August has been and gone, and it’s time to look back on another month’s gaming.
It endued up being a pretty mega month (although it didn’t necessarily feel like it at the time), with more gaming sessions logged than any other month this year, against ultra-low spending (I shelled out a grand total of a fiver on a Legendary Organised Play event).
Broadly speaking, August was a month for the classics: Zombicide, Arkham LCG, Legendary and LotR all got more than 5 plays, with a solid majority of gaming going on games that have now been played 5 times or more this year. Elder Sign also kept up its record as the only game to have been played every single month this year (although Zombicide only missed February, being far too big for a hospital table).
Massive Darkness was the big new arrival, which jumped straight in to the upper echelons (it’s currently the 17th most-played game of the year by sessions, 10th most-played by time) and I’ll be talking plenty more about it in the near future. The only other ‘new’ game to see play was a review – Near and Far arrived in July, but only hit the table in August (I liked it, but my wife hated it), and Codenames Duet which came too near to the end of the month to actually get played.
Thematically, it was a month dominated by Fantasy and Zombies, with Lovecraft and Comics coming in a little way behind. In light of that, it’s not a huge surprise to see that Surviving the Monsters (roughly 1/3) and Completing the Quest (about ¼ ) were the mechanical mainstays.
Whilst getting in big numbers of sessions for the classics was the main theme, I did spend a couple of days at Insomnia with the good people of Games Quest, and was able to cross off a few titles that I’d never been sufficiently interested in to buy, but felt like I ought to have a better awareness of as a gamer: Exploding Kittens has very little going on mechanically, and relies almost entirely on the group dynamics of people playing it (everyone present was quite happy to mess with everyone else, so it gave us an entertaining half-hour or so), and if you take away the anime art (presumably the main reason most people play it), Tanto Cuore is basically just Dominion with poor iconography. There were one or two interesting mechanical twists, but not enough to change my mind on this as a game I really don’t need to own.
As I mentioned earlier in the year, I didn’t go into 2017 with an “un-played project” in anything like as systematic a way as last year, but now that we’re 2/3 of the way through the year, I’m starting to look at this in more detail. There are 8 games which are currently un-played, with 5 of them being big group/party games. There’s often a brief flurry of activity for games like this around Christmas, so historically this wouldn’t have been a big worry, but it’s hard to know how things will play out with a baby around. Of the remainder, Memoir ’44 is a game that I expect to have a few fallow years until Ned is big enough to play, but I’m intending to keep hold of, Scrabble is always worth owning a copy of, and only Firefly looks particularly dubious as a game to keep around – I like Firefly as a thematic homage to the world Captain Reynolds and his crew occupy, but the game itself has a very large footprint, a somewhat fiddly setup, and is overall just a bit too slow to make it to the table often: realistically, it’s only still around because of sentiment.
With so much time going into what are now our Core Games, and Massive Darkness due its own write-up soon, there’s not too much else to say about August – in terms of reflecting on a year two-thirds gone, it feels like we’ve managed pretty well given just how difficult it is to get through a 2-hour game without stopping to be screamed at. With 2017 66% done, I’ve managed 65% of last year’s game sessions, but 75% of the gaming hours. I’ve also spent 75% of last year’s total, which is mildly concerning, but I’m not too bothered as I’ve sold 164% of what I shifted last year, which puts me in a much healthier position overall. I’m still narrowly clinging on to a net gain (more gained from sales than spent on stuff), but the Pledge Manager for Green Horde just opened, which will probably knock that on the head.
Moving into the home stretch of the year, the goals are pretty much the same as ever: keep playing, keep spending low. I’m still waiting on the majority of this year’s Kickstarters, even the ones that were aiming to deliver by August, so 2017 should still have some new twists in store, even if I don’t manage to land any of the particularly exciting autumn releases for review purposes.
Somewhat belatedly, it’s time to recap on what happened on our gaming table during May.
May was a much quieter month than any I’d seen so far this year gaming-wise, as work, family, weddings and who knows what else clamoured for my attention.
(Ok, who am I kidding, it was mostly just the baby and the need to catch up on sleep).
However, whilst I didn’t manage to get a lot of things on my to-do list finished, that doesn’t mean that May was completely gameless, as you’ll see…
For one thing, May allowed me to cross a few more games off of the un-played list, as both of our Discworld games: Ankh-Morpork and The Witches made it to the table for the first time – Ankh-Morpork is a good game generally, although it has the potential to get rather frustrating as Random Events destroy all that you have built. Interestingly, for all its appeal, this one has only made it to the table twice in the past three years, and I’m often tempted to sell it, as it goes for silly figures on account of being out-of-print, but never quite get round to it.
The Witches is a much lighter, more family-friendly game – I didn’t really enjoy the game we played of it, as I got crippled by a string of shocking dice-rolls, and basically did nothing all game. Still, as something ideally suited for young children, it’s probably worth hanging on to in anticipation of when Ned can cope with something more complex than Peekaboo.
May also saw Super Dungeon Explore crossed off the list, as I sold it on – I picked this one up last year, and enjoyed a few early games that we played of it, but its sheer length, combined with the discovery of games like Mansions of Madness, Descent, and Eldritch Horror (not to mention others that are ‘coming soon’) mean that this wasn’t likely to see much more play, and didn’t really justify its place on the shelf.
Dominion became the 11th game to make it to 10 plays, hitting the table 5 times early in the month, although it faded towards the end of the month. I’m still working on something Dominion-wise, but haven’t got nearly as far with it as I’d hoped, so that will have to be a story for another time.
There are several other games that are still heading in the right direction to hit 10 plays sooner rather than later, but I don’t want to pre-empt myself, so I’ll talk about them when they get there.
What got played?
May was very heavy on Fantasy, easily accounting for over half of the month’s gaming. Within Fantasy, Terrinoth was the big new thing, about 1/3 of sessions, but over half of time, simply because Runewars and Descent are both multi-hour undertakings – I’ve got an article on Terrinoth cooking away somewhere, so I won’t say too much more on that now.
Lovecraft still made a significant appearance, with more Arkham Horror and Elder Sign, as well as a welcome return for Mansions of Madness, back in play after a long spell on the painting table. Overall, we were still mostly in a solve-the-mystery/complete-the-quest setting, although there was a fair amount of PvP “kill the other side” in Runewars.
That just about brings me to the end of May (finally getting around to posting this on June 8th, which, the latest polls suggest probably isn’t also going to be the end of May – the electorate showing a disappointing lack of concern for punning bloggers…)
Of course, June is UK Games Expo month, so expect that to shape gaming for the coming weeks, and even if I don’t manage an Expo article, I’ll be sure to report back all the highlights in the next monthly summary, in a few weeks’ time…
Having had our gaming habits somewhat disrupted by the unexpectedly early arrival of a baby, it felt like a good moment for a bit of a retrospective.
I’ve been doing game reviews now for a little over a year now. In that time, I’ve saved myself money on some games I wanted to get anyway, breathed life into games that had been standing idle and, above all, tried a lot of games that I would never have come close to playing without doing the reviews. Today I want to look at some of the highlights.
Zombicide was one of the earlier games I got to review, and it was undoubtedly the game which made the biggest impact on last year – it was also my pick for “2016 Game of the Year” in the video. It’s a miniatures game, where a small band of heroes take on ever-growing armies of zombies, simple to learn, and not that difficult to master, I love how accessible this game is, and just how much fun it is. The game is scenario-based, so there’s a fair amount of variety, and the ongoing search for better weapons drives a lot of what happens. The zombies power up as your survivors do – specifically spawning in numbers determined by the most powerful survivor at that point in time, which means that you need to be careful of one person getting too far ahead of the group.
With a £70+ price-tag on the base game, coming from a publisher and designers I didn’t really know, this is something I would never have picked up having not played the franchise before. Having got it, it’s been such a hit that various birthdays and Christmas presents have gone on expansions. At the time of writing, it’s hovering on the brink of hitting 100 plays in under a year, which is pretty good going for a game that typically lasts more than 90 minutes, and regularly hits 2-3 hours or even more.
Cracking game, great fun, and it even inspired me to get back into miniature-painting to an extent that I hadn’t in a good while. Great stuff.
Gaming for the Future: Mansions of Madness 2nd Edition
After Zombicide, Mansions of Madness was the second most-played new game last year, but I’m including it on this list for a couple of other reasons. I’ve already waxed lyrical about this game here, and here (amongst other places), but there’s something specific I wanted to draw out today. This game completely changed my mind on the use of apps in Board Games. I use randomisers for set-up in Legendary and Dominion, but otherwise, I’ve always been pretty luke-warm on the concept. Things like X-COM, with a stress-inducing real-time element aren’t really my cup of tea, and I could never see the benefit: Boggle works fine with an egg-timer, with needing to digitise everything.
Mansions changed all of that – it gave us access to a great game that we’d always steered away from due to the 1-versus-many aspect, and it allows masses of replayability in a way that just wouldn’t be possible with physical components. The puzzles are probably the biggest aspect of this, but the whole experience is very well done – I never feel like it isn’t worth having the bits out, or that I could just be playing on the app, but the app streamlines the play so much. Eldritch Horror is another game we picked up last year, very similar in a lot of ways, but it does have a lot of bookkeeping to do (and I often miss bits), so having the app to keep track of these things just makes life so much easier. Lastly, the element of the unknown that it provides is great – the fact that you can roll a check without knowing how well you have to do to succeed gives you all the openness and surprise of an RPG, without someone actually having to take on the role of GM.
Mansions has really whet my appetite for more of these all-vs-app games. I strongly considered getting Descent, and only decided against it on the basis of time, but if the rumoured app for Imperial Assault finally appears, then I’ll be taking a very interested look at it (hopefully they’ll publish a second edition of the box, and someone will be needed to write a review…)
Elder Sign is a game we’d owned for ages, but hadn’t been played that much. In fact, in 2015, it didn’t get played at all, and I wouldn’t be overly surprised if the same was true of 2014. It was one of a small handful of Cthulhu-mythos games that had been bought in, but had never really taken off.
Elder sign was already on my radar as part of last year’s “unplayed” project, but it definitely helped when I saw an expansion sitting on the up-for-review list – the Alaskan-themed “Omens of Ice” box.
I didn’t put in for it straight away, but made a point of playing a few games first, to make sure I actually had some recent context for reviewing the expansion. Then I got the expansion to review, and played it some more. And more.
Fast-forward to 2017, and Elder Sign is our most-played game of the year so far. Part of that is due to some skewed circumstance, along with catching up on expansions for Christmas, but this is definitely a game that Reviewing breathed fresh life into – Dominion also benefited last summer with the excellent Empires expansion, but this felt like the clearest example of a game brought back from extinction.
Writing Board Game reviews can be a great opportunity to pick up games or expansions that I would be buying anyway. It also offers a chance to try something completely different.
There a few games which fit the “different” header better than AYA: a cooperative domino standing game where you work together, against the clock, to construct landscapes of dominoes in matching patterns, then attempt to knock them over with a single flick, leaving a unique pattern of animal and landscape photographs.
AYA is a fun little game – certainly not of the things we play most regularly, but interesting enough for a change. Without a doubt though, this is not a game I would have found and bought in a shop: it’s simply way too far off of my radar, too far removed from the sorts of things I normally play. When it comes to spending money, one of the main reasons I get so many expansions for board games, is that I feel like I have a better idea what I’m getting, a sense that I’ll be enhancing something I already know I enjoy, rather than taking a chance on something new. I still try to target games which I think might go down well at home for reviewing – it’s hard to write a review on a game no-one will play! – but overall, reviewing offers a great opportunity to push the boundaries slightly, to experiment with the new.
I feel like it wouldn’t be fair to finish this article without pausing for a moment to mention Star Wars Carcassonne, or Starcassonne as I like to call it. This takes the well-known tile-laying game, and mashes it together with the Star Wars franchise – it’s an interesting twist on the original game, with dice-based combat and planetary invasion making for a slightly more direct, if also more luck-based experience than the original Carcassonne.
The Star Wars theme is pretty thin- really this is “space” Carcassonne to a far greater extent than it is Star Wars in any meaningful sense, but that doesn’t seem to hurt its popularity – this was by far the most read of all the articles I did for them last year, and it continues to attract attention into 2017.
There have definitely been a few reviews in the last month or so that have run into baby-related reviews, and when time is at a premium, you don’t want to be unable to play your favourite game because you’ve promised to review something strange, new and not-all-that-appealing. That said, I’m optimistic that Review work will still have a place in a parenthood world, and I look forward to telling you all about them in due course.
February was always going to be a pretty important month for gaming in 2017. For one thing, this is often the time that New Year enthusiasm starts to peter out, and we get to see which games are going to have real staying power for the coming months. More importantly for us in 2017, February was going to be our last month of (relatively) undisturbed gaming, as my wife was expecting a baby in the middle of March. That made February a key time for getting games played, trying out anything that would be prevented by my being sleep-deprived, and generally making sure I didn’t have too many outstanding reviews left to do.
It turns out that my son had different ideas. He decided that he didn’t want to wait for March 12th, and turned up on February 4th instead. That was something of surprise, to say the least. It also meant that February took place mostly in hospital, in the company of a tiny baby. Sadly, he’s been really quite ill, so had to stay in for a long while. Obviously, next to a child’s health, gaming is an incredibly trivial thing, That said, I’ve had plenty of time at home, trying to keep my mind busy, and my wife has barely been further from her bed than the hospital café in a month: in times like these, board-gaming is actually a really important distraction to stay sane.
With that in mind, February really hasn’t been a bad month gaming wise: by the time you factor in the month being 3 days shorter, overall numbers have barely dropped. That said, a whole new set of criteria have entered my decision-making process, including “Can I play this solo?” (already a slight consideration before), “Can I play this whilst hideously sleep-deprived?” “Can I play this on a tiny foldable hospital table?” “Can I safely take this somewhere without losing all the tiny pieces?” and “Can I play this without using my arms?” (Anything with a hand of hidden cards is out, but something like Carcassonne, where all information is public, works well).
San Juan, Race for the Galaxy, Dobble, and Star Wars Carcassonne, all scored highly in several of these categories, and made it to the table repeatedly. Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective, and its Lovecraftian sibling Mythos Tales also get a good mark on the “play with no hands” chart, and we had a few enjoyable, if drastically unsuccessful sessions of these. Other games like Coup and Braggart got briefer revivals, but proved to be fairly lacklustre with only 2 players. Still, along with single run-outs for a handful of other games, I’m now well past the half-way mark in playing all the games I own this year.
6 of 6
Where February did prove a challenge, was getting games back to the table for the repeat play-throughs needed to get higher counts. I spent most of the month watching the 10 of 10 challenge languishing on 5 of 5, with Legendary and Arkham Horror failing to get that 6th game- this was particularly frustrating for Arkham, as this was the game that I’d spent the most money on this year, but there really are too many different piles of cards and little tokens to risk taking this one to the hospital. In the end, I made it to our Monthly Dice Masters meet-up on the 26th, to finally hit 6 of 6.
Elder Sign, a game which definitely pushes the limits of what’s practical for transportation, did make a couple of fiddly trips and was the first to pass the 10 plays barrier for the year. Zombicide will doubtless join it soon after we get home, and there are a host of other games which have been kicking their heels all month: Legendary – recently enhanced with the Deadpool expansion – the new Mummy’s Mask set for Pathfinder, and Mansions of Madness all still seem likely to hit the big numbers as the year goes on.
As I think about finishing this year’s 10 of 10 challenge (some months from now), I have been back to BGG and checked again – neither Peekaboo, nor Steal Your Nose has a Board Game Geek entry (to be honest, my son’s not very good at those games either, but they seemed more appropriate than Eldritch Horror.) At least we’re a few months away from grab-and-chew.
The unexpected baby made his impact felt on the reviews I do for Game Quest, just as much as it did on playing for domestic purposes. I managed to get a couple finished off in the early weeks of me being alone at home and mum & baby stuck in hospital, but others needed to wait a while longer: I don’t want to spoil the stories of Mansions or Pathfinder (as noted above, these were not practical for transporting to hospital) and that fat, dense rulebook is still sat there in the corner, just daring me to risk my sanity by taking on Star Trek Frontiers.
Amongst this brain fog of exhaustion there was something unusual though. It’s very early in the year to be touting a game as a potential “Game of the Year,” but I think that this might be it.
Aeon’s End was a big Kickstarter last year that’s attracted a lot of hype. It’s a cooperative Science-Fantasy Deck-builder that can probably best be described as a cross between Dominion and Legendary, although it certainly has plenty of unique features of its own.
Legendary style, the players are working together to take down a big baddy, who will have his own stats and unique abilities, plus a deck from which he throws out some randomised pain at the players every turn.
Rather than a Legendary style HQ though, players are building their decks from a Dominion-style market: at the start of the game you select 9 cards (3 gems, 2 relics, 4 spells), and they’re all available to buy from the word go – until they run out.
The biggest twist in Aeon’s End is that you don’t shuffle your deck: once your deck runs out, you just flip over your discard pile to form a new deck – given the amount of time you spend shuffling in a standard deck-builder, this is a really big twist. The only shuffling that goes on is in the turn-order deck, which randomises when in the course of each round you get to act, and when the Nemesis (boss bad-guy) does.
It’s also worth noting that in Aeon’s End you play as a specific character, each with their own unique ability, and a different starting configuration of breaches – the portal used for casting spells.
I’ve not had a chance to do any more than scratch the surface of Aeon’s End yet – I got the higher-level Kickstarter edition of the game, which gives me extra gems, spells and artefacts for the market, extra Breach Mages to play as, and extra Nameless monsters to face down. From this first look though, it seems great, with loads to recommend it in terms of art, back-story, and above all game-play. The fact that it’s cooperative means that there’s a chance of getting to the level of depth in experimenting with market combinations and strategies that I could never manage with Dominion (due to a lack of opponents who wanted to play that much Dominion).
I have no idea what March will hold. I’m fairly optimistic that having our little boy at home won’t completely stop us from gaming (although right now, I’d prepared to give it up if that was going to get him better and home from hospital). Hopefully in a few weeks, I’ll be some way towards figuring out what “normal life” looks like now, and will be back to posting here a bit more frequently.
2017 Gaming got off to a good start in January: 25 different games played, and already a few racking up repeat plays. I thought I’d offer a quick run-down of a few of the different things I’ve been tracking.
5 of 5
Not surprisingly, I’m still some way from getting anything up to 10 plays for the year, but I have passed a few mini milestones.
“Play 1 Once” I managed on New Year’s Day (Elder Sign being the first game out of the box this year), and “2 Twice” a few days later as both Star Wars Destiny and Zombicide made repeat appearances.
“3 of Three” took a bit longer to pin down – Legendary and Zombicide got there relatively quickly, but they had to wait for a third to join them (Eldritch Horror felt like it had earned a place on the list after a normal game with two of us, as well as an epic 5-hour, 8-player session but, as Gimli would say of the big game- “that still only counts as one.” Instead, it was beaten to the punch by Elder Sign.
“4 of Four” was where things started to get a bit skewed – some games were already past the mark, with 5 or more plays, but getting a 4th game past 2 or 3 proved a bit of a sticking point, especially when a game like Eldritch or Mansions needs several hours at a time to be played. In the end it was Destiny that got me there as I manged to make it to another meet-up.
By the time it came to “5 of Five” things were starting to look fairly familiar, with the usual suspects making up the list: Legendary, Elder Sign and Zombicide, got there first, with Arkham Horror and Eldritch Horror lagging just behind.
Some of those games have made it up to 6 or 7, and there will be more to come from them in the coming months, no doubt.
2017 actually got off to a much slower start than last year, although with hindsight January 2016 does look like a bit of a freak occurrence – in the whole of 2016 there were only 17 instances of a single game getting played 10+ times in a month, and 5 of those came in January, with Pathfinder, Lord of the Rings LCG, Dice Masters, Legendary and Game of Thrones LCG all making it into double figures at the first attempt. It was the most prolific month of the year overall, with 90 total games played, and there’s really no disgrace in failing to repeat those numbers – 71 games for January 2017 feels more than respectable.
As I mentioned when doing the 2016 wrap-up, I won’t be keeping a running “un-played” list in quite the same way as last year, if only because it would only have 2 games on it if I did (just for completeness sake, both have been crossed off). That said, I still want to keep track of the games I haven’t played yet this year, even if that will be “most of them” for the first little while.
The Hobbit and Trivial Pursuit found their way to the Charity Shop, 23 games actually got played, and I sold a handful of small games that were “fine” but unlikely to ever have people clamouring to play them. Not a massive financial windfall, but it frees up a little space, and hopefully the games have gone to somewhere they’ll be better appreciated.
The whole area of removing the un-played, by sale or by play, is the one place where I have out-done January 2016, and if I sustain this rate, I’ll have played everything I own by the end of March!
Money for Nothing
2017 has also started well for keeping above the red line in terms of the cost of my gaming. I’d already started scaling back my Memoir ’44 collection in the autumn, and I sold another couple of bits in January – thanks to them being out-of-stock, I got about double what I would have originally paid for these, meaning that gaming is a hobby I’ve actually made money from at this point. I don’t expect this to still be the case by the end of the year, but it’s certainly nice to be given a bit of a head-start in game-play over spending.
Mid-January saw a wave of new Arkham Files content – Beyond the Threshold was the first “proper” expansion for Mansions 2nd ed., (the others were technically “tile and figure” packs) and there were multiple releases for the LCG, with both the Dunwich Legacydeluxe box, and the Curse of theRougarou stand-alone scenario appearing. I managed to resist getting Dreamlands for Eldritch Horror, and picked it up as a review copy, along with Beyond the Threshold, so it was only the LCG where I actually shelled out a significant amount of money.
I also picked up the Combined Might expansion for The Dwarves – this is a fun little co-op based on a set of German Fantasy Novels, with a number of clever and innovative mechanics that really make it stand out. That said, there are a few pinch-points in the base game – 90% of the Quest cards which drive the flow of the game are the same every time you play, and the expansion was well worth the tenner it cost to more than double the number of possibilities in this area.
In the immediate aftermath of buying the new stuff, all the games I had spent money on were looking like bad value for the year – fortunately this was generally in pretty low numbers, and aside from the LCG, everything was clawed back to within a fairly small margin of difference by the end of the month. I know from experience that LCGs can get expensive quickly and whilst I’m not too worried about having shelled out on the first 2 expansions at once, I will be keeping a careful eye on this one, just to make sure it continues to justify its place.
Zombies maintained their strong positions from last year, with Zombicide remaining the most-played game, and spanning some fairly hefty sessions to boot. Overall though, it was Lovecraft that dominated January, thanks to that flood of content: It ultimately accounted for well over a third of sessions, and nearly half of all gaming time in the month. Comics and Fantasy were still notable elements, but definitely a smaller portion of the time spent gaming than in previous years.
Mechanically, Surviving the Monsters was a full third of what we did (up to 45% when measuring by time). Mystery Solving was a consistent 22% whether measured by time or by session. World-saving, Quest Completion and Villainous Plot-stopping were the other significant activities. “Kill the other side” was also a more significant chunk than has previously the case, thanks to Destiny – 13% by session
Obviously, I don’t expect these trends to continue all year, particularly not the crossing off of ‘unplayed’ games – After all, it’s much easier to play a game on the list when all the games are on the list. Some games will always be more of a struggle to get to the table than others and as the year goes on it becomes more-and-more likely that those are what will be left on the list. I don’t know right now whether it’s possible to make a profit out of gaming for the entire year, but I certainly intend to keep new spending a lot lower than previous years. Lastly, spread-sheets or otherwise, I’ll be continuing to stay mindful of what actually gets played, and looking at what needs to happen to those games which don’t.
The announcement of this game was probably what re-ignited my interest in this area, as it had been a while since I read any Lovecraft or played any Cthulhu-themed games (I think I played 1 game of Munchkin Cthulhu last year, but I’m not convinced that counts). I managed to play a sneak preview of this game at UKGE, and was really impressed. I then managed to get my hands on a copy of my own in late August, and it didn’t disappoint.
As I’ve said several times in various places, this game is both Pandemic and not Pandemic at the same time. There are many aspects which are remarkably familiar, at the same time as the game brings in elements that are unique. The sanity dice leaves you spending most of the game fearing that you may lose your mind and, if enough Old Ones awake, there is absolutely nothing you can do about it before you eventually go mad and the world is destroyed.
Being a Z-Man game, the characters in Reign of Cthulhu are not the familiar faces from the FFG set of Cthulhu games, they are merely generic figures. That said, they still offer varied gameplay styles, and for a standalone game that seems unlikely to warrant an expansion, it still feels like it’s got plenty to offer. Not the most involved from a thematic/narrative standpoint, still a good game.
Mansions of Madness 2nd Edition
Mansions was the surprise appearance of the summer. It was announced about a week before its release, and it’s one that I was lucky enough to pick up a review copy of: with a retail price somewhere in excess of £80, this isn’t one I would ever have been buying, but I think it does a remarkably good job of justifying the price tag. The miniatures are a bit naff out of the box: excess casting and clunky bases, but they scrub up well, with both monsters and investigators looking the part after a quick paint job. The tiles are already a very high standard, and the various card decks are all good.
Apps in board-gaming were one of the first things I ever wrote about on this blog, and I was pretty lukewarm on the idea at the time. Mansions changed my mind: the app is really well done – it takes care of a lot of the bookkeeping, but I never felt like I was playing a computer game instead of a board game. The limit of only 4 scenarios to begin with was somewhat restrictive, but having not paid for the base game, we were happy enough paying for the first tile/miniature pack, and will doubtless invest in at least the first digital scenario or two, due to appear for around $5 sometime very soon.
One of the biggest things that Mansions did, was to get us mentally invested in the setting, and interested in the investigators, which definitely enhances the experience of the other games.
Elder Sign is a game I’ve had for several years. I didn’t play it all in 2015, but I dusted it off back in the spring, and even picked up an expansion to review. It’s a game that requires you make a bit more effort with the flavour – it’s too easy to skip over the flavour-text and focus straight in on the dice you need to roll: in the past, I think I’d been trying to push this one on people with no real interest in the Mythos, and it had fallen a bit flat.
Now feeling a bit more like I know the characters, from other games, or from some of the tie-in fiction, it’s easier to get a bit more invested, and I feel like I’ve enjoyed the games I’ve played. I’ve still only played it solo and with my wife, but we’ve played it quite a bit and enjoyed doing so.
Eldritch Horror is another Fantasy Flight Game, a very highly-rated globe-spanning board game. It’s fairly long (although probably no longer than a lot of games of Mansions), and has a lot going on – I picked up a copy in a Maths Trade.
Eldritch was released a few years, and landed during a time period when my first attempts at finding a good Cthulhu game for us had petered out: as a result, I just never really looked at it that closely. Most reviews I did read seemed sharply divided between it being “the streamlined wonder-game that Arkham Horror should have been” or “a vile exercise in dumbing down that is an insult to the Arkham name.” (ok, neither of those are actually quotes, but they capture the feeling of an awful lot of BGG threads…)
Having played this a few times, I’m not sure I’d agree with either of those assessments. It’s a fun game, with a lot going on, but once again, I think the length is such that it wouldn’t wash with people who hadn’t already been hooked on the Mythos via Mansions.
I liked Eldritch, and am in discussions with Santa about how best to approach the backlog of expansions (I have neither the time nor the money to get all of them). That said, it’s still not a perfect game. Having come into this off the back off a lot of Mansions, I was almost overwhelmed by the sheer amount of stuff there is to keep track of: in both of our early plats, we missed various rules and triggers, and in the second game, that may have even made the difference between victory and defeat. Aside from the sheer length, I think a major factor stopping this game going from “fun to play now and then” to “played all the time” is that excess bookkeeping, and having too many things to keep track of.
I also want to mention quickly the scaling issues this game has – we’ve only played it with 2 players so far, and the first couple of times, we took a character each, spending most of the game charging about frantically, and failing to get to places on time: having gone at it again with 4 characters (2 each) it felt much more balanced, and I think that’s how we’ll play it in the future.
Arkham Horror LCG
Arkham Horror the Card Game is the most recent offering in Fantasy Flight’s “Arkham Horror Files Series” and the second ever cooperative Living Card Game, it was released in early/mid-November. Coming from several people involved in the Lord of the Rings LCG, it very clearly builds on those foundations, but has various unique features of its own, both showing where lessons have been learnt over the past 5 years, and showing a conscious effort to make the game feel like a part of the Arkham Family (aside from the recurring characters and settings, the Chaos bag in particular feels like a direct homage to the earlier titles in the series).
The announcement of this came with near-perfect timing, as I finally succumbed to the inevitable and parted with my Call of Cthulhu LCG collection – a good game, but a competitive LCG that I could never find opponents for. Arkham seemed set to not only fill the gap, but to offer a better fit than its predecessor had, both in terms of thematic coherence and in terms of the co-op gameplay.
Being a Living Card Game, there will be a lot of content available for this going forward: FFG have already released some playmats one of which has an especially stunning piece of art that I like. I’m not going to say too much more about it here, as I’ve already done a review of the Core Set, along with some articles for Mythos Busters on how we can enjoy losing Lovecraftian Games, and started to look at issues of character class and deck-building. Overall, I plan to do a few odds and ends on this over the coming months, so stay tuned.
It’s also worth mentioning the tie-in novels that exist for Fantasy Flight’s Arkham Horror range – the physical copies can be slightly hard to track down, but the Kindle Format is readily available from Arkham, and I’ve been really enjoying them: not all of the characters are game-play regulars, but several are, with others making cameo appearances here and there.
So far I’ve read the Dark Waters trilogy and whilst it’s not about to win any literary prizes, I’ve found them really enjoyable – capturing the sense of Arkham as a place, the challenges and dangers driving our investigators, and an awareness of the pulp origins of many Mythos tales. Reading about Amanda Sharpe’s dream of lost R’yleh has already inspired me to play her in a game of Elder Sign, and seeing how he handled himself in a fight, was the inspiration for giving Silas Marsh a run-out, an inspired decision for the game of Eldritch Horror where we faced Cthulhu out at see. I plan to continue wading through these over the coming months and hope they continue to be enjoyable.
Fantasy Flight have also announced The Investigators of Arkham Horror, a book filing in background details on all the 52 Investigators who appear across this suite of games. It’s going to be a large, 264 page+ colour hardback, so it will cost a pretty penny and, sadly, the delivery cost to the UK will more than double that $60 starting figure.
I’m really hoping that our FLGS will be able to pick these up, ideally the deluxe edition that comes with a Play Mat for the LCG and a chance to get hold of Marie Lambeau plus her signature Asset and Weakness for the LCG, not arriving in normal retail releases until sometime next year. Either way, it looks like it’ll be a good addition to the shelf.
Overall, it has clearly been a golden year for all things Lovecraft in the world of gaming. Arkham Nights, FFG’s annual Cthulhu gaming weekend, sold out for the first time ever, and the whole IP really feels like it’s riding the crest of a wave with upcoming expansions announced for all of their games which I’ve mentioned above. I’ve already talked on here about some of the issues which Mythos gaming sometimes provokes, but overall, I’ve really enjoyed most of the games from this Mythos that we’ve played this year, and I look forward to many more in the future.
Some Musings on the place of Lovecraft in Lovecraftian games in the 21st century.
A little under a week ago, I stumbled across some of the rumblings generated by a recent article published by Cynthia Hornbeck. Hers was not a name I’d heard before, but both Hornbeck’s own blog and the Board Game Geek news article which brought it to my attention, describe her as a former employee of Asmodee North America, (the umbrella organisation who are now behind other big names you might have heard of such as the publisher of a lot of my most-played games, “Fantasy Flight” and the UK distributor, Esdevium).
Hornbeck’s article took aim at the recently released Conan board game, which she cites as being an abysmal example of sexist, racist stereotypes. She also argues that acquiescing to something like this in board games helps reinforce misogynistic, racist norms in society at large.
I haven’t seen the new Conan board game itself, so I’m not going to get in to the details of the claims she makes about the game (for those who are interested, amongst all the shouting, the comments section below this article has a few people taking issue with some of the factual claims Hornbeck makes about the game.)
I did review an older Conan game a few months back, and as I read back through my review, I think I would stand by the main thrust of my argument – roughly: there’s some dodgy stuff in here, but the game is so abstract that most of the time you don’t really notice.
Reading it with Hornbeck’s article fresh in my memory, I can see how people might want me to make more of this aspect, but I think that I’d assumed anyone considering a Conan board game would be sufficiently into the Conan theme that they’d be aware of/ have already made their decision on this type of thing.
Despite that long-ish intro, I didn’t come here today to talk about Conan. If you’re interested in the topic, I’d recommend having a look at Hornbeck’s original article, which is certainly thought-provoking, even if it feels hyperbolic in places, and some of her conclusions seem stretched. There’s also the article on Kotaku which brought the original blog piece to a slightly wider audience, and gives the company behind the game a chance to respond.
What I wanted to pick up on though was a single line near the start of Hornbeck’s article, which struck a bit closer to home.
“Conan is closely based on the books of Robert E. Howard, who was coincidentally a close friend of another highly influential author racist, H. P. Lovecraft.”
As I’ve mentioned more than a few times lately, the second half of this year has seen a heavy Cthulhu-Mythos theme to it in our house. Whilst some of Hornbeck’s conclusions seem a little strong to me, and her comment on Lovecraft felt a bit lazy, I did come away from the article feeling challenged by one of her exhortations towards the end.
“As a gamer, start refusing to purchase or even play a game that objectifies women, excludes women, excludes non-White people, makes non-White people the enemy, etc.”
Am I playing games like that? I don’t think so. But then, I am a white, middle-class man. It would hardly be unprecedented for one of us not to notice this sort of thing. I decided then, to take a look back through the games and see how it felt they were doing at creating a world which captures the mobsters and monsters feel of an Eldritch 1920s without having to import a 100 year-old worldview.
Starting with Lovecraft himself, I think we can say without argument that H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) said, wrote, and (presumably) thought a lot of things that would be considered ignorant, rude and at times, even downright racist in today’s world.
Beyond that, it gets a little more complicated – and people who have done far more research than I, have already spilled many gallons of ink on whether Lovecraft was simply a product of his time, or whether he should be regarded as a bigot, even within his own historical context – overall, it seems to me to lean towards the latter, but there are advocates of both sides.
Personally, when I read Lovecraft, I can wince when a leading character has a cat called “N*gger Man” or at some of the derisive offhand descriptions of Blacks, Asians or other characters, but by-and-large, that doesn’t stop me reading his work – some of it is very good, other bits feel tortured and overblown, and I’d certainly say I’m more drawn to the ideas he had and the world he created than to his particular craft as a writer. Lovecraft’s crimes against women are largely by omission rather than commission – i.e. it’s not so much what they say or do, so much as the fact that they often don’t appear at all.
It’s important to remember that the Cthulhu Mythos is not simply the works of H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft himself was heavily influenced by writers who came before him, such as Edgar Allen Poe, and also borrowed things directly from earlier works such as Carcosa and Hastur, taken from Ambrose Bierce, via Robert W. Chambers The King in Yellow.
Within Lovecraft’s lifetime, his works interacted with those of others: Robert E. Howard (yes, the Conan guy)’s The Children of the Night, features a character reading The Necronomicon, and there were other writers who interacted with the world he had created. However, it was only really later, and largely through the work of August Derleth that the Mythos expanded, becoming something which numerous later writers could contribute to, and which has seen the setting expand beyond Lovecraft’s original works. In recent times, writers like Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore (who would be unlikely to make anyone’s list of bigoted or narrow-minded authors) are among those who have cited Lovecraft and his Mythos as an influence on their writing.
For me, the appeal of the Cthulhu Mythos setting is a little hard to describe, but I think that there are definitely some key elements to it: I’ve already used the phrase Mobsters and Monsters, and I think there’s something about that 1920s aesthetic which has to be there – jazz and prohibition, the horrors of wars past, and the optimistic decadence which looks to a brighter tomorrow. It’s also, as has been well explained over at Mythos Busters amongst other places, the idea of battling cosmic forces too powerful to comprehend: the aim is survival, and a fully triumphant victory is simply never on the cards. Lastly, I think that there’s an element of forbidden knowledge – the idea of things that Man Was Not Meant To Know, that your mind is in as much danger as your body when you look in to these things.
The fact that most Cthulhu games do offer some hope of victory, however hollow, says to me that we are dealing with the wider Mythos, the version imagined by Derleth rather than simply Lovecraft’s starting point. I think that this Mythos has been developed broadly enough that it’s possible to have a game that feels “faithful” to the setting without being dependent upon outdated ideologies.
From Theory to Game
All of that is well and good, but establishing that something is possible and establishing that it has actually happened are different things, and I wanted to move on next to look at the actual execution of these ideas in the game.
Arkham Horror Files
I’m mostly going to concentrate on Fantasy Flight’s Arkham Horror Files range – this is the umbrella term that covers Mansions of Madness, Eldritch Horror, Elder Sign, Arkham Horror the Card Game, and various others.
Play the Man
There are 52 different investigators who appear across this range of games – I’ve collated a list of these as best I can, and by my reckoning there are 23 female investigators and 29 male: it’s not a completely even split, but it certainly doesn’t feel like this is just token representation.
In terms of the roles that these investigators play, there is a fair amount of breadth for both genders: yes, the Secretary and the Dilettante are female, but so are the Spy, the Scientist and the Martial Artist. The PI, the Fed, the Soldier and the Gangster are all male, and there is a noticeable tendency for those in the more influential position to be male – the Senator, the Professor and the like, but this is still supposed to be the 1920s and it’s probably more of a stretch to imagine a woman being given that kind of senior academic appointment back then than it is to suggest that there might be ghouls and monsters hiding in the shadows.
Not every investigator appears in every game – in fact there is nobody yet who appears in all of them – but for any of the games, picking up the Core Box (this is Fantasy Flight, all the games have expansions…) will give you a broad spread of options across the genders.
Race is a slightly different question: at a rough guess, only 5 of the 52 investigators are non-Caucasian: Akachi Onyele, Lily Chen, Minh Thi Phan, Rita Young, and Jim Culver. They are respectively a Shaman, a Martial Artist, a Secretary, an Athlete and a Jazz Musician, which suggests a certain amount of tropery in linking race and occupation.
Rita Young is a source of particular controversy: a character whose backstory involves persecution in the Deep South, particularly at the hands of the KKK, pictorial depictions of her have covered a fairly wide range of skin tones, with her pre-painted miniature looking decidedly white.
Personally I went for a skin tone that seemed more in keeping with the bio when I painted the miniature and, whilst it came out slightly darker than I’d intended, it makes more sense to me.
On top of these characters, you can add a few others like Finn Edwards, Marie Lambeau, and “Skids” O’Toole who are still decidedly white, but not Anglo-Saxon, which seems to have been where Lovecraft drew the line.
I think it’s possible to go too far with trying to make characters in a game “representative” – to the point where the designers are more concerned with making sure they’ve got enough of type X or Y, and not enough with an interesting concept / backstory – in that respect, I don’t really mind that I haven’t found an exact 50:50 male/female, and 50:50 white/non-white split. Could they have created more non-white characters? – absolutely! Do I think it would be good if, were they to expand the roster of characters, more of them came from non-white backgrounds? – Yes! Do I think the games as they are feel like they lack options in character choice? Not massively.
Who We Are and What We Do?
If I’m picking a character to play in a game, whether it’s Arkham, Pathfinder, Lord of the Rings (gender in Tolkien is a whole other article, and this one’s already getting long…), or any other, I’m generally a lot less interested in their gender or the colour of their skin than I am in their ability, what they’ll actually be like to play – I’ll confess that in Pathfinder, I’m drawn to the more obscure races (Goblin, Tengu etc) but there’s no real parallel for games set in New England (although if Fantasy Flight want to let me play as a Mi-Go who has decided to side with the humans, I’ll definitely take them up on the offer).
It’s kind of cool that Grazzle, my current Pathfinder character is Lizardfolk, but I’d quickly have got bored with that if it weren’t for his phenomenal healing ability. I am neither a waitress nor (as far as I’m aware) the reincarnation of a powerful sorceress, but that doesn’t stop me from having fun playing as Agnes in the Arkham LCG.
It’s worth noting that the descriptions and occupations are about the characters’ backstories: whilst they will influence their strengths and weaknesses, they don’t limit them in an absolute sense. Yes, in the LCG Daisy Walker sucks at hand-to-hand combat, but she can still toast ghouls with a copy of shrivelling or two. In Mansions, my wife mostly plays as Min Thi Phan – a bookish woman she can identify with – but with agility and observation 4, she can gun down cultists with the best of them.
Finally, it’s worth remembering that this is still a game and part of why we play games is because sometimes the Hail Mary pass comes off: Agatha Crane probably wouldn’t have been our choice to face down the Priest of Dagon, but somehow she rolled the 3 successes on 3 dice needed to slide across the floor through his legs, and whack him in the groin with the pickaxe: that moment, where the little old lady KO-ed the boss monster still stands out months later as one of the best moments playing this game, in a way that it simply wouldn’t have if Michael McGlen the Gangster had rolled 2 successes on 5 dice to cave the monster’s head in with a crowbar.
In terms of what I’m familiar with, there aren’t that many other Cthulhu Mythos games out there which go that heavy on characterisation – Mythos Tales is a very flavourful experience in Arkham, but there’s never really a moment where we’re concerned with who “you” the player are.
Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu has “roles” – more a character class than any kind of backstory. She may not look like me, but the Hunter is generally my first pick for her un-paralled ability to take down Shoggoths. The Reporter (also female) is another key figure, able to get round the board better than pretty much any other character. As I say, it’s not the most thematic / role-play-y of Cthulhu games, but there are multiple female characters, and they include the most powerful / hands-on.
Obviously, there are dozens, if not hundreds more Cthulhu games out there. However, I don’t know the RPG well enough to comment on it, and things like Munchkin Cthulhu or Smash Up: The Obligatory Cthulhu Expansion are light enough that I don’t feel any real need to go too deeply into their characters.
Overall, whether you read Lovecraft’s work or not (I do, periodically, but I think a lot of the other stuff, including some of FFG’s tie-in fiction, is as good if not better), I think it’s perfectly possible to play Cthulhu games without affirming any of Lovecraft’s more dubious views. In a way that may not be true for Conan, there is enough scope in this world for game designers and game players alike to create varied characters: characters who give everyone an opportunity to play as a character they can relate to, if that’s what they want.
As noted above, I am white and male: it’s possible that I’m not the best person to be making these judgements – that’s why I’d really like to hear other people’s thoughts: are Lovecraft’s views an issue for you when considering a Mythos Board game? Do you agree that the world these games inhabit is a bigger, more creatively open space, an acceptable place for us to game in? Or are there aspects you struggle with? Perhaps you disagree with Lovecraft’s views but are happy that a game is just a game, and aren’t even bothered about how far they carry over to your table-top experience.
I’d be interested to know people’s thoughts in the comments.