards – definitely a topic worth visiting in more detail at a later date.

The big event for Arkham was Madness on the Airwaves, a re-run through Midnight Masks, using a bunch of custom cultists I’d created, based on the hosts of the Card Game Cooperative, Drawn to the Flame and Mythos Busters. In case a jokes-based set of custom enemies wasn’t a bad enough idea to begin with, we decided to play the game 5-player! Just to really ensure that everything spiralled.

It was an interesting experience overall – Midnight Masks has a really small encounter deck to begin with, and by the time you factor in a couple of cards that attach to locations and remain in play, we were cycling the deck every 2-3 rounds. We’d all brought stand-alone decks, and even when you factor in the extra weaknesses, we felt very powerful compared to the scenario itself. It took us a long time to gather the necessary clues, but once a Cultist landed, it was easy to squash them, generally in an action or two.

I’ve already changed one of the enemies, based on this experience (he had a joke ability that reasonably amusing, but made it way too easy to break the scenario with a single card), but want to try it again, in a 2-player game with proper campaign progression before I decide on whether I want to make any more changes, then maybe try to get a nicer set printed in the new year.

Other Lives

It’s really unlikely that this will ever happen, but it needs to at least be attempted!

Marvel Champions was actually my most-played game for another month running, but this was mostly just solo games as I attempted to test and refine a few new decks (with limited success). We also got to try out a 2-player game against the new Kang villain pack (for Lord of the Rings fans, this is Marvel’s take on Foundations of Stone) it was enjoyable, although I missed a step in set-up, and the end was interrupted by an unexpected Ned, so we need to try this again – once that’s done, I want to do another full run-through of the Red Skull campaign box, probably looking at taking a Ms Marvel/Captain Marvel team-up against that in November.

We also managed a Halloween meet-up for ¾ of the Card Game Cooperative, taking on some Pumpkin Bombs (wielded by Green Goblin – we were going to go for Crossbones, but Will doesn’t own Rise of Red Skull yet…) I think that my Ms Marvel Justice deck acquitted itself fairly well, but Aggression Thor and Protection She-Hulk both struggled with lack of cards and took a surprising amount of damage (you know it’s a bad state of affairs when you have 9 health between 3 Heroes, and 6 of that belongs to Ms Marvel) – the lack of thwart from the other 2 heroes meant we all had to spend too much time in hero mode, and ultimately the damage that gobby and friends were putting out was just too much. Clearly we should have listened to our own survey and not taken the lowest powered heroes against the highest powered villain!

It was a relatively quiet month for Lord of the Rings, but way back at the start of October, we took inspiration from the recent announcement for Voyage of the Dreadnought, and revisited the Grey Havens deluxe for a spot of sailing. George and I were joined by a friend who hadn’t played the game in a few years, but handled her dwarf swarm fairly well as we beat the first quest. Sadly the return of lockdown prevented a follow-up, and all being well, she’ll have a new baby by the time we get let out again…

Nobody Tosses a Dwarf

One of the surprise hits amongst the review games I picked up during my time working with Games Quest, was The Dwarves, based on the novels of Markus Heitz. Both games and books have an interesting story, presented for English speakers via some decidedly mediocre translation (in the novels I found it variously off-putting and annoying, but in the board game it’s just funny).

they aren’t exactly wrong… but it certainly isn’t what a native-speaker would write!

Earlier in October, a guy on Facebook was very kindly offering a selection of goodies for the game, awarded to those who could give the best reason and/or pun for why they should have it. I forget exactly what I said, but it was enough to land a copy of The Dwaves: The Duel, in-and-of-itself, it’s a fairly mediocre 2-player card game (albeit with the lovely mangled English), but it comes with a whole new set of objective cards to breathe some fresh life into the original game – our first game came down to a final throw of the dice before we lost, so we’ll need to try this one again soon.

Lots? Or None at All

definitely not a Bard…

Gloomhaven made it back to the table, with my Elementalist continuing to hang-around since I discovered I’d misread the rules months ago, and have to fulfil his retirement goal in 12 instalments rather than all-at-once. George’s Bard. Sorry. “Soothsinger” continues to rack up XP at a ridiculous rate, and after her last level-up, we’re up against some very hard-hitting enemies vs our power-level, so will need to bag a bit more XP to level things out again. We also managed another game of Mansions of Madness which, like Gloomhaven ended the month on 9 plays – that’s 98/100 down, and the hardcore challenge very nearly done!

On the flip side of challenges, I’m now 5/6th of the way through the year, and still have a far bigger pile of unplayed games than I’m comfortable with. For some, like Articulate and Dixit, I’m happy to just accept that 2020 is not the year for party games, but for others, there’s a definite element of wondering whether I should be crowbarring these into the gaming schedule or putting together a sales post.

Money

I made what felt like good progress on the money side of things – good chunks of table-time for several of the games with a “shortfall” versus that ever-elusive £5/hour target. Tainted Grail, Shadows of Brimstone, Death May Die, 7th Continent – all making progress in the right direction. However, I have now owned Call to Adventure for long enough to start counting it towards my totals, and at just under £35 for just under 1 ¾ hours’ play, this was enough to offset the gains made elsewhere. It’s a perfectly playable game, and should improve fairly rapidly on that £20/hour figure! Just as soon as a I get round to introducing it to my wife.

In terms of actual expenditure, it was another expensive month, there were a couple of pledge managers closing (I eventually decided to get Nemesis: Lockdown, but to skip the original game, on the basis that a friend is getting it, and hopefully by February we’ll be able to meet up again to play it, even if that does involve freezing our fingers off in his garage with all the doors open (or whatever Covid-compliant options are available then).

might be a while before we can do these in proper vs mode, but if the Mirkwood equivalents are anything to go by, they’ll make for decent generic quests anyway.

I also added several expansions to some of my most-played games: the Moria packs for Lord of the Rings LCG, plus ordering the latest releases for Arkham and Marvel. All of these are games that easily clock up the table-hours to justify the spend, so no real worries there.

Next?

As we head into the last 2 months of 2020, I’m not expecting anything particularly seismic to change the board-gaming landscape. National Lockdown basically just confirms the suspicions I had from Nottingham entering Tier 3 lockdown: hopefully not heading back into the office this side of Christmas, so continuing to make as much use as I can of the extra time saved from not doing an hour’s commute each day.

Right now, I don’t see there being any completely new games arriving before the end of the year, my last real hope was that the first wave of Sword and Sorcery might finally reach me in December, but latest update says January, so nothing doing there. There’s probably one more round of LCG releases, plus potentially Wave 2 of Tainted Grail this side of Christmas, but in terms of actually new games, I think it will be 2021 before there’s much to report.

Hopefully, November will be when I finish off the 10×10 Hardcore challenge, and take a chunk out of that pile of shame, which is feeling a bit big, still being in double figures this late in the year. Crucially, I’m hoping for a few weeks without any major home improvement projects, to finally give me the time to put out some proper game reviews!

Madness on the Airwaves

It’s almost time for Farkham Nights 2020, the Covid-safe, remote convention for fans of Arkham Horror the Card Game.

Together with the others at the Card Game Cooperative, I’ve put together some custom content for a classic Arkham LCG scenario. Enjoy!

Madness grips the streets of Arkham. A new cult has come to this Massachusetts city, intent on driving the populace mad with their Eldritch Broadcasts!

Madness on the Airwavesis a fan-made add-on by The Card Game Cooperative for fans of Arkham Horror the Card Game (and, in particular, for fans of Drawn to the Flame, Mythos Busters and The Card Game Cooperative Podcasts). It features a new Agenda 1b for the Midnight Masks Scenario, and a replacement deck of unique cultists for the Midnight Masks (and The Devourer Below if you’re playing in campaign mode). It should work with both the original version and the Return to…

I won’t spoil the surprise completely, but some of you may find that this guy looks a little familiar…

and he’s not the only sinister type around. Prepare for a whole deck of new cultists from your favourite Arkham Horror podcasts*

Here’s a link to a printable version of the whole thing – https://drive.google.com/file/d/1F-j01B7OGOsS-4AiQmibVpbFJd_HWdOH/view?usp=sharing

*Disclaimers. I don’t actually know who your favourite podcast is. Also, in case you hadn’t guessed, This expansion is in no way made or endorsed by Fantasy Flight Games. I don’t imagine they’ll object to you printing yourself a copy, but please don’t do anything stupid like trying to sell it!

September 2020

September was an interesting one, a month with a LOT of gaming all told. Certainly the most sessions in a single month that I can remember, although not the most hours. There were some big new additions for popular titles, and even a little bit of the brand new. I did a little bit of house-keeping around here, including a new section – “Story-Board” where I’ve gathered together, all my story-stuff (like Chance Encounters) as well as the growing number of book reviews I’ve been doing for Asmodee’s tie-in fiction subsidiary, Aconyte. The book reviews have kept me pretty busy recently, but I’m nearly caught up with their release schedule, so I’m optimistic about getting back on top of things.

Champions Rising

Marvel Champions had fallen a little behind Arkham in the race to be the most-played game of 2020 for the last 2-3 months. However, the arrival of the Rise of Red Skull box saw Champions reach double figures for the second month in a row, almost 30 sessions since the start of August, and 100+ sessions since I picked up the game just under a year ago! It’s now looking like a near-certainty to be my most-played game of the year by sessions (the only serious challenge to this will be if Covid restrictions remain light enough for us to send Ned to his grandparents and do an Ironman session at Farkham Nights).

I think that the difficulty level is pitched much more enjoyably in Champions than in Lord of the Rings, in terms of being able to take a deck and go, without being required to custom build for each individual scenario, and the addition of 5 new scenarios (as well as 2 new Heroes) more-or-less doubled the number of combinations available to be played in a single box. September was also the month when we got to chat with Caleb Grace, lead developer of Marvel Champions and Lord of the Rings, and you can listen to some of his thoughts over at the Card Game Cooperative.

The Ring goes North and South

Speaking of Lord of the Rings, this also got a bit of table-time this month: Spurred on by Caleb’s comments on how proud he was of how a particular set of Orcs used in these quests turned out, I finally finished off the last 2 quests of the Haradrim cycle which (for some reason which now eludes me) I’d never gotten to in the past.

I had a Radagast/Tactics Eowyn/Hirgon deck, the basic bones of which I believe I net-decked a while back, and I swapped the new Gwaihir hero in for Hirgon, as well as shuffling the other cards around to make space for the new Eagle allies in the most recent pack. Gwaihir Hero is a fun little puzzle to play around, although the deck is definitely dependent on getting some key cards early (Radagast’s Staff, Eagles of the Misty Mountains).

Around the same time, George and I are playing through the Ered Mithrin cycle, which I had played Solo around the time it was coming out, but we’d never tackled 2-player. We’re still using the Rohan Forth, the Three Hunters deck that I’ve had built for a while, paired with an Eomer/Imrahil/Lothiriel deck – it’s nice thematically, and can handle a lot of the challenges that the encounter deck throws at it, although unavoidable damage is a problem for the no-agenda deck, as there’s no Lore amongst the various decks – I did consider an off-sphere Warden of Healing (together with some kind of resource card) but eventually opted for a Dunedain Remedy – it’s often dismissed as a bad card, but I tend to not need it until mid-late game, by which time I’ve got the resources and the draw to hit it fairly consistently and be able to afford to shuffle it around.

this guy can **** off!

We completed the Deluxe box and the first scenario of the cycle, but ran into a brick wall with Fire in the Night, which basically requires the ability to take a hit from a 7-attack, immune to player-card effects Dragon, not just once but anywhere up to 3 times a round! Back to the drawing board for some new swarm decks.

Dogs the Bark in the Night

Compared to the other 2 co-op LCGs, Arkham looks a bit like the poor relative for September, but it still hit the table 6 times! – after a worrying few hours when I discovered that my pre-order wouldn’t be fulfilled, I ultimately managed to secure a copy of the wonderful Barkham Horror! We beat it at the first try with Bark Harrigan and Kate Winthpup, although Bark died in the final round and a later spotted a mis-play that leaves a definite asterisk next to the win.

 Meanwhile, we’re also taking the various Investigator Starter Decks through a few campaigns, using them as standalone products, with upgrades coming from within the box only (it really pains me to not take Charisma when given story-allies, so we’ll see how long my resolve lasts). So far Harvey and Winnie have made their way Beyond the Gates of Sleep and done a bit of searching for Kadath, whilst Nathaniel and Jacqueline cleared a hospital of Spiders in Waking Nightmare – overall the pair of linked  2-player campaigns seem to have been going pretty well, although my wife has basically given up playing Daredevil level zero because it’s “too much effort” to discard half of your deck as you look for a Rogue skill card to commit!

For all of the investigators, I’m seeing a lot of potential synergies with the wider card-pool, and Winnie will definitely benefit from having additional skills in her deck. Meanwhile, Stella has been making her way through the Dreaming side solo in a 4-part only campaign – she managed scenario 1 fine, then utterly crashed and burned in her search for Kadath, defeated by enemies 1 location from the start, with no Signs discovered. Fortunately she at least got 2xp from the Intro, so will have a slightly better gun for session 3!

Innsmouth Conspiracy should be here very early in October, so a bit of catching up to do with all the overlapping campaigns.

Once More Unto the Breach

Another big feature for September was Aeon’s End – technically this wasn’t a new game, but we did roughly double the amount of it we own, and have (so far at least) played the new stuff by itself, and not mixed in with what came before. For anyone not familiar with the game, it’s a Marketplace deck-builder, where the players control “Breach Mages” – women and men who have learnt how to sunder the fabric of reality and call forth power from within, in order to defend their homes from powerful abominations known only as “Nameless.” It’s a really interesting, fairly unique fantasy setting, as well as a really solid co-op card game.

So far, they’ve released 5 “waves” of content, each of which was its own Kickstarter campaign, combining a stand-alone big box of content, plus 1-3 small boxes worth of expansion content. I reviewed Wave 1 (Aeon’s End) back in 2017, and backed Wave 2 (“War Eternal”) on Kickstarter, but then dropped out of tracking their new releases when they went Legacy for Wave 3. Having had the game long enough that some fresh cards felt like a good idea, and heard positive things about the stronger emphasis they were placing on the narrative in the more recent releases, I jumped back in with the 5th Kickstarter, picking up wave 4 (“The New Age”) and 5 (“Outcasts”) which arrived earlier this month.

We’ve played all through the mini-campaign that was introduced in New Age, as well as a few standalone games before starting the expansion campaign. Once that’s done, I expect we’ll try a few more stand-alone games before breaking into Wave 5. There are a few odd features – like the weird way that they send you the Kickstarter edition in 1 big box, with the expansion boxes flat-packed inside, and one unfortunate printing error, where a punchboard didn’t get punched (so it’s just a giant board with 2 separate components for 2 separate characters stuck to each other), but overall the narrative/gameplay experience remains really good.

Building

My obsession with Solo Carcassonne continues. I’ve been playing this a lot, ever since the solo rules came out, and have managed most of the achievements now, although a few keep eluding me. First is the challenge to Score 4+ Monasteries. The problem here is that a Monastery cannot be shared between multiple colours, so in order to complete the challenge, you not only need to completely surround 4 Monasteries with tiles, (invariably leaving meeples tied up for a fair while as you do so) but you also need to do so in a sequence which ensures that at the point of completion, the colour occupying the Monastery is the one in last place.

still yet to manage this. It’s always one of the colours that’s already in the city that draws the tile which you need next.

The other challenge is to score a 4-tile city with 3 different colours: this one is fairly straightforward conceptually, you need to get 3 end pieces, each with a different colour meeple on them, all facing towards the same tile. Then you need a 3-sided city tile to join them all together – in terms of scoring, this one is a fair bit easier, as the city is shared by all 3 colours, so will always count for scoring – however, the number of specific tiles you need to come, and – crucially – the timing of when they appear (each of the 3 colours needs to draw an end-piece, and be able to join it to the existing map, and not run out of Meeples whilst waiting for the 3-side piece which can only come at the end). [yes, I’m playing this too much. Yes, I’m thinking about it too much. Yes, I should have beaten this by now].

Everything else

Between those 5 games, that was over half the sessions accounted for. Aside from that, things looked fairly normal – a bit of D&D, Zombicide, Death May Die. We introduced a friend and his wife to Pandemic and Mysterium, and I even played a couple of games with Ned that felt enough like a real game to warrant inclusion on the spread-sheet. A lot of people might say that playing Cobra Paw without the “race to find it first” element is pointless, but for a fairly-distractible 3 year-old, I decided that counts!

Challenges

The 10×10 hardcore challenge continued to tick along. Dragonfire became the 8th game to read 10+ sessions, and the 2 outstanding titles got some table-time too. Mansions of Madness will hopefully be getting a new lease of life now that I’ve got Valkyrie working properly on the laptop, but there were definitely some teething difficulties which choked some of the life out of our first game. For Gloomhaven, the obstacle is the same as always – finding the time to set it all up and pack it all away again!

September was when I finished off my 12×12 Challenge(?) with a 12th game of Dominion. The question mark is because the BGStats App tells me that I’m still a session short, as it has inexplicably decided to exclude D&D. A single session of Imperial Assault or Eldritch for October will definitely finish things off (if needed) – in fact, I thought I had finished it, until I looked back to check the date, and realised that I was still 1 play short!

What’s left?

We’re into the final quarter of 2020 now, and like most folk around the world, just hoping that the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t the headlamp of an oncoming train. Aside from a couple of smallish expansions, I’m not convinced that anything new is still yet to arrive, with delays cropping up across Kickstarter projects left, right, and centre. As mentioned above, we’re hoping to send Ned to his grandparents for a day or so at the end of October, so that we can attempt to play an entire Arkham LCG campaign in a day! We’ll find out later whether that turns out to be a good idea or not…

The Intrepid Miss Walker – Blood on the Altar

Chance Encounters: Season 1: Episode 5

Blood on the Altar

I was woken by a strange noise in the night, and quickly realised that my companions were gone. Prudence told me that I should wait until morning before looking for them, but I had a strong feeling that there was no time to be so careful. As I stepped out onto the Village Green, I noticed I was not alone – a man in an overcoat and fedora was inspecting the ground and did a poor job of trying to look nonchalant. For my own part, I was busy checking my bag and my pockets: the emergency supplies I had stored, notes from Dr Christopher’s lectures, even my grandmother’s old Rosary. After a moment, the man seemed to decide that he was not going to introduce himself, drew out a gun, and disappeared across the green, heading towards Bishop’s Brook.

No sooner had he gone that I realised that I had more company, this time of a decidedly unsavoury kind, as a man came striding out of the darkness. I did not recognise him, but I recognised the type – hired muscle, probably working for the O’Bannions.

A shot rang out in the night, and the thug spun around, suddenly clutching his arm. He roared in anger, but taking one look at the mystery man returning in our direction, he decided that he didn’t like his chances and fled.

Roland“Hope you don’t mind me handling that one, miss” the man said, adjusting his hat slightly in greeting “Banks. FBI.”

He paused, picking something up from the ground. “Ha! O’Bannions, I might have known. You know you really shouldn’t be out this late miss, it isn’t safe!”

“I’m quite aware of the dangers, Agent. In fact, I think I know far more about them than you do. There is something far more sinister than Irish mobsters out there, things which I don’t imagine the Bureau has the slightest understanding of.”

ObannionRather than try to convince me to return inside, the G-man gave a resigned shrug, and turned sharply on his heels, this time heading downed towards the burned ruins. I heard another gunshot ring out, suggesting that this village was less deserted than first impressions might suggest. Rather than pay it any mind, I made my way quickly down to Bishop’s Brook, where I found the first signs of the creatures responsible for the disappearances. Not wanting to be caught unprepared, I searched my bag for a vial of the acidic ichor brought from the University, making sure I had some readily to hand in the event of another attack.

For a moment, I could feel an oppressive weight on my mind as I started to wonder what hideous things were being done to those kidnapped, but clinging to familiar possessions – old books and the bag in which I carried them – I was able to shake myself out of this reverie, and focus once more on the task in hand. I found the last clue I had been seeking, establishing for certain that those who had been taken were not here. Sadly, there was another O’Bannion thug lurking, but an acidic splash to the face was enough to send him running free.

Alt-RolandWhen I saw Banks a little while later, he told me that he had being investigating the silent, sordid ruins of the Burned Farmhouse. He likewise found no evidence of the missing persons, but did flush out another servant of this vile cult and whatever darker power they served. The cultist had been up to no good on the village green, and the first I became aware of him was when I suddenly found myself plucked from the ground by some bizarre creature, born aloft for a brief, terrifying moment, and then dumped, unceremoniously on the green. Fortunately, the cultist seemed as shocked as I was by my sudden appearance and, as Banks unloaded his firearm at the winged monstrosity that had taken me, I was able to drive the man off with another well-aimed splash of acid.

“It looks like they’re holed up in the church, miss” Banks called out to me, without any introduction. “Got the place locked up tight though, we’ll need something to get in with.” A sudden, strange, instinct told me that Banks had been looking in the wrong places at the Burned Ruins, and I struggled to recall the lessons of the Pathfinders as I made haste to investigate the place myself.

Dunwich

The ruins were truly silent and sordid, but it did not take much searching to find the missing clue – a large and ancient metal key which, I had no doubt, would unlock the vaults beneath the church. With an alacrity that would have made the Pathfinders proud, I sped back over to the church and, as Banks flung away his empty gun and drew a large knife, I unlocked the door, stepping down into the darkness.

I was not prepared for the sight that awaited me. A monstrous creature, chained to the walls and muttering in a strange, guttural tone that made its words hard to fathom. Opening the door had clearly startled some creature inside, and as I staggered back up to the main hall of the church, I felt myself buffeted by strange wings in the darkness, as another winged monstrosity emerged and it took all my courage – both that which I knew I had inside me, and that which arose from a determination not to look like some cowering schoolgirl in front of this government agent – to cling onto a pew, and not be dragged away into the night sky once more.

Church-MonsterWith a fateful sigh, I drew it from my bag. Olaus Wormius’ interpretation of that darkest of tomes, the Necronomicon. Contained herein, I was sure, were the answers: what this beast was, and how it could be defeated.

Careful observation showed that the beast was chained to the wall, and although it was clearly aware of us, lunging every few moments as if in search of a fresh meal, I was able to observe its patterns, and step back into the church each time it made a big grab for us.

Banks had chosen a different approach – I heard him mutter under his breath “Luxley, where are you, dammit?” but rather than explain who this mysterious ‘Luxley’ was, I saw him dive down the stairs to the hidden chamber, trusting in his own ability to dodge for surviving the creature’s flailing limbs.

Although I don’t doubt that the agent gained a better view of the scene of the crime, I felt that he was as likely to be dazzled by fresh, strange, signs of mysterious forces, and resolved to continue my methodical approach: reading a few more lines of the book; observing the creature and the contents of the room around it; retreating before it could hit me. Banks finally came staggering back up the steps as another of the winged creatures burst through the large eastern roof of the church, and I saw him grapple the beast, fighting it with his bare hands, and driving it into the dirt with a vicious blow of his fist.

EagerDrawn by the clamour, a flock of Whippoorwills had gathered, and they seemed eager for the death that they witnessed. However, I knew that I was close to an answer, and no force of evil, no matter how ancient was going to stand in my way. I stepped into the chamber for a final time, gathering up pages from a ripped journal that lay on the floor. I needed only a single word to add to the incantation on the black pages before me, and now I knew it. “Silas”

 

Resolution 2

  • The Investigators Restored Silas Bishop
  • Earl Sawyer was sacrificed to Yog-Sothoth
  • 2VP – The Hidden Chamber
  • 2 Bonus XP – insight into the hidden world of the Mythos

Roland Decklist

Roland for Blood on the Altar, was one of the earliest Investigator/Scenario pairings I’d identified when planning this first volume of Chance Encounters. Even though I’ve not played Roland all that much since the days of the Core Set I had two fairly clear (and hopefully not mutually contradictory) plans for how I wanted his deck to work.

For one thing, I really enjoyed the combo of Well-Prepared with the upgraded versions of Hyperawareness and Physical Training, that I’d briefly used in a standalone deck, and had wanted to include all of these as a cheap, repeatable boost to any stat.

I’d also been thinking for a while that Roland was the ideal place for an Alice Luxley/Scene of the Crime deck. His access to seeker cards mean that Roland can actually get some decent use out of an intellect boost, and these two cards interact nicely with his unique ability. Best-case scenario, you can play Scene of the Crime, get 2 clues for free, exhaust Alice to deal a damage to an enemy, then allow Roland to finish it off for second action – 3 clues and a dead enemy in 2 actions for only a single card, a single test, and 2 resources.

Of course none of this mattered as I basically failed to draw most of the key components – lack of card-draw was definitely my biggest mistake in building this deck. I did manage to pull off a Scene of the Crime in the Hidden chamber, but I drew Alice so late on that I didn’t manage to play her, and generally Roland felt a bit light in investigation tools. I think it’s fairly natural that when you build a Guardian deck to partner Daisy that you expect Daisy to do the heavy-lifting when it comes to clues. However, the way Blood on the Altar ends, you have to either clue, clue, clue, or fight, fight, fight, and as Daisy had managed to get the Necronomicon out, I definitely wanted the “Restore” resolution to make things easier in Where Doom Awaits. Roland’s intellect certainly isn’t bad, but the 3 Shroud on the Hidden chamber meant that he was only even without bonuses, so not much use investigating. Of course, if I’d drawn Hyperawareness and a copy of I’ve Had Worse, then things would have looked very different.

The fact that Silas is Massive and hard to evade (at least for Roland) meant that he couldn’t really even tank the attacks, and would have spent more time moving than investigating (thank goodness for Pathfinder for Daisy!) on reflection, upgraded Shortcut would have been another good pick for doing this one in standalone. Even with hindsight, I don’t think I’d have bothered with Keen Eye, as I just don’t think it’s worth the money.

4xp total  – as Daisy never drew Delve, I think that this was all that was available. Given the flurry of Allies Daisy picked up in the Interlude (we only lost Earl), she went for Charisma, with 1xp spare carried over to the next scenario.

 

Blood on the Altar: Epilogue

After the horrors in the chamber below the church, Agents Banks and I parted ways. I had wanted to ask him some further questions about what had brought him to Dunwich but was prevented by the arrival of the mysterious “Luxley”-  Detective Alice Luxley was a stern-faced woman who angrily attempted to bustle me out of “her” Crime Scene. A large part of me wanted to stay and argue with her, but there were some worrying notes in the journal pages I had found which would need following up in the morning – there was maybe an hour before dawn and I would need my strength for what the next day brought.

July Noted

Another month has been and gone, life starts to shuffle back towards something like normal (whatever normal means these days) there was even a slight increase in face-to-face gaming with people who don’t live in my house.

(Pro tip: if playing a game outside, starting at 8pm, then even in July, you should probably bring a jumper!)

July was a really busy month for gaming, a whopping 85 games played all-told, which I’m pretty sure is a new record. Let’s take a quick look at some of the headlines.

 

Milestones

LukeJuly was another busy month, with a lot of the old favourites on display once again. Arkham Horror LCG probably got the most play, reaching 50 sessions in 2020, and 300 all-time. For the most part, George and I were taking Tommy Muldoon and Luke Robinson into the jungles of Mexico for a Forgotten Age run – things have been going relatively well, but we have killed a lot of snakes, which seems destined to come back and bite us. (The decision to kill them. Not the snakes, as they’re dead…)

We also managed to get ¾ of the Card Game Cooperative around one table (and Mike on Zoom) for an investigation into the strange goings on at the Hotel Excelsior.

 

Carcosa-nneCarcassonne is also hitting heights that it hasn’t seen since the days when we only owned about 5 board-games. The new solo challenge continued to hit the table, and we also had a few more traditional games with visiting family and friends. I’m still having a difficult time getting my head around the best way to play the solo version – my instinct is always to go for points, but I invariably lose to a lack of Meeples. Hopefully if I keep going long enough, I’ll manage to adjust my play-style properly. This also got a few plays in the more traditional multiplayer, vs format, for a total of 13 plays across the month. In case that wasn’t enough, I even picked up Carcosa – a game very obviously derived from Carcassonne, but with the twist of building a palace for the King in Yellow we do not speak his name). Only a couple of sessions so far, but already enjoying some of the fresh twists they’ve put on the mechanics, even if it does make the game a little more fiddly/complex to master.

 

Something Massive this way comes

Massive DarkNed
A much smaller Ned, with the newly-arrived Massive Darkness behind him…

Massive Darkness was one of the first CMON Kickstarters that I packed, and it arrived in the summer of 2017, at which point which had a 6 month-old baby who we hadn’t known about when the KS campaign was running. Despite our gaming situation being somewhat changed, we still managed to play this one a lot, and I’d definitely rank backing this as one of my major Kickstarter success stories – the cost worked out really well compared with retail, and it’s easily been played enough times to more than cover the money shelled out. The figures were fun enough to paint, and I’ve been able to use some of the monsters – as well as many of the Treasure Chests and Pillars in D&D games (amongst other things) since.

That said, it’s not without its faults. A lot of the game seemed to be changed mid-way through the KS campaign, and the in-game campaign felt awkwardly shoe-horned in. Some elements were a bit fiddly, and after the mid-point, the difficulty often trailed away to being fairly trivial – aside from the occasional bad-draw which would see a monster 1-shot a hero and prematurely end the game in defeat.

Fix it with Zombies

A lot of the expansion enemies are a fair bit tougher than the core set ones, and this is particularly true of the Zombicide cross-over cards, which is what we’ve been using for our most recent play-through (both heroes and monsters being drawn exclusively from the Zombicide box, aside from when the scenario calls for a particular core-box Wandering Monster). Of course, this brings its own challenge, as I now have to dart between 7 different Zombicide boxes to fetch enemies (it kind of takes over the whole room at that point..)

Whether because of the logistical effort of dealing with that many boxes, or simply because we were distracted with other things, we hadn’t really played this one since moving house, but we broke it out 3 times in July, pressing on with the campaign, and getting some long, hard-fought wins, despite a few near-death run-ins. Up to over 50 plays all-time now.

The Future

HellscapeIt’s an interesting time for Massive Darkness, as CMON have recently announced that their next Kickstarter will be for “Massive Darkness 2” coming early in August (probably “tomorrow” by the time this article goes live). Despite sharing a name, it looks like this new iteration is going to be a substantially different game and, as much as the current version can be fun, I think that most of the changes sound like positives that will make this one worth keeping around a bit longer. New dice (both attack and defence) to flatten the curve, asymmetric class powers and abilities, making the different heroes play in a far more unique fashion, and a streamlined card system to replace the old paper tracking sheets that were a massive table-hog. If you want to link your games together, then that’s now something you’ll do via a campaign expansion box. It all sounds very interesting – let’s just not think too much about how much it’s likely to cost…

 

The Knights who say… wait for me!

We re-started a run of Tainted Grail. This is a fairly grind-y grimdark game, and even after doing the reset, we were getting thoroughly crushed by it – my wife is playing Ailei and, until you can do some significant levelling up, she struggles to fight her way out of a paper bag. Playing Beor (the very smashy, not very anything else guy) felt like he was constantly having to go and bail her out – or provide her with food.

Tainted-Characters
the setting is so Grimdark that they couldn’t even afford clothes for the female hero…

Just as we were about to throw in the towel, we remembered the remarkably obvious thing that we’d missed, and that we could just have the 2 of them travel around together, at which point, all Ailei really needs to do is “not lose/die” and leave most of the punching to Beor. We set off in a different direction, and are now getting quite close to Kamelot.

One thing which entertained me greatly was an inscription found in a cave – as mentioned earlier, the overall setting is pretty humourless and grimdark, so it was nice to stumble across a Monty Python reference!

 

Gen Can’t

Mutant-InsurrectionRather unhelpfully (for the purposes of this article) straddling July and August would have been Gen Con until, surprising no-one, it was decided that ramming 70,000 geeks into a tight space would be a really good way to increase covid infections. Personally, the negative impact of this was minimal, as it’s not like I had the money to go to Indianapolis anyway, but a lot of companies still decided to use this weekend for big announcements. Personal highlights for me were confirmation that FFG has the licence for X-Men – it’ll be a fair while before we see them in Marvel Champions but they will be appearing in an Elder sign-derived game called Mutant Insurrection in early 2021.

marvelchampionsthegalaxysmostwantedFor Champions itself, they confirmed the already-leaked/suspected Ant-Man, Wasp, Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch packs for the autumn, and announced the next big box will see the game go cosmic with the arrival of Rocket and Groot! There was no new Star Wars game (something a few folk had been predicting), but there was a brief flash of a massive box that appears to be a new edition of Descent. There were also announcements for various other things, but I don’t want to bore you all with the details.

 

Challenges

10x10JulyAll 3 of the games in my hardcore challenge got played this month, taking me to 92/100 overall. 4 sessions of Dragonfire pushed it to 9 games for the year, and over the 50 mark for all-time. Gloomhaven still has the farthest to go, with 4 sessions still needed, and I’ll be looking to break this out again soon.

My H-Index for the year is up to 11, and 10 of those have already been played 12 times. Just one more game needing a few more sessions to join the leaders for a 12×12 (Imperial Assault, Dominion, or Shadows of Brimstone looking like the most probably candidates).

 

Numbers

Money-wise, July was a pretty good month: moving in the right direction for most of the games that are in the red. There are still 5 games with a shortfall of one size or another – just a very small margin for The Ravens of Thri Sahashri and The 7th Continent, much bigger for Tainted Grail and Death May Die. Shadows of Brimstone remains in a bit of a weird state, due to a mix of spending on retail stuff that we have, and Kickstarter that won’t be arriving until at least 2021. We did pick up Mysterium as a joint wedding anniversary present to each other, and will probably give this a try 2-player sometime soonish, although I’d imagine that multiplayer is where it’ll get the most mileage.

 

Next

We’ve got a holiday coming up at the end of this week – 4 nights away from home, which has given me a bit of a wake-up call regarding how many of our games now span multiple large boxes. I’d hoped that the new wave of Aeon’s End stuff might have arrived by now (as it should offer a very good ratio of box to repeatable game-play), but that was always a long-shot, and disappeared as a practical idea around the time the world started shutting down to prevent virus spread. Hopefully I’ll still manage to find space in the car for something more interesting than 20-piece Fire Engine jigsaws for the evenings. Beyond that, I’m not sure what else is going to be happening next, but I’ll be back in a month’s time with all the news.

The Intrepid Miss Walker – The Essex County Express

Chance Encounters Season 1: Episode 4

The Essex County Express

I boarded the Essex County Express from the train station in Northside. Although I still could not quite piece together what was happening, I felt sure that it all tied back to Dunwich. Back, no doubt, to the horrendous creatures Armitage had faced before. For the moment, all of that lay ahead – I was travelling alone, as I did not trust the mettle of any of Arkham’s criminal elements to accompany me, and the first order of the day was catching up on some long-overdue sleep whilst the train carried me onwards.

Sadly, my sleep was not to last long…

Carriages

There was a sudden clamour from somewhere behind me. The train had come to a halt, and a large hole appeared to have opened up in the sky. Normally, I suspect that this sort of thing would have been cause to drive me quite mad, but the last few days had given me a rather unique perspective on unexpected phenomena, to the point where this no longer felt particularly strange.

It was clear that the train needed to be re-started, and equally clear that this could only be done from the Engine Car. That said, I could hardly consider myself an expert in locomotive manipulation, so I resolved to move carefully and thematically through the train rather than rushing. I checked my bag, ensuring that my Medical Texts and my Pathfinder’s Manual were both easily to hand, then began my exploration of the cabin.

My first realisation – and, indeed, it would have been hard to miss – was that I was not the only one engaged in searching this train. A dirty and, quite frankly, rather smelly man accompanied by a dog was also picking through the things scattered on the floor. Suddenly, the dog shot through the open door, disappearing into the next carriage, leaving me glad that this particular train had been equipped with the new, enclosed vestibules.

“Hold up, Duke!” the hobo shouted, disappearing through the door after him.

Ashcan

I started to follow them, but found myself suddenly frozen in fear as I tried to step between the carriages. I knew, logically, that it was perfectly safe to step between the carriages, but could not make my legs obey my mind. I thought again, of the instructions on rapid movement in the Pathfinder manual, and was able to move once more, although I felt foolish at having tarried for so long. Fortunately, I was able to use my powers of Deduction to clear the car quickly, and move on to the next one before the fear had another chance to return.

I immediately began to question the wisdom of my decision as I reached the next car. This was clearly the dining car, meals left half-eaten in the panic. In the centre however, there stood a woman wearing long dark robes, a silver dagger held in her right hand, and profane words spilling forward from her lips. Before I could move towards her, the drifter was alongside me, and had lunged at the woman. For a moment, it looked like she had avoid his attack but by pure luck, the carriage jerked suddenly, knocking her off balance, and sending her tumbling backwards. Her head cracked hard against the corner of a table, and she was still. I had to look away from the gruesome sight, but I felt like the pressure in the Carriage dropped discernibly as she coughed out her last breath.

“Don’t mind Duke, miss” the man said “he’s a good boy – only goes for the bad ‘uns.” He didn’t pause long enough for me to respond, moving over to where a train waiter was frozen against the wall, starting in horror at the corpse. The man slipped him a filthy-looking dollar-bill, and started to help himself to a discarded plate of food.

Bystander“the-the-body” the waiter finally stammered. The man looked round, the colour suddenly draining from his face as he looked: although she could only have been dead seconds, there was little more than a few fragments of rotting remains left lying in the robes. For my part, I steeled myself against the sight in front of me, but felt assailed by something more distant, a terror from beyond. The spell I had most recently been recalling, an incantation to flee from foes, was suddenly absent from my mind.

The man had moved on to the next table, and was making a vague showing of searching for clues as he gnawed on a chicken bone. Curiously, he once again deposited a filthy dollar bill on the table as he ate.

“Is this really the time to be eating, Mr…?” I realised I did not know the man’s name, and my sentence petered out, limply.

“Folks call me Ashcan, miss” he replied with a smile and, before I could reply, he was gone, chasing after his dog into the next carriage. It was hard to make out the words, but I was sure I heard him shout “Run for your life” as he disappeared.

Of course, I did no such thing, but I did cast my mind once more to the Pathfinder manual, working out how to move there as quickly and efficiently as possible. I had stumbled as I entered the previous carriage, and there was now a significant amount of blood pouring from a gash above my knee, but I did not let it distract me from making a thorough search of the carriage, instead using a trick I recalled from my medical texts to staunch the bleeding.

tear-in-reality

It seemed like we were almost done searching the carriage, when I heard a sudden cacophony of sounds. From the front of the train, a man burst into the carriage, and started shouting: “Pete. I might have known I’d find you here! Time to answer some questions!” Ashcan – presumably, ‘Pete’ looked dumbfounded, gesturing out of the window at the strange hole that had been ripped in the sky, but the man was apparently too stubborn to pay any attention. Before I could plead on his before, I heard the sound of a fellow-passenger screaming in terror from the carriage we had just left and, further off, strange chanting coming from the back of the train.

By this time, the rearmost carriage of the train had start to lift from the track, being pulled inexorably towards the hole in the sky, and it seemed that whoever was chanting would soon be gone too. However, my conscience would not let me abandon the screaming passenger, and I headed back the way I had just come and taking a few moments to calm the old man, persuading him to follow me up the train. The bandage around my leg was coming lose, and I had to flick open the medical texts to check the best knot for re-applying them.

dukeI returned to the passenger car just in time to see the Detective sent flying out of the window by Ashcan’s dog… what he called the creature? Prince? My shock at seeing an officer of the law so unceremoniously removed was only slightly less that it was to see the detective not falling down towards the tracks, but upwards towards the tear in the sky!

Once again, Ashcan was on the move immediately, charging relentlessly towards the engine. The sudden horrific sounds coming from just beyond the walls suggested that he had found something truly hideous in there, and I could hear the sound of something grappling him as the dog tried to force it back.

The sight which greeted me on entering the carriage was not a pleasant one – Ashcan was crumpled in a heap on the floor, muttering to himself. Whatever had happened him, it had clearly effected the dog, who was similarly cowed, lying meekly at this master’s feet. I also felt a strange sensation near my leg, and as I peered down at my bag, I saw that my Pathfinder Manual had mysteriously disappeared, into the beyond. On top of that, it sounded like a new monster was emerging from the next carriage along.

NightmaresAshcan seemed to lie still for a strangely long time, then rose unsteadily to his feet. “Come on Duke,” he said, “no time to be dwelling on Nightmares, there’s work to do.” As suddenly as he had dropped, the dog was up again, leaping at the Horror that was reaching in through the carriage windows, driving it away.

I quickly appraised the man’s condition with a cursory glance at the medical texts then, deciding that he was in no imminent danger, set off again, moving into the next carriage. There was a large monstrosity occupying much of the space and I found it too distracting to be able to search the carriage properly.

The creature seemed sluggish, slow to rise, but as it loomed towards us, I felt my head spin, strange visions clouding my eyes and a dark, ominous voice uttering “The First Twelve were false…” I stumbled, hearing the sound of a further monstrosity in the next card up the train, whilst a humming of arcane energy towards the rear suggested that some kind of barrier had erected itself between my carriage and that of Ashcan.

Fortunately, neither the man nor his dog seemed deterred, and they came crashing through the barrier, looking only slightly harmed by the process.

Steam-Claw“Snap out of it, miss!” he told me sternly placing a firm, but not unkind, hand on my shoulder, and shaking me out of the trance. I knew he was right, and it was a simple case of Mind Over Matter to dart out of the way of the Monstrosity, and continue searching the carriage for anything that would prove useful as we made our way towards the locomotive car.

The train lurched suddenly, the steam from the funnel somehow formed into claw-like shapes, pulling at the train which rocked dangerously on the broken rails. I steeled myself mentally, and shook off any despairing thoughts, finding what I believed was the final piece of information I needed to get into the locomotive car. Ashcan was now dealing with the Monstrosity, although he seemed more focused on evading its attacks than on actually hurting it. The dissonant voices that suddenly seemed to echo from everywhere and nowhere were a painful distraction but neither this, nor the way the train rocked once more on its broken rails seemed to deter him as he deftly side-stepped the creature once more, then leapt into the engine car.

Train

I followed after him, and was swiftly able to begin puzzling out how to re-start the train, making swift progress thanks to a spot of simple deduction. Another of the monstrosities had arrayed itself against Pete, and I thought he was surely done for as it rained a pair of thrashing tentacles down on him. Somehow, as if by the Devil’s own luck, he avoided the worst of the blows, and came to his feet, still in one piece.

I felt a strange Terror, something from beyond this mortal world clutch at me, but it seemed to fail in its attempt to impact me, striking at skills which were no longer of use to me. Ashcan however, seemed to be Frozen in Fear, as if only just realising how close he had come to being crushed by the beast. Fortunately I had puzzled out enough of this place that I now had a plan, and was able to trick the beast into lunging past me, and plunging its tentacles into the furnace. The pain was enough to send this monstrosity crashing to the floor, and as the flames gripped its tentacles, it seemed to provide the final spark of hear the engine needed. A final check to understand the controls, and I was able to release the lever, starting the train back into motion.

 

Resolution 1

  • 3 Victory Points: (Engine Car, Parlor Car, Emergent Monstrosity)

Ashcan Decklist

There’s a fair amount in Ashcan’s backstory about trains, so he seemed like an obvious choice for this scenario. Deck-wise, it was another one where I let theme drive the deck design, rather consciously at the expense of efficiency. Both Peter Sylvestre and Madame Labranche offer a lot of benefits for Survivors, and I’ve generally struggled to justify including On Your Own. For our rail-riding hobo though, it seemed a bit unlikely to have the captain of the football team showing up to help out (even in flashback).

Instead, I went for a Dark Horse build that still had a chance to run some of those pricier events. The desperate skill cards are always a decent shout for Duke, and worked well with the requirements on the passenger carriages to discard cards.

The card-discard mechanic was a difficult one to handle thematically – what exactly is it that you’re doing as you enter these places?

The stubborn detective as Pete’s weakness was every bit as thematic as you’d expect him to be – one card that never fails to disappoint in its thematic nonsensensicality. Having a stand-alone investigator does allow you to cheese a few things – Pete can be the one to jump into the engine carriage without worrying about trauma (he pulled an Elder Sign, so was fine anyway). I thought about sending Daisy first, but given that there was an emergent monstrosity waiting for them, I decided he was too much of a gentleman to send our intrepid librarian off into danger by herself.

 

I upgraded the second Strange Solution after this scenario. I was already starting to regret the decision to take these – they’re a massive XP soak, and it’s rare that Daisy is going to be needing to fight that much. However, I can pretty-much guarantee drawing the Unidentified version at the crucial moment if I haven’t taken the second, so I felt like I needed to double-down.