Friday, July 22, 2016

The War of the Reluctant Caesars

Well, I've been away from this for awhile for a host of reasons, but I'm finally back to catch up with a least a few fun gaming stories. So without further ado, I give you (stirring drumroll)...

The Tale of the Reluctant Caesars

Last weekend saw the gathering of my semi-irregular-hey-are-we-gonna-do-this-or-not gaming group. Which turned out to be the theme of the evening.

Only four of us could get together, so I set out what I thought would be some workable games for a mid-range number of players. The choices included my newly acquired copy of Dungeons & Dragons: The Conquest of Nerath (essentially the Axis & Allies system in a fantasy setting), Risk: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy Edition, Risk: Godstorm, and Conquest of the Empire. The first two games on this list are ideally intended for four players, whereas the last is designed for up to six (a detail which I believe was more significant than we anticipated).

The players for the evening consisted of my friend Michael, his teen-age son Chase, and Lon, a friend from work and new addition to the group. As one probably guesses, given the title of this post, Conquest of the Empire (hereafter CotE) won out as the preferred choice.

"It's YUGE!"

If you're not familiar with CotE, it's a reprint by Eagle Games of one of Milton Bradley's classic GameMaster series. The Eagle Games version (now sadly OOP) is quite simply a stunning production. The map features the Roman Empire at its greatest extent (completely surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, and including Britannia). As one would hope, it is gorgeous. It is also HUGE. The board is 3'x3.5'; we had to place some old oversized "dining room table protectors" inherited from my wife's grandmother on top of my 3'x4' kitchen table to give us extra edge space on which to set our pieces. (I brought over a small side table to hold mine.) The pieces are brightly colored plastic figures of Roman legionnaires, Roman generals, Caesars, Auxiliary cavalry, Roman galleys, and catapults (with working swing arms!). There are also cities, city walls ("fortifications"), and Roman roads, plus assorted faction markers and over-sized heavy plastic "Roman" coins in two denominations, one "gold" and one "silver." The custom dice are a bit oversized, and depict the various forces that can participate in a battle (match the image rolled to a unit which is attacking, and that unit kills an opposing piece). The game also includes markers and cards for an entirely different game using the same pieces (and called "CotE II"). Since the rules for these, however, have proven to be about as intelligible to us as a Latin manuscript, we strictly play the "classic" version, which is only slightly modified from the original. The goal of the game is to capture every opposing Caesar; each player has just one. This is done by capturing provinces, collecting tribute, building armies, navies, cities and roads, and engaging in singularly devastating combat.

Except for Lon, the newbie, this was to be our group's fourth time playing CotE (if you count the time a player was eliminated on the very first turn; on that time, we proclaimed a "do-over," and his Caesar was resurrected). So we're somewhat familiar with the game, but hardly experts, and barely qualify as veterans. Lon chose the red army, Chase, blue, Michael, purple, and myself, black.

Gentlemen, Start Your Legions

Each Caesar begins the game in control of a specific starting province, dictated by the rules and the number of players in the game. Unlike Axis&Allies or Risk, each force holds one and only one province at the start of the game; the rest are solely acquired through movement and conquest. Provinces are worth either 10 "talents" (1 gold coin) or 5 "talents" (1 silver coin) during a player's "collect tribute phase." A city on a province (only one per province) adds 5 more talents. After all movement and combat by a player, these talents are collected and used to purchase forces, which are then placed on the starting province only, ending the player's turn.

Movement is simple; depending on the piece, on a turn it moves either 1 or 2 provinces (or sea spaces, for galleys). However, all pieces can only move if a general or Caesar accompanies them. So if you don't have one of these with your forces, they're staying put until one of these leader units joins them. Galleys can move by themselves, but a leader is required to accompany any land forces the galley transports across the sea. So, no leader, no legion— at least, not a mobile one.

Combat is equally simple. When forces enter an enemy's province, and that province has troops, then a battle must occur. (Unoccupied provinces are captured without a fight; Roman citizens appear to have fickle allegiances.) Both the attacker and the defender divide their troops into a "battle line" and a "reserve." Battle line troops can fight and be killed; reserves cannot (though reserve catapults can attack— "Unleash Hell!" Which I think is why we have leash laws). Leaders can increase the number of troops on the battle line, which adds more combat dice. There are a few other niceties, but that serves as an explanation. Once all non-leader forces have been eliminated, or either player opts to retreat, the battle is over (though cavalry gets an extra attack against retreating forces). The survivor conquers the territory. Any unsupported leaders are captured. Generals may be ransomed and returned to their forces (the players agree on any terms, including alliances, permission to use roads/straits, or just plain gold), or executed, their remains ignobly interred in the cardboard game box. A captured Caesar eliminates the player controlling it from the game, with the victor claiming his forces, lands and tribute.

Build Armies! Build Cities! Build Roads! Build Walls! Fight Inflation! (Wait, What?)

The real strategy of the game, however, lies in tribute and purchasing. Different units have different costs, some quite significant compared to the amount of tribute received. Cities, fortifications, and roads may also be built, giving advantages in tribute, combat, and movement (respectively), and roads can only be built between cities (and adjacent cities at that). Roads allow land forces to treat movement along them as 1 movement cost, regardless of the length of the road, allowing the controlling player to move his forces rapidly from one end of the map to the other— that is, if the roads are built. And as in real life and the real Roman Empire, all this is complicated by inflation! Once any player exceeds 100 talents in tribute at the end of his turn, prices of all units and terrain features double for everyone. At 200 talents, prices triple. You may have more gold, but it's worth a lot less! This, too is significant.

On the Night In Question, or Who Wants To Be A Tough Guy Anyway?

Back to the start of our game. With four players, we each had the following starting locations: Chase held Macedonia (midway across the north half of the map, more or less), Michael held Mesopotamia (extreme eastern edge), Lon claimed Hispania (oh, you know where that is), and yours truly was granted the glorious province of Numidia (Ancient Carthage, modern Libya-ish; either way, I got a desert. Woohoo). From there, we each in turn spread our meager armies (5 legionnaires, 4 generals, 1 Caesar) as far as we could, and stopped. Literally, we just stopped. Each of us quickly made agreements to not attack across our extreme edge borders, and just began collecting tribute. There were minor "province swapping" moments with provinces left undefended, and a skirmish here or there, but for the most part nobody was willing to commit forces into all out attacks on anybody else.

For three hours.

I kid you not.

Oh, yes, some galleys got sunk. I even sent out two galleys to successfully sink a naval invasion force sent out by Chase ("It was against him!" he protested to me, pointing at Lon. "Well, you didn't tell my navy that," I replied. Hey, nobody sails through my sea without the proper paperwork and environmental impact forms, or at least a few talents slipping under the table. Preferably the latter.)
We did make a lot of jokes, including a few obligatory Python retreads and references to Dr. Who and Black Adder ("That's your cunning plan?"), but as for actually conquering the Roman Empire? Not these Caesars. "Yeah, that last guy? He got poisoned. The guy before that? Stabbed by his own bodyguard. Caesar, shmeaser, I think I'll take a pass and build a nice villa overlooking the beach."

The game wound up being called on account of "dang it's late and three of us have work tomorrow." We ruled that Chase would have wound up being the target of everyone for triggering the first round of inflation (these Caesars were not only reluctant, they were cheap), but it really wasn't possible to declare a victor.

How to Make War

In retrospect, it may be that CotE really isn't suited for a small group of players. As spread out as we were, and with the limited starting forces, it took two full times around the board for anyone to actually encounter anyone else, and at that point the incentive to fight each other was limited, due both to weak forces strung out over too many provinces and to fears of triggering inflation if another province got picked up. If we'd had a fifth Caesar, however, I think we'd have wound up with forces quickly pressing against each other, with tributes remaining low enough to encourage battles over provinces without the fear of the inflation jump.

Despite that, I think we all did enjoy building up our forces based on our personal strategies. Lon favored land units and connecting roads. I went for the largest navy (having little land mass in which to spread without potentially devastating combat). Michael and Chase attempted a mix. So a good time was had, even if the lands of Ancient Rome were a lot less bloody than we had expected.

Stay tuned for our next adventure in gaming...whenever that actually happens!

Howard Shirley, aka Parzival

PS: No pics, 'cause I didn't have my camera ready. Maybe I'll add some shots of CotE later.

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Battle and the Gift

The Battle of Flatbrown Bridge

The Outskirts of Flatbrown, Connecticut
The town of Flatbrown, Connecticut had little going for it, aside from the bridge, which was flat, and brown, and, well, a bridge. There was also a stone wall which someone had half-built, and stopped, because there wasn’t much at Flatbrown to either wall in or wall out, so why bother, really? But half-built stone walls aren’t much to name a town for, and the bridge and the town came before the wall, so nobody was all that fussed to change the name anyway. But they were fussed about the British. And the town fathers, mothers, and even the odd aunt and uncle all agreed that fighting the British for the liberty of Flatbrown was worth the effort. So they raised a militia and stockpiled some powder, and even gathered up some old cannon from the French and Indian War. The powder and the cannon were enough to gain the interest (all be it temporary) of the Continental Army, who sent a small force to claim both. But what brought the interest of the Patriots also brought the interest of the British, and a detachment of British Regulars and Hessian jaegers set off to foil the Patriot plans. And where these two enemies met, was Flatbrown Bridge...

The Battle of Flatbrown Bridge is an imaginary battle of the American War of Independence, fought using my own simple rules, called Redcoats & Minutemen. As it happens, I had some cheap plastic 1/32 plastic soldiers from a visit a few years ago to Valley Forge. I had intended to make a simple game with them, and finally got around to it this past November (I got the bug again while researching a novel set during the war).

About the Rules

Redcoats & Minutemen is not intended to be a realistic simulation of 18th century warfare, or the American Revolution, though I have striven to give it the appropriate “flavor” for the period. It’s meant to be a quick and easy game, playable with little effort or expense, and easily accessible to younger gamers-in-training (“the wee bairns”) while holding enough challenge for older enthusiasts. Redcoats & Minutemen can be set up in just a few minutes, and played in thirty minutes to an hour. This action report is meant to give you a feel for how the game plays.

About the Battlefield

The Battlefield, Patriot View.
British Center: Three British Regular Regiments ("Redcoats") and a General
British Left (right of picture): Two Hessian Mercenary Regiments ("Hessians")
Patriot Left: Cavalry
Patriot Center: Militia (behind wall), General (in white), Mortar and crew in rear
Patriot Right: Field Gun and crew.
The battlefield is divided into 10 distinct rectangular sections. This was originally derived from an old set of foldable green-felt table protectors, two divided in thirds and one in half (further divided in the photos by wrapping a rubber band around the middle of each half, thus creating four sections). I thought this design would be a unique challenge, but it also creates a very simple battlefield to reproduce; 10 rectangles or squares arranged in an offset pattern 3/4/3. Redcoats & Minutemen is played entirely on this battlefield, and all movement and ranges are derived from this grid; you don’t need rulers to play. Terrain areas and objects are placed in the section, but a piece of terrain does not occupy the entire section but only the area covered by the terrain piece. Terrain also can’t cross section lines, except for a river. In the Battle of Flatbrown Bridge, the terrain consists of a wood on the middle left (Patriot view), the river crossing the middle, Flatbrown Bridge (living up to its name) on the middle right, and a stone fence partway across the Patriot center. Regiments can occupy as much of a section as they can fill, and can move freely around within a section, impeded only by terrain and the enemy. Enough of the details: On with the battle!

The Battle Rounds* Commence (*a turn involving both players)

The British Advance

British Redcoats fire on militia (behind fence. Yes, they really
are Hessian figures, but I don't have militia figures yet.)
In Battle Round one, the British won the Advantage (a die roll off) and rolled for Orders. Two dice were rolled for the two Hessian regiments, producing 1, 1 (Hessians, as mercenaries, can only receive orders based on their own dice, not the army as a whole). Three dice were rolled for the three Redcoat regiments, producing 5, 2, 1. The General rolled a 6, giving him 3 points to boost his Orders. He expended these points to make one of the Hessian dice a 4 (Infantry can receive orders on every 4 or better rolled). With this admittedly paltry set of options, the general ordered one Hessian regiment to advance across the Flatbrown Bridge and attack the Patriot’s Field Gun regiment. A regiment of Redcoats also advanced to the river’s edge, to fire upon the Patriot militia crouched behind the stone wall.
The Hessians fired, rolling 3 dice (4 - 1 for the range). Results: 4, 4, 1— all misses!
The Redcoats fired, rolling 2 dice (4 -1 for range, -1 for the protection of the fence): 5, 5— both hits!

The Patriots Respond

The Patriot General sends the Cavalry across the river.
This will be a Big Deal later. (Dun, dun, dun!)
The Patriot militia checked for a retreat (in heavy danger of a rout), rolling one die: 4. That was three more than the one figure remaining, which normally would force a retreat, but the fence boosted the militia’s morale as if it had one more figure, so the militia stood!  Ho, for the bravery of our stalwart citizens! (Three more than the number of figs remaining is a retreat; four more is a rout. Protective terrain boosts the morale.)

The Patriot general rolled his orders: Two dice for the cavalry regiment, one for the Field Gun, one for the Mortar, and one for the militia, producing 6, 6, 5, 5, 1. The General’s Order Dice was a 2, so he only gained 1 point to boost, which wouldn’t have any effect (he needs a minimum of 5 on an order die to issue orders to his specialized troops).

Unlike the British, the Patriot could spread his orders around as he liked, and he had enough to send orders to all his troops.
He sent the cavalry to ford the river, shielded by the woods. They had no enemy in range, so could not attack (cavalry can only engage in melee attacks against enemy in the same section).
The Field Gun, however, had a wide open line of sight to the Hessians on the bridge. “Get thee from our bridge, vile servants of the Devil!” quoth the artillery Captain (a fine preacher, if given to brimstone sermons). BOOM responded the gun: 6 dice, -1 for range: 6, 6, 6, 3, 1: The Hessians suffered horrible losses, with three/fourths of the regiment as casualties. Would they rout? The roll was a 1! Miraculously, the foul mercenaries stand!

The Militia, having only one die available, could not effectively return fire without abandoning the fence. This seemed unwise, so they held position and prepared for a certain assault.

But it was time for the mortar to speak, and most loudly it roared. Soaring over the heads of friend and foe, the shells exploded among the enemy like demons shrieking: 6, 6, 6, 5, 5, 1. An entire British regiment was wiped out!

The First Battle Round was over, and the Patriots had come out the best of it.

The Second Battle Round

The Second Battle Round began with both sides rolling a 5 on their respective dice. The tie meant the Advantage remained with the British general.

The British Assault

The British make an assault. They melee with the Cavalry.
They shoot the Militia. They shoot the Field Gun.
They achieve little.
The British Order roll was now down to two Redcoats dice (one regiment was lost) and two Hessian dice: The Redcoats had a 6 and a 3 available, the Hessians a 5 and a 1. The General rolled a boost die for a 2, giving him only 1 point to boost. He obviously boosted the Redcoat 3 to a 4. He could move two Redcoat regiments (or one twice) and move one Hessian regiment.
The British general ordered one Redcoat regiment forward to intercept and attack the cavalry— with bayonets! The Redcoats rolled 4 dice, for a 6, 3, 3, 4; only one hit!
As this was a melee, the cavalry fought back, rolling two dice (rather than its usual three): 5, 3. Each side gained a hit on the other, and each side lost a figure. (An attack on an enemy in the same section is a “melee.” It allows a regiment to hit with all its troops, but also gives the enemy the ability to fight back out-of-turn, though at weaker strength).
The cavalry rolled a retreat die: 3. This is only one higher than its remaining strength (2 out of 3 total), so it stands.
The British regulars, also having been hit, rolled a retreat die: 2. Not going anywhere.

The second British regiment fired on the militia again: 2 dice (penalized for range and the fence): 6, 4. The militia was hit, and having only one figure remaining, was eliminated. Weep, o ye wives and mothers!

The Hessian regiment moved forward to contact their weakened brethren, initiating a volley fire. However, the dice were not good, resulting in only two 5s from the rear regiment; volley fire requires a 6, so they missed.

The Patriot’s Brilliant Maneuver

Who let those horsemen in here?!?
The Patriots responded with another phenomenal Order roll: 6, 6, 6, 2, with the General also rolling a 6 for 3 boost points. The boost points weren’t needed, as the Patriots were down to three regiments, but Providence clearly favored the American cause this day!

The Patriot commander realized the British general had made a crucial blunder— he had left himself unprotected, alone in his section of the battlefield (okay, he had a staff tent, a nominal ceremonial guard, and the Loyalist mistress he acquired in Boston, but tactically he was alone).

The cavalry disengaged from the enemy and swooped down on the unsuspecting general! Alerted to the danger, he called upon the Deity to aid his escape. But the Deity smiled not upon the servant of tyranny, and the general rolled a 1 rather than the necessary 6. Caught with his pants down, the embarrassed commander could do naught but hand over his sword. The Battle of Flatbrown Bridge was over, and with cunning, skill, and the blessing of Providence, the Americans had won!
The Patriots are Victorious! Hoorah for Liberty and the Continental Congress!


This battle was very brief, in part due to the carelessness of the British commander (I take full responsibility; I honestly hadn’t considered the threat the cavalry posed by being so far forward). But this battle also featured seriously understrength forces; the actual rules call for sides of 8 regiments, rather than the 5 and 4 I gave my respective armies.
Nevertheless, this battle did demonstrate some of the key elements of the game, from the Order Dice to the varied strengths and weaknesses of the different forces, and hopefully gives you a feel for what the game can do.


And the rules are free. Just send me a request via e-mail to Parzival AT aol D0T come (no spaces, and replace AT and D0T with the appropriate symbols). Tell me how you found out about the game, and I'll send you a PDF of the rules. After that, all you have to do is gather up some plastic Patriots and Redcoats, a few dice, and have fun!

And have a Merry Christmas from Parzival!

--- Howard Shirley, aka Parzival

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Space Rocks!

Yep. Been silent here lately. But it's been the deep, dark silence of space!

(Okay, not really. But it makes a good segue.)

Because my biggest current gaming obsession continues to be Star Wars: X-Wing from Fantasy Flight Games.

If you've bought the Core Rules boxed set (and if you haven't, good heavens, what galaxy have you been in?), then you know the game comes with six beautifully illustrated asteroid tokens which you punch out and scatter about your gaming space to create obstacles for your dogfights. (Nasty, annoying, frustrating obstacles, that is.)

BUT as lovely as these tokens are, something is lacking in the visual experience. Your spacefighters are sculpted and painted miniatures of high quality, mounted on posts to soar above your tabletop... and the asteroids they are crashing into are flat bits or cardboard laying flat on the surface. 2D versus 3D, and the third dimension demands to be served.


Never fear, fellow space travellers, the Force is with you. Creating a terrific alternative is cheap and easy.
Now, that's a space rock!

All you need are:

The tokens from the game.

One golf tee per token (a mix of long, medium and short will be best).

One "lava rock" per token.

A small drill and masonry bit.

Glue. (Elmer's or white craft glue is fine for this.)

Flat black primer spray paint.

Dark gray, light gray, and flat black acrylic craft paint (sold at stores like Michael's, JoAnn's, Hobby Lobby, or whatever they call craft and art stores in your arm of the galaxy.)

Some cheap small paint brushes you care nothing about.

Water (distilled water is best, but tap water should be fine if you don't have too high a mineral content on your planet).

"Lava rock" are those red bits of volcanic rock sold at do-it-yourself home improvement stores as garden decor and "grilling rocks" for gas grills. This stuff is dirt cheap, but is often sold in big bags weighing several pounds (or a few kilograms, if your droids only interpret metric units). You can either buddy up with a lot of friends, give the excess to your favorite grill cook, or surprise your sweetie with a decorative flower bed. "Honest, honey, I just wanted to do it for you."  (Alternatively, you can just ask your local supplier if they'll let you have a handful of rocks. Mine gave me around a dozen at no charge.)

STEP 1: Drill holes about the diameter of the golf tee shafts in the center of your rocks. Try not to drill all the way through. NOTE: This makes a good bit of fine, red dust, so be prepared.
TIP: Only use a masonry drill bit. The rock will destroy drill bits meant for wood. Masonry bits are cheap, and who knows— maybe you'll need to use 'em for something else.

STEP 2: Glue the golf tees into the holes in the rocks. (Just spread the glue on the tee and jam that puppy in there as tightly as you can.) Let dry.

STEP 3: Glue the "heads" of the golf tees onto the center of the asteroid tokens. Yes, this will be permanent. Suck it up, soldier! TIP: Orient the rocks to try to match the general orientation of the tokens' shapes, and be certain to center things as well as you can so the token acts as a steady base.

STEP 4: Spray the entire assembly with flat black primer paint. The rock will absorb the paint, so you may need to make several coats. Yes, you will be completely covering the illustrated image on the token with paint (Remember what I said about sucking it up?). If you can't deal with that, spray the rocks and tees assembly before gluing on the tokens. It'll look weird, but you can do it that way.
Let the paint dry.

STEP 5: Dip a paint brush in the dark gray craft paint, then wipe it off until only a small amount remains on the brush; the less you leave, the lighter and more realistic the results. Rub the brush vigorously across the lava rock. This will leave gray paint on the raised surfaces, but not in the recessed areas. This is called "dry brushing." You can be a bit more generous with the dark gray paint, as you're going to create highlights with the lighter paint next. Continue to paint until you think you have a good contrast between the high bits of the rock and the darker black elsewhere.

STEP 6: Dry brush with the light gray paint, this time with a little less vigor. The point is to add a highlight effect to the most raised parts of the rock. Note that all this dry brushing will mangle your paint brush. That's why you use a cheap one.
Let the paint dry.

STEP 7: Mix a little black craft paint with water. You want a very watery paint that is still black. Using another brush, slap this paint into any deep recesses in the rocks; it's okay if a little gets on the highlighted areas; it will mostly run off. Again, the rock my absorb this, so you may have to make more than one coat. This step is called a wash, and the point is to create a deep shadow effect in the holes in the lava rock.
Let dry.

Stand up on the bases, and you're done! (You can spray everything with a protective clear matte sealant if you wish, but it's not necessary.)
Rocks in Spaaaaaaccccceeeeeeeeeeee!!!!!

This method produces gray asteroids. You can use browns and tans if you want other colors. Experiment with a lava rock before you go whole hog, to make certain you like the effect.


The treacherous asteroids of the Great Blue Nebula of Willstabul!
Note nifty new ships: The E-wing, the Z-95 Headhunters,
the TIE Defender and the TIE Phantom.
Also, one old TIE fighter that got dragged in as blaster fodder...
In the game, the same rules still apply. The area covered by the asteroid is the area of its base, not the lava rock (just as the space occupied by a spacecraft in the game is defined by its base, not the miniature). This rule makes things considerably simpler, as the maneuver templates have as much to do with determining a collision as the fighter bases do.

You don't have to be a great painter to do this, and the whole thing can be accomplished in a single afternoon.
If you want more asteroids, either get another Core Set for bases (and more ships), or trace the bases on a piece of stiff plastic or masonite and cut out with a jigsaw.

Hope you enjoy this little tutorial. Stick around for more, because next I'm gonna be dealing with monsters... the King of All Monsters, in fact!

Sunday, April 6, 2014

A Legacy of War!

Once again my gaming group assembled for an evening of warfare, and this time we stepped away from our recent obsession with a galaxy far, far away, and instead went with an alternate Earth— in this case, that alternate Earth is the premise behind Hasbro’s Risk: Legacy. Rather than the standard Earth of classic Risk, the setting is a parallel Earth. After centuries of global warfare (most beginning in Australia, it appears), Earth’s scientists have discovered a method of transporting people (and their weapons) to alternate, uninhabited, duplicate Earths. In Risk: Legacy, you lead one of five factions attempting to colonize this new Earth and avoid the past of the old Earth. Naturally, you ignore that latter noble sentiment and begin whacking on your neighbors as soon as your forces arrive on the new planet. It’s the simple things that make us human, after all.

Q: So, how does this world work?
A: Very well.
The Generals, L-R: Yours Truly, Michael, Will, Chase
Taking photo: "Warlord Jim"

 So, If It’s the Same Map, How Is Anything Different?

Yes, if you look at the map, this is the exact same layout as classic Risk (with a handy sea-link to note that, yes, the Middle East is connected to East Africa). And your forces are the same in that one troop figure=one “army” (or “battalion” or whatever) and a tank (or some other impressive military device) is equal to three armies, and so forth. No change there, and no change in the combat rules of three dice vs. two dice, ties to defender, etc.. If you’ve played Risk, you’re familiar with all that.

What makes this game different is that the game changes as you play. And, the kicker is, it changes permanently. Depending on what happens and what you choose to do, you alter the map with stickers and even pen and ink— and those changes are in effect the next time you play. You may even wind up altering the rules or (gulp) destroying components as you continue to play! On top of this, how those changes are applied will be different for any group who plays the game. Once the game has been played just one time, that map and the assorted elements will be unique to that copy of the game. My group’s experience with Risk: Legacy will be different from your group’s experience of the game, and grow even more different each time we play ours or you play yours.

If you’re the type who likes to repeat gaming experiences in exactitude, or view a game as a pristine work of art, you’re going to have a conniption fit about this game. My advice: get over it.

The Grand Opening: Welcome to Earth You

The Legacy box is unique among Risk games from the start. It has a carrying handle, making it like a cardboard briefcase, and bears a tape seal reading: Note: What’s done can never be undone. Yes, that’s intimidating, but it also has a nice challenge aspect to it— as if to say, “Don’t open this unless you have what it takes to handle this.” Okay, maybe that’s a bit over-the-top for a board game, but it sets the mood for getting into the whole premise of the game, right from the start. My group very much approved.
The Founding Fathers sign in.
I think America began this way...

When we opened the box, we were first faced with the back of the game board, and upon that another label and another challenge: We, the undersigned, take responsibility for the wars that are about to start, the decisions we will make, and the history we will write. Everything that is going to happen is going to happen because of us. (Cue Billy Joel: We Didn’t Start the Fire…)
We would not be dismayed. We signed in blood! (Okay, not really. Will found a cheap ink pen, and we all used that.) Note that Jim got a little bit of a big-head and gave himself a title— “Warlord.” Right, Jim. Dream on, buddy.

Beneath that board were a series of five large “Faction” cards naming the groups we could lead, a sticker sheet containing cities, fortifications and more, a large cardboard side board to track the card decks, a bunch of punch-out missile tokens, a bunch of punch out Red Star tokens, Territory Cards, Coin Cards, Scar Cards (with Scar stickers) and Faction special abilities cards (with special abilities stickers), five bags of the different factional army miniatures (each faction has figures unique to that faction in both design and color), dice, and the rulebook— and bunch of sealed envelopes and compartments with different instructions printed upon them, like “Open when all 9 Minor Cities have been founded,” and “Open the first time a faction is eliminated from the game,” and so on. Very tempting, these sealed bits, but per the game instructions we left them alone. We’ll find out what happens if and when it happens.

The cards are a bit flimsier than most board games, but in part that’s because certain events may cause you to literally destroy a card— yep, tear it up and throw it away. (Some of you are screaming “NO! I CAN’T! I WON’T! YOU CAN’T MAKE ME!” Trust me, it’s not that big of a deal. Not that we’ve had to do it yet…) Otherwise, the components are good quality and the art work is excellent— and for those of you who care about such things, the board does have the dreaded “American valley.” Not of much concern to us, and it doesn’t really affect anything except aesthetics. We did like that each of the factions had unique figures, as well as unique HQ markers, all sculpted to match the fluff for each faction.

Time to Face the Strange Ch-ch-ch-changes

The first difference in Risk: Legacy is that the faction you choose in the game is your faction for the remaining games— a full 15 game campaign, in fact. So pick the flavor that you like, or accept what fate decides to deal. We did the latter, but declared that swaps were allowed if someone preferred.
We then assumed command of the factions as follows:

Chase Fleming— Imperial Balkania (think Edwardian Britain and Star Wars’ Imperial Guard.)
Michael Fleming— Die Mechaniker  (we think that should be pronounced “dee me-kahn-ick-ur”, but it will be far more fun to shout, “Die, Mechaniker!” when attacking him.)
Will Sensing— Enclave of the Bear (looks like a cross between Braveheart and Conan the Barbarian)
Howard Shirley (yours truly)— Saharan Republic (Mad Max-style super models with heavily armed dune buggies, and a hint of Dune’s Fremen warriors. Works for me!)
“Warlord” (snicker) Jim Weaver— Khan Industries (yes, I did shout “KHHHHAAAAAAANNNNNN!!!!” when reading about them.)

And with that, the first component change begins, as you select one of two possible faction powers, listed on stickers, and affix them to your Faction card. Your faction will now have this special ability throughout the remainder of your wars in the world of Risk: Legacy. (To quote the old Crusader, “Choose wisely.”)

Each player then receives a “Scar” Card. These cards hold stickers that at any point in the game can be played to alter a territory on the board, for good or ill. Once altered, that territory remains altered for all future games. If you scar it, it’s scarred for life. The starting Scars consist of Bunkers (which give a territory a permanent bonus on defense, regardless of who holds it) and Ammo Shortages (which give a territory a permanent penalty on defense, regardless of who holds it). We suspect other Scars are in the sealed envelopes, but don’t know yet. We’ll find out…

Next comes another component change. Resource Cards containing “Coins” are used to purchase extra troops during the beginning of a player’s turn. This takes the place of the “three of a kind” card rules from classic Risk. It allows you to turn in much quicker, as the lowest turn in value is 2 coins for 2 armies, but it also limits the sizes of the armies you’re likely to be able to afford. The more coins, the more armies. Also, Coin Cards and Territory Cards are together counted as Resource Cards. Turn in four of these, regardless of coin value, and you can purchase a Red Star token (needed for victory). So the strategy here is whether to turn in or to save for a Red Star token, or to sacrifice a high-coin-value card as one of the four for that token (you don’t get “change”). The game comes with each Territory Card equal to one Coin in value— but before the first game, you must select up to twelve Territory Cards and give them additional coins, increasing the value of the card and the strategic importance of the associated territory (more on this later). You can decide how this is done in any manner your group chooses. We shuffled the Coin and Territory cards together (they have identical backs) and dealt out four groups of three cards, assigning each group three coin stickers. If a Territory card was part of a group, it got a coin sticker. If the group had one or more Coin cards, any Territory cards with it received the extra stickers. We did rule that at least one territory card had to be from each of the seven continents to get a coin before any duplicate continent territories could get a coin, preventing Asia from getting too many valuable cards.

With these changes permanently done, we began the game.

Winning At Some Cost

Winner takes all... well, or at least some...

In addition to the Scar Cards, during your first game each player starts with a Red Star token. The object of the game is not to eliminate all the opponents (though you can win that way), but to collect four Red Star Tokens, or a combination of tokens and faction HQs. Each faction HQ is worth a Red Star for whomever holds the territory the HQ is in. Yes, you can capture an enemy HQ. Once placed on the board, it remains on the board for the game (but can change starting locations in other games). It has no attack or defense value and does not count towards a defender’s troops. If the last defending troop is lost in an HQ territory, the attacker moves in and gains control of the territory and the HQ. So you don’t have to buy Red Stars to win— you can simply (ha!) conquer three other HQs (and hold your own) to win the game.

Collecting Resource Cards is slightly different than in regular Risk. You do have to conquer enemy territories to gain a card, but you only gain a Territory card if you control a territory that matches one of four Territory cards which are face up on the deck tracking board. If this is the case, and if you’ve conquered any territory on the board (not just an exposed one) you may select the matching exposed Territory card for your hand (if you control more than one match, you pick the matching card you want). If you don’t hold a matching territory, you draw a Coin card. In the latter case, if no Coin cards are available, you don’t get any resources. Sorry, general.

The game begins largely with an expansion phase. Unlike normal Risk, all your forces begin on a single starting territory (of your choice), and you only begin with 8 troops. In the first turn you can expand into adjacent empty territories. Although it was a little unclear, we ruled that you could only expand into empty territories immediately adjacent to your controlled territories at the start of the turn. That might have been wrong, but it seemed to follow the rules which stated that eliminated factions could return to the game through unoccupied territories— which we figured couldn’t happen if everyone suddenly expanded everywhere in the first turn. Attacking troops, however, could “steamroller” on as in classic Risk.

Our game quickly became divided by continents. Will established the Enclave of the Bear in Australia, and nobody opted to begin in Asia to block him. Instead, Chase claimed South America, Jim started in the frozen north of North America, I opted for the climes of Africa (seemed to fit my faction, after all), and Michael fittingly established his vaguely German “Die Mechaniker” troops right in the middle of Europe (Germany, in fact).

I decided to move quickly, wishing to grab leads early. Chase had moved into Northern Africa from Brazil, so I slapped him out, and, overextending myself unwisely (as it turned out) I drove north into Europe, claiming the Die Mechaniker HQ. I had a Bunker Scar Card, which I thought would help me hold off any counter attack.

Meanwhile, Jim quickly claimed all of North America and established a truce with Michael “for three turns” between Greenland and Iceland, and proceeded to enter Asia, where Will was quietly expanding uncontested.

Chase responded to my efforts by charging back across the Atlantic from Brazil. I bunkered North Africa (our first scar!), but even with the advantage, I still lost the territory. Meanwhile, Die Mechaniker proved that desert babes with dune buggies don’t belong in Europe, and trashed me out of his HQ, scarred Egypt with an Ammo Shortage, and kicked me back towards southern Africa. He then established a truce with Chase, and I thought my goose was cooked. I began egging Jim on to attack Chase in South America.

At first, Jim seemed content to kick Will around Asia, plucking up territories. Michael left him alone, as promised, but both were building up bits and pieces on the Iceland/Greenland border. Truces are uneasy things, after all. Chase ignored both of these other threats, and hammered me down to one lousy army left defending my HQ. Just when I thought we’d be opening the “faction eliminated” envelope in our very first game, my dice turned lucky— my one army held on against four assaults by Chase! As I was celebrating this moral victory, Jim finally considered my communiques, and poured into South America, claiming Chase’s HQ… and I began to worry that maybe I’d traded the Brazilian piranha for a Great White Shark.

But Michael at this point made his play. He began by giving up four Resource Cards, buying the first Red Star token purchased in the game. He then piled his forces upon Iceland, overwhelming Jim’s Greenland wall, and surging across to face the lone trooper who thought he’d pulled easy duty standing outside the HQ… till a bunch of German mechas came marching across the tundra. The Khan HQ fell, and “Master Michael ‘Lucky’” claimed the win and the first war.

But Wait, That’s Not All!

The New World Has Begun.
In addition to winning bragging rights, Michael got to sign the board and, out of a number of options offered in the rules, chose to rename North America into “Mikeburia,” inscribing that name permanently upon the map. (Not sure what I think of living in “The United States of Mikeburia.” Mikeburia, the Beautiful… nope, that does *not* work for me.) For future games, if Michael manages to claim the continent of North America Mikeburia, he and he alone gains an additional bonus army. “Die, Mechaniker!” indeed.

The rest of us at least got the lovely consolation prizes of founding and naming a Minor City. (Minor cities gain small bonuses when calculating additional troops at the start of a turn.) Placing stickers once again on the board, we carefully chose the names their citizens would forever revere. Thus the towns of Chaseburg and Sensingville (Will’s) naturally appeared. I, in honor of the spirited defense of my HQ, dubbed my metropolis Holdonburg (as “Hold on! Hold on!” was how I admonished my troops during those desperate hours). Jim, however, chose to commemorate the feeble and fickle nature of diplomacy, dubbing Greenland forever after as “Villain’s Pass”. (In retrospect, I think this was a rules flub, as I believe you had to actually hold the territory to found a city in it, but “what’s done can never be undone.” And it was funny.)

The World Has Changed Forever

And thus begin the annals of our wars. A quick consult of the rules reveal that our next game will already have different rules because of completing the first one… and what changes will our later conflicts provoke? Only time and the vagaries of war can tell.

I for one, can’t wait to find out.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

"Advanced" Dungeon!, or New Rules for an Old Game

Dungeon! is an oldie and a goldie, and a favorite of mine. Originally produced by TSR back in the ‘70s and ‘80s as a light dungeoncrawl game without the heady rules of D&D, it’s recently been reprinted in a new version by Wizards of the Coast/Hasbro in 2012, and another version is expected this year, too. My version is the 1989 version (The New Dungeon!), complete with some dandy plastic Ral Partha adventurers. (Alas, the new version uses card standees instead of miniatures.)

The box cover art for my edition (The New Dungeon!).

Dungeon! is a complex combination of a competitive and cooperative game. Each adventurer is out to be the first to leave the dungeon with a set amount of treasure (it varies by hero type, at least in the Expert Rules, see below). But in order to amass this amount of treasure, the heroes will have to face monsters that in many cases no one hero can defeat alone (at least, not without some really lucky dice). So ideally the game becomes a test of making deals and then backstabbing which is quite amusing for players who can handle that sort of thing.

But it's still rather limiting, and the difficulty of monsters is so high at the lower dungeon levels (there are six total "levels" on the board), so I wanted to shake things up a bit and capture a little more of the classic RPG flavor. My solution— "Advanced" Dungeon! 

Level Up, Level Up

One of the key elements of classic dungeon crawling is the ability of characters to gain experience and improve their abilities, or, in gamer vernacular, "level up." Dungeon! does not have such an element, so I added one! Specifically, I added an experience points system to the Expert Rules in Dungeon! (If you’re not familiar with the Expert Rules, which I am given to understand are not included with the 2012 re-release, try to seek them out. They add a lot of flavor to the game, introducing Paladins with healing ability, magic spells, other varied skills, and different victory requirements, as well as an ambush ability that can become very significant in the endgame). You can see my rough notes here:
Dungeon scrawl. Yeah, you can click to make
the pic bigger, but it won't help you read it.

Since my scrawl, like all good writers, is virtually illegible to anyone but myself, I will translate:

The idea is simple. All monsters are worth the ubiquitous Experience Points (or x.p.). The x.p. value of a monster is equal to the red numbers on the monster’s card (this happens to be the “to kill” value for a fighter striking the monster in combat). Note that the x.p. value is always the red number, even if the hero attacks the monster using a different color. This makes the x.p. system identical for everyone, regardless of the monster’s dungeon level. When a monster is killed by a hero, he retains the monster card. When he reaches a set total (which I decided was equal to his treasure goal, divided by 1,000), he turns in the monster cards and “levels up,” gaining his choice of abilities in either combat, defense, wounds, or a special ability fitting to the hero’s character class, as follows:

The Heroes' Level Bonuses

A Fighter (such as the indomitable Floid) needs 20 x.p. to “level up.” His ability improvements are as follows:
Attack Bonus: Gains +1 to all attack rolls in combat.
Defense Bonus: Monsters must add 1 to their attack rolls when attacking this hero.
Extra Wounds: Each status of “wound” is counted as one less when attacked by a monster. So a “light wound” result is treated as “stunned,” a “serious wound” is treated as a “light wound,” and even if wounded, the hero must be wounded three times in order to be slain, not just twice.

Fighters have no other special abilities, so those are the only choices for improvement for fighters. Bummer. But fighters generally have the best attack dice anyway, and don’t have huge treasure goal (20,000 g.p.), so it’s a pretty decent balance.

A Wizard (like Rast) needs 30 x.p. to “level up.” His ability choices are:
Spell Bonus: Add 1 to all spell attack rolls (but not normal attacks).
Defense Bonus: Same as Fighter
Extra Wounds Same as Fighter
Gain an Extra Spell: The Wizard immediately selects another spell card, and may memorize seven spells at a time, not just six.

A Thief (like Krind) needs 20 x.p. to “level up.” His ability choices are:
Attack Bonus (includes ambush attempts): Same as Fighter
Defense Bonus: Same as Fighter
Extra Wounds: Same as Fighter
Ignore Traps: The thief may ignore the consequences of any trap card, if he wishes.
Steal Treasure (from a monster): Instead of attacking, the thief may attempt to steal any one treasure a monster has. The thief rolls two dice, using the most favorable non-spell attack number for that monster. If the roll is equal to or higher than this number, the thief steals the treasure and immediately leaves the room or chamber, through any exit of the thief’s choice. If the monster has more than one treasure, the thief may take the treasure of his choice. The monster cannot attack the thief, and the monster remains alive and well— and, of course, the thief gains no x.p. from the theft.
If the thief fails his roll, the monster attacks the thief.
Note that if the monster does not have a treasure (such as chamber monster), the thief can instead use the Steal Treasure ability to slip past the monster without fighting— a nice way to elude pursuing opponents (if, for example, you've just ambushed the elf and taken his game-winning 5,000 g.p. jade idol). The thief, however, only moves one space after bypassing a monster, regardless of how much movement he had remaining when he entered the room or chamber.
The Steal Treasure ability does not bypass traps; these take full effect, unless the thief has the Ignore Traps ability as well.

A Paladin needs 30 x.p. to “level up.” His ability choices are:
Attack Bonus: Same as Fighter
Defense Bonus: Same as Fighter
Extra Wounds: Same as Fighter
Dispel Undead: The Paladin attacks any undead creature using the most favorable attack number for that creature— even spell numbers.
Bless: When involved in cooperative combat, the Paladin gains or gives an additional +1 bonus. So if the Paladin is cooperating with the Fighter and the Dwarf, the bonus would be +3 rather than +2. This ability applies whether the Paladin is the main attacker or merely cooperating.

An Elf needs only 10 x.p. to“level up.” His ability choices are:
Attack Bonus: Same as Fighter
Defense Bonus: Same as Fighter
Extra Wounds: Same as Fighter
Range Attack: The Elf may attack through a doorway, similar to the Wizard casting a spell, and thus avoid a monster counter-attack. This ability applies only to the first attack attempt; if the Elf misses, he must enter the room on his next turn if he wishes to continue to fight the monster (it is now aware of him, and avoids the range attack). An Elf can instead leave and return later and attack again using the range ability, but not on the same turn. (For example: An Elf misses his range attack. On his next turn, he cannot simply move a space away and move back and regain his range attack. He must move away and wait out another turn before returning. No, he can’t just sit and not attack for a turn either; as long as he remains outside the door without moving, the monster knows he’s there.)
If the range attack is successful, the Elf may immediately enter the room or chamber and collect the treasure (even if he’s used up his movement). Note that the elf cannot remain outside to get the treasure— he has to enter the room.

A Dwarf needs only 10 x.p. to “level up.” His ability choices are:
Attack Bonus: Same as Fighter
Defense Bonus: Same as Fighter
Extra Wounds: Same as Fighter
Ignore Traps: Same as Thief
Resist Magic: The Dwarf gains a +1 bonus when attacked by monsters who use magic. No, this isn’t stated by the monster cards, but common sense applies— any monster labeled as a “wizard” or “sorcerer” or the like obviously attacks using magic. Also, creatures like the lich, dracolich, and beholder use magic, so the bonus applies. (Honestly, looking at the creatures in the game, this is not very broad ability, but it is very powerful.) The defensive bonus is in addition to the Defense Bonus ability, if the Dwarf also has that.

Only one special ability may be chosen when leveling up, though a character may level up multiple times. Once a special ability is chosen, that same ability cannot be chosen again— a hero only gets one Attack Bonus, for example.

Paying X.P.

The x.p. payment does not “give change.” If a player turns in monster cards with more x.p. than is needed to level up, the extra x.p. are lost. However, a player may also sacrifice treasure cards as an x.p. payment if his monster totals don’t add up enough to level up. Each treasure card is worth one (and only one) x.p. point, regardless of the value of treasure shown on the card. (After all, the point of the game is to acquire treasure, not spend it.) Spent treasure cards are returned to the box, out of play, and do not count towards a hero’s treasure goal. Likewise, all monster cards spent as x.p. are returned to the box, out of play.

Test Crawl

To test the system, I set up a game with one of each character type, and put everything through the paces.
The Dwarf plays Chutes and Ladders, minus the ladders.
(He drew two chutes in a row, moving him from fourth level
to the dreaded sixth level in one turn. Clearly, he needed the 
Ignore Traps ability...) Dwarf is amidst the blue cards.

At first the Elf advanced very quickly— very early on, he had gained three of his four possible special bonuses— a virtual Super Elf. But his attack limit of the white numbers began to slow him down as the remaining monsters became more difficult to defeat. (This elf is no Legolas.)
Super Elf gets caught between two dangerous monsters.
Lower left, in the yellow section.

Surprisingly, the worst advancement results came for the fighter, Floid. But he had lousy rolls throughout the game, and was the only hero to die. Multiple times.
Floid (hallway, green section, center board) has no luck.
After searching for a secret door for three turns, he stares
in amazement as the Dwarf pops through in one.
Floid: "How did you do that?"
Dwarf: "Simple. It's always the fifth stone from the left of the third support block
of the secondary lintel key."
Floid: "Huh?"
Dwarf (gives up): "It's Durin's Day."

I was also surprised to see the Wizard advance very quickly— but then, I made the decision early on to send the Wizard down into the deeper levels, where the monsters are more difficult to defeat, yet more susceptible to magic. (Ironically, for many of the higher level monsters the Wizard was better off just jumping into the room and whacking them with his staff— a green attack— than casting a spell!)

In the end, the Elf and the Wizard were the first to gain their treasure goals. The Thief ambushed the Elf, but got caught among monsters he couldn't get past. Floid, in the meantime, had managed to bounce back from three deaths to gain his own goals. The race for the stairway was on— would it be Floid? Would it be the Wizard with his incredible abilities? Would Super Elf regain his stolen idol? And the noble Paladin, smiting evil— would he gain one last treasure to reach victory himself?
None of the Above— the victor to reach the stairway with his treasure complete was none other than the brave Dwarf. "Of course," he grinned. "It's Durin's Day."

Analysis of a Crawl

In the end, every hero managed to level up multiple times, the most successful being the Wizard and the Elf. And it was a good tactical question as to which bonus abilities to select each time— a greater chance to survive against the monsters, or something to give that "edge" that could win the game. By the end, the Thief was stealing monster's treasures, the Paladin was setting off to smite undead evil in the lower depths, the Elf was shooting arrows through doorways... everybody wound up with abilities they could use, and did so effectively.

I had feared that the level up system wouldn’t work or might break the game, but I found the opposite was true— to me, it made the game more interesting, and while it did offer advantages against the monsters, the simple bonuses didn’t seem to swing things too much in the heroes’ favor at all. The really nasty monsters remained a big risk for solo attacks, especially for the weaker heroes like the Elf and the Dwarf, and the special twists offered some interesting tactical differences among the heroes. I think this system is a keeper.

If you have Dungeon! in your closet, feel free to give my system a whirl, and post comments below!

--- Howard Shirley, aka Parzival, the Wargamesmonger.