Thursday, October 20, 2005

We are the comic police, do not make us use farce

...or, more accurately, "We are the Karmic police, do not make use Force" (with a bad accent, the two sentences sound strangely similar)

The adventure continues for the most hapless trio to ever be in charge of saving the world... Stan McCormick (Psychic sensitive), Sam Buchanan (Nega-psychic) and Helmut von Stauffenberg auf Ulm (Genius)!

Our fearless gamemaster, Shemp, has given us the option of continuing the campaign we had just brought to a conclusion. We all thought that would be a great idea, but we wanted to change systems. He converted our characters from the mostly awful Paladium (Beyond the Supernatural, to be specific) to the Hero system, which he holds in much higher regard. To get our feet wet, we played a sample combat. The scenario was a brief flashback to an encounter which should have occurred in a plane of existence between the world we just saved (?) and the new world we "rifted" into.

As the scene opened, there was a large plain, the three of us, and (in the distance), three humanoids with really big helmets.

I can't remember their names, but they were funny enough that I hope Shemp chimes in with them for posterity. In addition to the funny names, they spoke in a funny accent, which had us misunderstanding many of their comments (se blog title). They were the Karmic Police, and they were here to have us settle our debt with "the force", or whatever. Armed with torn sleeves which gave us glimpses into a universe larger than ourselves (I am so insignificant!), "Cubes of Desolation" and invisible guns, they made for very interesting opponents.

Stanly rushed the leader, demanding to know where the temple they were just standing in had gone too. He was promptly attacked and responded with a quick (but effective) jab to the head. Sam started handling "Big Helmet #2" while Helmut fell prey to the cube of desolation. Soon after Stan knocked out his opponent and Sam crushed one of the cubes, the two remaining creatures regrouped with their fallen comrade and disappeared into nothingness. I have a feeling our debt isn't settled.

I'm happy to say that so far, the system looks promising. It's substantially heavier than what I would expect Shemp to choose, but I don't count that against it. The rules encourage "cinematic" combat, which means that it takes longer but is far more involving and satisfying than a random dicefest. Combat maneuvers are effective and affect future offensive and defensive positions, meaning that they actually get used as characters jockey to gain advantage in combat. It also means that there is more storytelling involved in the fighting, which is great. The fact that this system allows for meaningful character advancement is just icing on the cake...

My only (minor) complaint is with the initiative system. I don't find it very satisfying to act at the same time, every time. Not sure how to improve it without making things any more complicated than they are, but it would be nice.

With some time to spare, we pulled out "Tower of Babel", a recent Knizia release I just picked up. I wanted a few games which were relatively short, strategic and played well with 3-4 players (I also purchased China, and will pick up Ra when it's available). Other than some very positive comments by Chris Farrell at his blog, I didn't know much about it... I guess it was a bit of an impulse buy.

The idea is fairly straightforward: Players are cooperating to build the wonders of the world, each represented by three discs. It's an area majority and set collection game, but the method used to get tokens on the board is odd. On a turn, a player must either draw a card, or offer to build a section of a wonder (one of the three disks). If building is chosen, the disk will indicate a symbol and a number, which represents the number of matching cards which must be played in order for the player to successfully build it. If successful, a number of tokens equal to the value of the disc are placed on the wonder (the method to determine which player's tokens are placed will be described below). This is the crux of the "area majority" part of the game. The acting player normally takes the disc for end game scoring, forming the "set collecting" part of the game.

Of course, there is a Knizia twist:

A player will normally not have enough cards to satisfy the requirement of the disc. When the building action is announced, all other players simultaneously offer cards from their hand to "help" the acting player build the disc. Any, all or no offers can be accepted, but they must be accepted as offered. All players who's offer was accepted place tokens on the board for each card which was accepted, FOR ALL OTHER PLAYERS, A VICTORY POINT IS SCORED FOR EACH CARD OF THE APPROPRIATE COLOUR WHICH WAS OFFERED BUT REJECTED (bluffs are not scored). The majority of the decision making in the game happens here... An offer for lots of cards can help you conserve your own, but it will compromise your majority on the board. Rejecting the offer gives that player a lot of victory points. (A special card, the "Trader" adds another wrinkle: if offered along with other cards, the player is indicating that he/she wants the building disc rather than the tokens on the board as a reward for providing cards).

Wonders are scored "El Grande" Style (1st=points, 2nd= less points, etc, etc) when their third disc is "built". The points are on a sliding scale, however, so the first wonder to be built will be worth substantially less than the later ones. The game ends when all discs of one type have been built. Sets of discs (2 or more) are worth points at the end.

The fact that offers need to be accepted or rejected AS-IS makes the game, in my opinion. If I have three camels and try to build a 5 disc, and the other players offer 1, 1, and 4 camels... what do I do? I could accept 2 two singles and give the "4" player that many victory points, but retain the majority on the board (at the cost of giving away, in a best case scenario, easy third place points to those players). Alternatively, I could take the 4 and play only one card from my hand, preserving those cards to go after another camel disc on the board on my next turn, but giving up the majority on the wonder.

What if the trader is offered? Am I willing to give up the building disc? If i'm behind on the wonder area majority, it might be worth it.

The end result isn't bad at all, but is far from spectacular. It plays in the advertized time (+/- 45 minutes), offers continuous player interaction and offers various strategies worth pursuing. Unfortunately, the play itself feels a little awkward, the graphics are DULL, DULL, DULL, and the theme sets new standards for "pasted on". Also, the bonus cards a player gets for completing the third disc of a wonder feel fairly tacked on.

The session saw us all pursuing a fairly random agenda of wonder building and disc collecting. I tried to focus on picking up the white discs, and managed to get 4. The score was fairly even amongst us right to the end, and Shemp also managed to collect a set of 4, but a 5 point bonus card and a few points for unfinished works put me in the lead.

I wasn't blown away, but I didn't quite have a grasp of the possible strategies either. It's quite possible that this will get better with time (as has been said by others on the net), and the fact that it plays in such a short time pretty much ensures that it will come out again.

Tower of Babel: 7


  1. Anonymous11:01 PM

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. I'll be back with more, but the Agent's names were:

    Karmic Agent Lance McMyristock, Karmic Agent Nash Mubanac, and Karmic Agent Thom Uberglumfe Van Faunflutes.

    I'm glad you thought they were teh funny - all too frequently I am the only one amused by that what amuses me.

    More Later.

    PS I've been pronouncing the names (Mick-MEER-i-stock), (MOO-bah-nack), and (OO-ber-gloomph-von-FAWN-flootz). Like that matters.

  3. so, out of curiosity... did I punch up the one named after me?

  4. No, I don't believe you did.

    Stan knocked Von Faunflutes cold, Buchanan was in a pretty evenly matched fight with McMyristock, and Helmut succumbed to Mubanac's cube.

  5. I was unimpressed by Tower of Babel at first, especially with the production design (game art workable but ininspired, pieces dull, cards dull), but it grew on me over the two games.

    Looking forward to trying it in the future.

    As for Karmic Police... for a minute there, I lost myself... this is what you get when you mess with us!

  6. There was only 1 game of Tower of Babel, but otherwise I agree.