Thursday, 26 September 2013

Diary of a Roleplay Beginner #1: Introduction

Greetings, readers, this is Rob from Games & Tea (which you probably knew as you're on our blog).   So far G&T's been primarily concerned with board and card games, with the occasional look at game systems which verge on being board games (I'm talking about you, Puppet Wars and X-Wing).  But a few weeks ago we were approached by the lovely folks at StoryWeaver and asked if we'd be interested in reviewing some of their roleplays.
Now whilst we have no issue with the idea of reviewing RPG's, the fact of the matter is we've never played one before and so wouldn't have a clue where to start.  However, I've always been roleplay curious, so have decided to take the plunge and throw myself into the world of D20's, character sheets, and furious pencil work.
I personally have a number of friends who have roleplayed in the past, and many who still do, but I know a fair few who - like myself - are interested in roleplay but don't know how to go about getting into the hobby.  The whole notion of roleplaying can seem very intimidating to an outsider, and so I'm planning to run this diary within Games & Tea to chronicle my early steps into what looks to be an awesome side of the hobby.
What I won't be doing is bringing you detalied reports of every roleplay session, I think this would stray away from the point of these posts, and I imagine even the most awesome roleplay events to fall into the category of "you had to be there".  What I will be doing is talking about my experiences immersing myself in these new worlds for the first time and creating my first characters, the feeling of being involved for the first time in both the narrative and combat sides of roleplay, and perhaps in time even going on to my first experiences as a Game Master.  So to start with I'm going to have a ramble about how I've managed to get myself into a roleplay group, and the past couple of weeks spent studying the rules tome (the word 'book' wouldn't really do it justice) and creating my character.  You may want to read all about it, you may not.  Either way, I'm going to keep talking.
The Beginning!
Between tabletop systems, board games, card games and TCG's, I've been an active hobbyist for roughly 12 years now (I was a late bloomer), but roleplaying is one aspect of the hobby I've never ventured into.  I've always liked the look of it, but breaking into RPGing seemed to be the issue holding me back, and from speaking to a few people I know it's not an issue I'm alone in.  Unlike a new board game or even to an extent a lesser-complicate tabletop system, RPGing never looked like something a group of inexperienced gamers could just sit down and have a go at.  At the very least the GM really needs to know his onions, and to help facilitate smooth play at least one of the players does as well (again, all from an outsider's perspective).
So I'm a frequent loiterer at our FLGS Titan Games, and a few weeks ago I was hanging around on a Sunday afternoon, playing board games, buying things I couldn't afford, stroking peoples' faces, and just doing all of the other usual gaming store activities.  As the hours wore on and closing time approached, some friends of mine started to congregate around the large gaming table at the front of the store; it seemed I had unwittingly stumbled into a roleplay group, and they were gearing up to start off the first session of a new campaign.  Seeing this as the perfect opportunity to see what roleplaying was all about, I pulled up a chair, ordered in a pizza, and sat down to watch these guys lose themselves in a fantasy world for a few hours.
This is the nice thing about having a hobby store to hang around at; if you're interested in trying something out then the chances are there'll be some people around who also want to give it a go, and also that there'll be people ready to hand-hold you through those crucial first steps.
In this instance, the fantasy world was that of Western Immoren, the setting for Privateer Press' Iron Kingdoms system.  Those who are familiar with tabletop wargame systems may already be aware of Iron Kingdoms, as it shares the settings with their popular tabletop systems Warmachine and Hordes.  Not having played either of these games before, a lot of the background of the characters was lost on me, with religions, races and classes meaning absolutely nothing.  Even so, I sat there quietly (for the most part) so as not to interrupt the flow of the game, and took in as much as I could about the goings on of their party.  The GM did kindly offer to let me fill in the conversational side for one of the NPC's (non-player characters), but having no roleplay experience I didn't want to mess up the game's setting and so declined.
The first thing I noticed was how pretty much anything is possible in a roleplay scenario.  This is something I'd heard tales of before in tail-ends of conversation, but had yet to witness first-hand.  After the party had been set up on their initial starting point, one member (a priest) headed into the streets to feed the poor, one (an aristocrat) decided to go and worm his way into the local noble's good books, whilst the rest of them just decided to all start drinking for a while.  Whenever an incident came up which required a dice roll to determine success or failure I tended to get a little bit lost on how the GM reached the result, but still thoroughly enjoyed the narrative element of the game.
By the time the session's big combat encounter came along I was quite invested in the party's characters, and even though I was just an observer, I found myself genuinely caring whether they made it through the battle in one piece!
Anyways, to cut a long story short, they scraped through (again, most of the mechanics of the combat went straight over my head), and the session came to end with the story ready to be continued next time.
Having thoroughly enjoyed sitting in and seeing how a roleplay works - and with a copy of the Iron Kingdoms core rulebook on the shelf in Titan - I immediately picked it up and threw myself straight in!  It did help that the next session wasn't due for another few weeks and that I was about to go on holiday for a week, so I'd got a deadline in which to learn the ins and outs of Western Immoren, and create a character to slot into the group.
As soon as I picked up the book I realised I'd set myself something of a monster task, with it clocking in at a total of just over 350 pages.  The first 200 of these are all about the titular Iron Kingdoms themselves, and so whilst they aren't necessary for understanding how to play the game, an overview is needed to understand the world you're inhabiting, as well as the way your character is going to behave and respond to certain events.  With no small amount of trepidation I found myself a suitable bookmark and started reading.
The background section proved to be an overall interesting read.  There were some sections which were true page-turners, and some which trundled along like a dusty old history textbook, but with over 10,000 years of Immorese history to get through that's no real surprise!  Along with the history, there are sections on the main nations, people, and races of the Iron Kingdoms, as well as cultural points including religion, law, commerce, education, technology, magic... pretty much everything you could want to know about the world lies within these 200 pages.
After reading about history, the major nations and their inhabitants, I started to get restless, and so skipped ahead to the character section of the book.  By this point I'd got enough background knowledge that I felt I could comfortably start creating my Iron Kingdoms character.  I already knew I wanted to be a male human, and I'd chosen his nationality.  After a good old flick through the character pages I chose his career paths, selected his skills, and then started his mini-biography.  Now I love writing (hence rambling away on Games & Tea any chance I get!), so sitting down to flesh out my character gave me a massive buzz, and it was here that I found the gameplay and background parts of the book starting to mesh nicely.
I'd start to write a bit and then think "hmm, does this fit in with his culture?" so I'd flick back to the reference part of the book, tweak his background a little bit, and keep going.  After I thought I'd finished, I went back and carried on with the reference section, and every few pages was finding some small detail which would really help to embellish my character, or a point which would cause an issue with the history I'd written for him.  This constant reading/tweaking really helped to give my character an organic feel, and on some nights of the holiday I'd lie in bed thinking about how else I could give him more depth.  In the end my first ever roleplay character took just over a week to create, and at the time of writing this I'm extremely excited about getting myself into the fray.
Reading the rulebook has helped to throw a lot of light onto that first session where I sat by feeling a bit lost, but I genuinely think it helped to watch that session as a non-roleplayer.  Whereas some sections of the rulebook probably would have left me scratching my head, the experience of watching other people roleplay first allowed me to put examples to the rules, and the whole thing made a lot more sense.  I'm sure I'll need a bit of hand-holding to begin with, especially in the narrative areas of the game where there are no real limits to your gameplay options, but with a supportive GM and understanding players, I'm confident it's going to shape up to be a brilliant experience.
So at this point I don't have much more to add.  I'll be posting an article next week about how I'd found my first session as an active player, and hopefully more in the future as I gain experience and start taking a look at other systems!
And speaking of other systems (I really should give them another nod for gifting me with PDFs of their rules), the two StoryWeaver roleplays I now have in my possession are Rapture and High Space.  While it may be some time before I get round to branching into another system, Games & Tea's friends over at fellow hobby blog The Hobbynomicon have recently played their first Rapture session, and I understand The Caustic Triton is planning to write up an article about it so pop over and pay them a visit!

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Bioshock Infinite The Siege of Columbia, Part 2: Gameplay & Verdict

In yesterday's article we took a look at the box contents for Plaid Hat Games' tie-in to the Bioshock Infinite videogame, The Siege of Columbia.  We made little attempt to hide our disappointment with the physical quality of the game itself, so now we're back to look at the way the game plays, and to see if it offsets the quality enough to justify the hefty price tag.
As we mentioned in yesterday's article, the players each take control of one of two factions; the lower-class Vox Populi or the upper-class Founders, as they wage a civil war for the control of Columbia.  Before the game can get started the players must argue between themselves over which faction to control.  Non-Bioshock fans will probably be content to flip a coin or choose their favourite colour, but fans of the videogame will probably want to play as the Founders, purely to be in control of the iconic Songbird character.
The initial set up of The Siege of Columbia is quite a lengthy process, but there is an easy-to-follow step-by-step guide in the rulebook to talk new players through it.  Whilst only a niggling criticism, it did occur to us that the addition of a set-up reference card would have benefited the game, and certainly got us started much sooner.
Each player shuffles their Action Card deck and draws an opening hand of 5 cards, and places their units in their starting locations (as specified in the rulebook).  They then randomly select a Leader Card each to assist their faction, and an Elizabeth Timeline to dictate the flow of the game.  Any unoccupied locations are given a face-down Territory Token for the players to battle when they try to claim the area.  Finally the Victory Point Cards are shuffled and the top card flipped over to reveal the first objective, and the World Event Cards shuffled up ready for the first turn.  Then the players just have to randomly decide who gets the First Player Token and they're ready to go!  This entire process takes just a few minutes with experienced players, but for the first few games it's a very drawn out process.  Given the high number of game components though, it comes as little surprise, and each of these elements plays an important role.
This is a nice example of a game of The Siege of Columbia in progress.  At this point every element of the game is in play, and it probably looks very intimidating to a new player!  So, in our usual fashion, we'll do a runthrough of a game turn, and hopefully this should make things look more manageable.
Each round starts with the top World Event Card from the deck being flipped over, and the players voting on whether or not the motion passes.  Some of these card benefit the Founders, some the Vox Populi, some benefit both, and some benefit whichever faction throws in the most votes.  This variation is well-balanced, and can force players to think on their feet and re-evaluate their entire plans for the turn.
On this occasion, the card strongly benefits the Founders, as it gives the Founder player 10 Silver Eagles which can be spent on units and upgrades.  Obviously the Vox Populi player won't want this to go through, so they will be voting against it.  Each player selects however many cards they wish out of their hand, and places them face-down in front of them.  Once all players have chosen their voting cards, they turn them face up and add up the Influence scores (the yellow number, second-down on the left of the card) of all the cards.  However, the vote isn't over yet!  If it's a tie, then the motion is considered to have passed, but if one faction is ahead then Booker gets the final vote!
Booker DeWitt is the protagonist of the Bioshock Infinite videogame.  He spends the entire game rampaging around Columbia, causing tremendous collateral damage and racking up countless casualties along the way.  However, the authorities still seem to feel he deserves a vote, and so one white die is rolled, and the score is added to the Influence total of the lowest-scoring faction.
In the example above, the Founders have played 7 influence (6 off Songbird, 1 off Flak Man), and the Vox have played 3 (1 off Flak Man, 2 off Shotgunner).  The Vox players rolls Booker's white die, and scores 3.  This puts the final score at 7-6 to the Founders, and so the motion is passed.
This isn't where the World Event phase ends though, as the cards will now dictate the course of action for Booker and Elizabeth.
Once the vote has been resolved, players must check the bottom of the card for an Elizabeth symbol.  If this is present, then the Elizabeth Timeline progresses one space, and the effects of this are resolved.  The timelines favour neither player, but sow chaos amidst the ongoing civil war, sometimes benefiting both parties and sometimes punishing them.
After this, Booker is moved around Columbia.  If Elizabeth isn't with Booker then he'll go to rescue her (and God help anyone who stands in his way!), otherwise he'll move to the space indicated in the bottom-right corner of the card (2, in this case).  If Booker's face also appears beside Elizabeth's then he's in an aggressive state of mind, and will start attacking any units in that space, regardless of their allegiance.  Although he may only be one man, Booker is more than capable of wiping a faction from a location entirely, and he shouldn't be engaged unless absolutely necessary (details on combat to follow).  Just like the Elizabeth Timeline, this random movement of the grossly overpowered Booker is a very good mechanic, as it keeps either side from becoming too complacent.  In Games & Tea's first playthrough of The Siege of Columbia the balance of power shifted dramatically, when the dominant Vox player had their lines torn apart by a rampaging Booker, paving the way for a Founders victory!
After the World Event Card has been resolved, the player with the First Player token begins their round.  The first order of business is making money!  The silver number on each Action Card (below the Influence value) is the card's sell value.  At the beginning of the turn, any number of cards can be sold out of the player's hand to add to their coin purse.
With this phase over, the players can then buy more units, although they can only be placed in locations already controlled by that player.  The more powerful the unit, the more it costs.  Players can also pay to upgrade their Action Cards at this point.
With the financial side of the turn done, it's time to advance into enemy territory!  Each turn a player can move up to four units, and can do so in one of two ways...
Units can move from one location to an adjacent location.  Adjacent locations are signified by their connecting arrows.  Any units moving in this manner can move only one space, and then must stay put for the remainder of the turn.
The other method of movement is the Skyline!  Players familiar with the videogame will know the Skyline very well; it's a series of rails connecting the various locations in Columbia, and allowing fast-travel around the city.  Any unit riding the Skyline can move as many spaces as they wish, but at each junction they must roll the Skyline Dice to see if their unit falls to their doom.  As long as a single thumbs-up is rolled on one of these dice then the unit is fine, otherwise the player must discard Action Cards equal to the number rolled, or sacrifice the unit.
This makes the Skyline a perilous method of transport, but one that can pay dividends for a lucky player.  Whether or not to ride it is yet another of The Siege of Columbia's tactical decisions, and gives the gameplay a little more depth.
Once the movement phase is over, combat is initiated!  If the active player moved into an enemy-controlled location they must do battle.
The combat system is incredibly simple in The Siege of Columbia, but is well-designed at the same time.  A single dice is rolled for each unit in combat, but the more powerful units roll higher-numbered dice.  Before any dice are rolled, however, the players can play any Action Cards face-down to boost their dice rolls.  The Combat Score on these cards is the red number at the top.  Let's look at an example of combat...

The Founders have moved into Vox territory with a Leader and a Rare unit, giving them one red die and one blue die.  The defending Vox have a Leader and two Common units, giving them one red die and two white die.  The Vox player has also played a Sky Rider Action Card, giving them an additional score of 2.  The Founder player has rolled a total of 11, and the Vox player has rolled 5, giving them a total of 7 including the Sky Rider.  The Vox have lost the battle, and so must sacrifice a unit, and then retreat their remaining units back to their nearest Stronghold, leaving the Founders in control of this location.

Once the first player has completed this sequence of events, the second player goes through the same sequence.  Once both players have had their turn, they can discard any remaining Action Cards they wish, draw a fresh hand of 5 cards, and flip over another Victory Point Card.  The next World Event Card is then drawn, and the next turn begins!

There are four ways the game can end.  First, it can continue until one player has reached 10 Victory Points, through a combination of achieving objectives or claiming territories.  Second, if one faction completely wipes out the other faction then it's a case of last man standing!  Third, if the World Event Cards ever run out, the game ends and the player with the most Victory Points wins.  And finally, if Booker and Elizabeth escape Columbia, the game ends, and again the player with the most Victory Points wins.

So that's the basic turn sequence in The Siege of Columbia, although there are extra bits and pieces we've left out here.  We are here to give a review after all, not a tutorial!  So let's talk about how the game performed.

As we mentioned earlier, the initial setup was a little bit daunting.  There were a lot of different components to be placed on and around the board, and to start with it felt as though it wasn't going to be worth the effort.  However, setup speed does increase with familiarity, and once players know the ins and outs of the game this will only take a few minutes.  Once small criticism is that the setup is always the same, and it would be nice to semi-randomise some of the initial unit placement as a way of keeping the game fresh.
The World Event mechanic struck a popular note here at Games & Tea.  The voting system seems a little bit tacked-on and doesn't mesh too well with the gameplay, but the random assignment of Booker and Elizabeth's actions do a very good job of making them feel like legitimate NPCs.
The use of Action Cards to effectively fund every part of the turn is an extremely good mechanic, and this is one which Isaac Vega and the Plaid Hat team can pat themselves on the backs over.  Having just 5 cards per turn to use for voting, selling and combat is a great way to make players think hard about their turns, and we frequently found ourselves having quiet, resource-building turns in preparation for an attack or expansion during the next turn.  The ability to upgrade these cards is a fantastic touch, adding further tactical depth to a game which is already brimming with the stuff!
And speaking of combat, The Siege of Columbia has succeeded in making a system which is well balanced and easy to follow, keeping the game flowing at a smooth pace.
It's not all a basket of roses though, and from a gameplay perspective the biggest let-down for the game comes from unclear rules.  There are one or two issues where we've had to go onto the Plaid Hat forums or watch the official "How To Play" video to figure out how to correctly proceed with the gameplay.  Again, this is a fairly basic oversight for Plaid Hat to make, and the rulebook should have been checked before publishing to ensure that all rules issues were addressed.
The other major let-down comes from 4 player mode, which quite simply doesn't work.  The Siege of Columbia board simply isn't big enough to accommodate 4 factions' worth of units, and within the space of a couple of turns the entire board becomes fully occupied and completely fortified, making any kind of progress almost impossible.  As a result, the players are left just holding their own ground, upgrading units, and waiting for the World Event cards to finally run out so that the game will be over.

All in all, The Siege of Columbia proved to be a very positive gaming experience, just sadly let down by the poor production quality in relation to its price tag.  All that remains now is to break it down into bullet points and give it the Games & Tea final score!

The Good Points
  • Fans of Bioshock Infinite will be easily drawn in, as The Siege of Columbia does feel like a legitimate representation of the civil war.
  • There are a lot of elements to the game, but most of these mesh very well together to create a seamless, flowing experience.
  • Booker and Elizabeth act as a force of nature, and their ability to sway the tide of the war is a good way to keep the game evenly balanced.
  • The combat system is simple to pick up, and nicely balanced.
  • The multi-purpose Action Cards reward players for planning out their turns in advance, even though Booker will sometimes decide those plans don't fit in with his own!
  • The randomised Elizabeth Timelines and Leader Cards prevent each game from playing out the same way, and keep The Siege of Columbia from becoming stale.
The Bad Points
  • The quality of the miniatures is far too poor for the modern gaming industry.
  • The board art leaves a lot to be desired.
  • The damaged cards show a lack of QC process at the manufacturers.
  • Some unclear/unstated rules need to be clarified with a visit to the Plaid Hat website, which isn't what anyone wants to be doing half-way through their game.
  • The box interior needed to be better designed to accommodate the plethora of game pieces.
  • The game only works with 2 players, giving it limited appeal to gamers who usually play in larger groups.
Recommended Number of Players: 2
On paper The Siege of Columbia is designed for either 2 or 4 players, but definitely works best in 2 player mode.  With 4 players the number of units and buildings are almost doubled, and this makes the board easier to fortify, allowing the game to turn into a war of attrition and grind to a halt.  In 2 players games units are spread more thinly, making for a more tactical experience and a smoother running game overall.
Average Game Time: 90-120 minutes
If you're sitting down for a game of The Siege of Columbia, be prepared for a decent-length session.  With so many elements to the game, the turns can take some time to get through, and so a complete playthrough of the game can take the better part of 2 hours.  This is certainly not a complaint though, as we found the longer, more protracted games to be the most fun.
Replayability: High
The Siege of Columbia has a number of elements working in its favour to try and make each playthrough different, extended the overall lifespan of the game.  The randomised Elizabeth Timeline keeps Columbia's course from becoming predictable.  The selection of Leaders forces players to adapt their strategies from one game to the next, especially if they're alternating between the Founders and the Vox Populi.  And finally the random dictation of Booker's path around Columbia can destroy even the most strongly reinforced areas of the board, allowing the balance of power to swing back and forth unpredictably.
The Future: Uncertain
As a new release, there is no news yet on the horizon with regards to any expansions for The Siege of Columbia.  There aren't any immediately obvious ways in which the game could be expanded though, and so we aren't going to be holding our collective breath.
Price: £65
There are no two ways about it, The Siege of Columbia is an expensive game.  Expensive isn't always bad though, as long as you're getting your money's worth.  Sadly, this just isn't the case in this situation.  The gameplay is extremely good, but for the price of a top-end game, you expect a top-end product, and The Siege of Columbia just doesn't deliver.  If a group of gamers all chipped in to buy a shared copy it wouldn't be so bad, but for an individual it's far too overpriced.  As a popular new release, availability might be a struggle at this time, but this should cease to be a problem as the initial clamouring dies down.
(9/10 if the price was a more reasonable £45, or the quality issues were fixed)
Tea consumed during this review: Typhoo with milk and 1 sugar.  Brew rating: 6/10 (too much milk).

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Saturday, 14 September 2013

Bioshock Infinite The Siege of Columbia, Part 1: Box Contents

Today we're taking a look at a game which has caused much excitement here at Games & Tea.  Not only that, but it's also a first for us, as this is our first ever review of a new release, rather than giving our opinion on a game which has been out for some time.  So it's with a great deal of fanboy jittering that we bring to you part 1 of our review of Bioshock Infinite: The Siege of Columbia, designed by Isaac Vega and published by Plaid Hat Games.
Bioshock Infinite: The Siege of Columbia is a game for 2 or 4 players (that's 2 or 4, not 2-4), and is set in the floating city of Columbia from the Bioshock Infinite videogame.  For those familiar with the game, The Siege of Columbia takes place during the events of Bioshock Infinite.  Whilst Booker and Elizabeth are running around causing havoc to their hearts' content, the players take on the roles of the Founders or the Vox Populi as they vie for control of Columbia itself.  Most of the characters from the videogame are present; Booker, Elizabeth, Commstock, Daisy and Songbird (no Lutece twins, sadly), which makes this feel a legitimate part of the Bioshock universe.
For those unfamiliar the videogame, the overall plotline is far too intricate to summarise in a pargraph, but the key point is that the players in The Siege of Columbia play as either the lower classes (the Vox), or the upper classes (the Founders) in a civil war for a city in the clouds.  Interdimensional rifts will also play a key part.
So, as per our usual MO, we'll be addressing the box contents in this half of the review, saving the gameplay anlaysis for the follow-up article.  The Siege of Columbia does have a great deal of elements to it, which will appear daunting at first, so be prepared for a plethora of photographs to follow!  From the outset though, we have to say that the box is rather nice.  Bravo, Plaid Hat, this is certainly one which looks nice nestled in amongst our other big-box-games in the Games & Tea collection.
In typical board game fashion, we're starting off with the game board.  Now we have to be honest, this was the first thing we found a little disappointing.  It's a nice manageable size, and much more practical for an average coffee table than the likes of Letters From Whitechapel or Zombicide, but the artwork felt like something of a let-down.  It isn't evident on wide-photos of the board such as this one (or those thrown around by Plaid Hat's PR department), but up-close the board art is largely uninspiring.  There's very little detail in there, and a remark was made during the unboxing of our copy that it looked a little bit like a theme park map, only missing a "You are here" arrow to make it complete.  When a board game is based on a videogame with such opulent graphics as Bioshock Infinite, you frankly expect it to be reflected in the gaming area, and sadly this isn't the case with The Siege of Columbia.
Moving on...
There's a lot going on in The Siege of Columbia, and so both factions have a Player Reference Sheet to help them keep track.  The artwork on the back of these is a distinct improvement over the board art, and so begins to restore any lost faith in the game.  These reference sheets remind players of the turn order, the cost to purchase any additional units, and the different dice rolled in combat for each of these units.  They also include the special movement rules for the Airship and Songbird; the two powerhouses of the game.  Each player has a deck of Action Cards (we'll come to those shortly), which are used in various ways at different points during the turn.  These cards can be upgraded throughout the game, and so the lower half of the reference sheets is dedicated to tracking the upgrades for each card type.
The next set of large cards are the Elizabeth Timelines.  The plot of the videogame revolved around the protagonist, Booker, as he attempted to rescue Elizabeth from Columbia.  Seeing as The Siege of Columbia takes place during these events, the Elizabeth Timeline controls the actions of Elizabeth, frequently sowing chaos amongst the players' best-laid plans.  To prevent the game from becoming too predictable, there are three Elizabeth Timelines, and one is chosen randomly at the beginning of the game.
The rest of the cards are all of a standard playing-card size, so we'll start with the Leader Cards.  Again, to keep the game fresh, the Vox Populi and Founder player must randomly select one of their four Leader Cards at the beginning of the game.  This leader will stay with them throughout The Siege of Columbia, and bestow different bonuses to the players.  Some reduce the cost of buying new units, some boost their units in combat, and so on.  Each leader will force the player to adapt their play style very differently, and can lead to some interesting encounters.
The Victory Point Cards are the key to winning The Siege of Columbia (they do have "Victory" in the name, after all!).  At the end of each turn an additional Victory Point Card joins the others on the table, and each is worth a different number of victory points depending on the difficulty of the task.  The first player to amass 10 victory points is the winner, so players have to find a balance between waging an all-out meat-grinder war on the streets of Columbia and making a beeline for the current objectives.
The World Event cards are one of the most interesting mechanics in The Siege of Columbia.  One of these is flipped over and resolved at the beginning of each turn, and can have dramatic effects on the game.  We'll go over them in more detail in Part 2 of the review, but in a nutshell these are events occurring throughout Columbia, and will usually benefit either the Founder or the Vox Populi player.  As a result these players have to "vote" using Action Cards from their hands to try and make the event go ahead, or stop it in its tracks.  As these Action Cards are also used to accumulate wealth and boost combat scores, it can be a tough tactical decision over whether to throw cards away during the vote at the beginning of the turn.  The World Event Cards also dictate Booker's movement and aggressive stance, and also the times at which the Elizabeth Timeline is triggered.
The aforementioned Action Cards make up the players' hands and draw decks, and basically are used for any action the player wishes to take during the game.  Time to vote?  Throw in some action cards!  Need some money?  Sell some action cards!  Going into a big fight?  Back up your troops with some action cards!  The draw limit of 5 per turn makes rationing these cards difficult, but it's all part of the tactical challenge of the game.
It's worth noting that when we opened our copy of the game, most of these cards were already heavily pitted and scratched straight out of the cellophane.  This almost resulted in a rage aneurism, and there was a lot of swearing going around.  After contacting Plaid Hat we've been offered replacement cards free of charge, but the obvious quality control oversight did not endear us to the product as a whole.
So those are all of the card types, it's time to move onto counters/tokens!
The First Player token is a rather nice one, and pretty darn sizeable!  Being the first player in The Siege of Columbia can prove to be incredibly important, and can mean the difference between victory and defeat in the long run.
As well as troops, players can fortify areas of Columbia they control using structures.  These are more limited than troops and often more powerful, but can be destroyed with much greater ease than the troops.  From top to bottom these structures are Strongholds, Turrets and Alarms.
The Victory Point tokens are used to keep track of which faction has claimed which Victory Point Cards.  Victory points can also be earned by controlling territories in Columbia, with the larger territories being worth more points.  When a player controls a territory they can place one of their Victory Point Tokens next to that territory to remind both players that they're one step closer to that win!
Booker and Elizabeth are running roughshod over the authorities of Columbia, and they really don't care about collateral damage!  There will be occasions where a location in Columbia will be destroyed, in which case a Location Destroyed marker is placed on the board, indicating that the location is no longer there.
"Booker, catch!"  Troops, structures and upgrades all cost money, and the currency in Columbia is the Silver Eagle.  The Siege of Columbia contains more than enough of these tokens for up to 4 players to amass a comfortable fortune.
After the initial game setup (full description to follow in Part 2), every unoccupied territory is given a face-down Territory Token.  Whenever a player moves their troops into that territory they must combat the token.  If they fail they get driven back to their Stronghold, if they succeed then they can stay in that territory, and are rewarded with Silver Eagles.
The last type of tokens are the Upgrade Markers.  These are simply used to keep track of the upgrades on Action Cards.  These upgrades can increase the cards' combat values, influence (voting value), or sell value.  They can also unlock special abilities which can prove useful in various situations.
Now you may wonder why we didn't start this review with the playing pieces.  Surely the miniatures are one of the most fun parts in any board game, right?  Well, here's the reason....
That grey blob to the left is Elizabeth, and the grey blob to the right is Booker.  We saved these for last because there's frankly nothing to get excited about here, and at Games & Tea we were bitterly disappointed (and even a little bit angry).  The Siege of Columbia is at the top price range of big box games, retailing for around £65.  When you compare the miniatures to those of the similarly-priced Zombicide, or even to the much cheaper Warhammer 40,000: Relic, these just don't cut the mustard.  They're closer to the quality of the  Zombies!!! board game, but it must be stressed that Zombies!!! is £25 and several years old!  For a high-priced new release to have such poor quality miniatures in this day and age doesn't seem acceptable, and it's another instance of Plaid Hat dropping the ball where The Siege of Columbia is concerned.
The faction units are divided into three different kinds; Commons (square bases), Rares (round bases), and Leaders (star bases).  The rarer the unit the more expensive they are, but the more damage they inflict during combat.  The red units belong to the Vox Populi and the blue to the Founders, with the two different shades of each colour allowing the factions to be split for a 4 player game.
Finally we have the dice.  Whilst Plaid Hat clearly know nothing of making high quality miniatures, it has to be said that their dice a pretty darn nice!  The yellow dice are for riding the skylines around Columbia, whilst the others are all for combat.  The different colours have different values on the six sides; white being weakest, blue stronger, and red the strongest.  These are the dice rolled by Common, Rare and Leader Units respectively.
The final point we have to make about The Siege of Columbia is the box itself.  Not the exterior, which we've established is rather nice, but the interior.
When a game provides you with a mountain of tokens, a pile of miniatures and dice, and several decks of cards, you expect the manufacturers to also provide a way of storing these efficiently.  In the case of The Siege of Columbia this has been another Plaid Hat oversight.  Not only is there no efficient box insert, but the rather basic one only seems to have been thrown in at the last minute as a way of propping up the board.  Unless you want your cards to become tatty very quickly (even more so than the dog-eared condition they probably arrived in), or half of your tokens to go missing, then investments will have to be made into deck boxes and polythene bags.  Once again, you're not getting your £65 worth of product for your £65.
Normally in Part 1 we try not to give away any clues as to how the game plays, but with The Siege of Columbia we've been so scathing that really feel as though we ought to say something.  Yes, the overall production quality of this game is far below the expectations of the asking price.  The board art is lacklustre, the figures are substandard, and the cards will probably be damaged when you get them.  That said, the gameplay is actually very good, and The Siege of Columbia has had an overall positive response from its playtesting.
We'll say no more than that for the moment, and you'll have to read Part 2 to see whether we thought the gameplay quality is enough to offset the manufacturing quality.  So tune back into Games & Tea in a day or two, and read all about the war on the streets of Columbia!

Friday, 6 September 2013

WarFields: Beta Review

So in our last entry we talked about how we've stuck our noses into the world of Kickstarter, and the projects we've chosen to back.  As a follow on from that it's our utmost pleasure to bring you a review of one of those projects:  WarFields, a card game by Chris Green of Menaveth Games.
Now before we go on we must stress that this is a work in progress.  As a backer of WarFields we've been presented with a print & play copy of the game, which means that the final, polished product may be different from that described in this article.  The artwork will change, some mechanics may change, the deck breakdown may change etc.  That said, there's certainly enough here to bring our readers an in-progress review of the game and a look over the mechanics, so let's press on and do just that!
WarFields is a strategic card game for 2 players, in which both sides must gather resources to build their army, and push forward to vanquish the opponent's king.  Both players draw their cards from a communal Draw Deck, which consists of 90 cards of two basic types.
First of all there are the Character cards, which make up the bulk of the Draw Deck.  These are the troops with which the players will wage their wars, and the workers which will gather the resources required for this endeavour.  You'll notice various stats and symbols on these cards, and we'll do a detailed breakdown further down the page.
The other card type is the Effect card.  These allow players to take various actions on the battlefield, such as boosting the defence of a Character, drawing extra cards from the Draw Deck, re-rolling dice, or even stealing resources from an opponent.
Separate from the Draw Deck is the 54-card Gold Deck, which is also communal.  Gold cards come in denominations of 1-3, and are the driving force behind WarFields.  Whether you want to add another Character to your army, play an Effect card or make an attack, you'll need Gold to make it happen.

Now to have a look at the card breakdown, taking this Archer as an example.  In the top-left corner there are two numbers, a large number (4 in this case) and a smaller one (2).  The large number is the Gold cost required to bring this Character into play, whereas the smaller number is it's selling value.  Each turn a player may sell one card, and will draw cards from the Gold Deck equal to the selling value.
The symbol in the top-right corner (a little unclear in this photo) is the Character type, of which there are three; Human, Beast, and Undead.  Humans can be played straight off the bat, but Beasts and Undead need special Characters to bring them into play; the Summoner and Necromancer respectively.
The large number on the left is the Character's defence value, and the number on the right is it's health.  Whenever a character is struck by an enemy it takes the damage off its defence first of all, and once the defence is gone it starts to lose health.  At the end of each turn, each character's defence is fully restored, but any damage done to its health remains.
This just leaves the Characters attacks/abilities at the bottom of the card, along with their damage and gold costs.  Typically the more gold a player spends, the more damage they'll do!
So it seems like a very basic mechanic, right?  Players gather Gold, summon Characters, and then start hitting eachother.  Well, not quite.  WarFields has a very interesting battle mechanic, and it's this very thing which prompted Games & Tea to throw their lot and and try to get this game completed.
The battlefield in WarFields is divided into six rows, with each player having a Kingdom Field (back row), Ranged Field (centre row) and Melee Field (front row).  Each turn, Characters can advance one row, and then make their attacks.  Melee attackers can only attack the row in front of them, and ranged attackers can attack up to 2 rows in front.  This means that players don't just have two opposing lines of Characters relentlessly pummelling away at eachother, but instead they have to build a structured army, and actually advance it into enemy territory in order to accomplish their goal.  And what is their goal, you ask?

Each player starts with three cards in their army; their King, a Knight, and a Worker.  This means everyone starts on a level footing, with one soldier and one resource gatherer.
Let's go through a turn of WarFields to explain the mechanics in more detail, and then we'll talk about what we thought of the game.
At the very beginning of the game each player draws 9 cards from the Draw Deck, and then place 2 of them into the discard pile.  This may seem a bit strange, but on closer inspection it's actually a nice way to begin the game.  A simple draw of 7 cards each would put both players at the whim of fate, but that slight element of customising their opening hands allows a tactical element to creep in very early on.  Once this setup is complete and a die has been rolled to determine the first player, the game begins.
Each turn consists of four stages, starting with the Currency Stage.  The player draws 2 cards from the Draw Deck to add to their hand, and then add one Gold Card to their gold pile for each Worker they control.  If the player wishes to add more gold to their pile they can sell one card from their hand as well.
The next stage is the Build Stage.  The player can spend their gold to play Characters from their hand, but these Characters must enter the battlefield in the Kingdom Field.
Once the Build Stage is over, the Movement Stage begins.  Any character can move forwards or backwards one Field in the Movement Stage, as long as that Field isn't occupied by an enemy.
Then comes the fun part: the Attack Stage!  As long has the player hasn't spent all of their gold in the Build Stage then they'll have enough to attack (that's right, you don't just have to hire your troops, you have to pay their salary as well!).  As mentioned earlier, melee attackers can hit any Character in the next row ahead, whereas ranged attackers generally do less damage, but can hit ahead one row further.  To show an example of an attack, we're going to take a look at a Knight having a swing at an Arachnid...
The attacking Knight is going to use his Sword Slash ability, with an attack value of 3.  The attacking player then rolls a die to see how effective this attack is.  On a roll of 1 or 2, the attack gets -1, on a 3 or 4 it hits at face value, and on 5 or 6 it gets +1.  On this occasion the player rolls a 5, making the Sword Slash deal 4 damage instead of 3.  The Arachnid has 2 defence, which is obliterated, and so takes 2 damage to its health.  This gives any other attackers a good chance to finish the Arachnid off, but if none do, then at the end of the turn its defence returns to 4, but its health will remain at 2.
The game continues turn-by-turn until one player has pushed ahead far enough to defeat the opposing King, and then they are declared the victor!
There are further rules which we haven't gone into, else this review would probably double in length!  There are limitations to the uses of some cards, various Character effect such as poison, special rules for bringing out Beast and Undead creature types... we could go on, but we think we've gone into enough detail to give you a decent idea of how WarFields works.
So what do we make of it overall?  To start with, the communal Draw Deck is a very nice idea.  Strategic card games often work around building your own decks, and so games are usually won or lost before the first card is even drawn.  With a communal deck there's no player advantage, meaning that victory boils down to a mix of playing skill and luck of the draw.
Another nice touch with the Draw Deck is that it doesn't get replenished, once it's entirely been discarded then it's gone!  This means that there will be no games of WarFields which end up as hours-long wars of attrition, and even the most evenly-matched game may well end up as one King slogging it out against his opposite number! 
The use of Gold Cards to fund everything in the game works well.  It may make the opening turns feel a little slow if you're eager to run forwards and start bashing away at your opponent, but as the game presses on it forces players to think carefully about whether they want to go on the offensive during their turn, or sit back and bolster their defences with more Characters.
The combat system is well thought out as well.  Most good games contain a random element to them to prevent them from becoming too predictable, but without detracting from the tactical element altogether; Puppet Wars has the Fate Deck which can be counted, X-Wing has the combat dice which can be Focused, and WarFields has a D6 which simply modifies the attacker's base-value.  This allows players to try and play the odds when pitching their Characters up against their opponents', but prevents an absolute certainty over the outcome.
In terms of negative points, there aren't many to pick at which can't be put down to the fact that WarFields is still a work-in-progress.  Some of the Effect cards in our experience seem to be a little bit overpowered for their low Gold cost.  And sometimes games can be lost purely down to an unlucky draw, although the same can be said of any card-drawing game.
All in all, we've thoroughly enjoyed playtesting WarFields here at Games & Tea.  If you think it sounds interesting, then please visit its Kickstarter page here.  You'll find a tutorial video to show you a detailed gameplay runthrough, and more importantly you can pledge your support to the project!  It's providing us with a lot of fun over here, and we certainly hope to see a complete and published version in the future.
The Good Points
  • A communal Draw Deck puts both players on a level footing from the outset, making WarFields a game of skill, rather than a game of "who spent the most money on their deck".
  • The six-levelled battlefield adds a very enjoyable tactical depth, and one we haven't experienced in previous card games.
  • The Gold system adds a need for further tactical thinking, often forcing players to choose between attacking and reinforcing each turn.
  • The combat system contains the essential element of chance, without descending into the realms of becoming completely randomised.
The Bad Points
  • Being a game-in-progress, the balance of some cards feels a little bit off.  That said, Menaveth have been taking feedback on board, and the game is in a constant state of refinement.
  • Like all card-drawing games, a very unlucky draw can put a player out of the game quite conclusively.
  • Whilst we do love the six-levelled battlefield, it does mean the WarFields requires more space to play than many other card games, which might prove a squeeze on smaller coffee tables.
  • WarFields is a game for two players, so may not be suitable for large gaming nights with several players all wanting to play together.
Recommended Number of Players: 2
As mentioned above, WarFields is an exclusively 2 player game.
Average Game Time: 30-40 minutes
An average playthrough of WarFields takes just over half an hour, although obviously this will stretch out if both sides are playing especially cautiously (or recklessly!).
Replayability: Medium/High (see "The Future")
WarFields is a very enjoyable game, and one we're happy to keep going back to.  With each playthrough, players will start to form better tactics to help them in future games, but with the Draw Deck included in the print & play version there will obviously reach a point where all of the Characters have been seen plenty of times and may start to feel a little stale.  That said, if the project's full funding is reached and it does see the light of day then there are plans for expansions, which will allow customisation of the Draw Deck and allow the game to remain fresh for a long time.
The Future: Bright (as long as we all get behind it!)
As we just mentioned, there are plans in the works for expansions to WarFields as long as the initial Kickstarter project is successful.   These expansions will allow players to give distinct themes to their Draw Decks, which will in turn allow for very different playing experiences.
Price: $25/39 (or however much you want to contribute)
Being a Kickstarter project you can pledge however much you want towards WarFields.  $25 will secure you a copy upon release if you're in the US, Canada or China, and $39 will get you a copy in the rest of the world.  Higher pledges will grant you extras such as t-shirts, cards designed after yourself etc.
As we've said earlier, we'd really like to see this game hit the shelves, and so if you like the look of it we do encourage you to support it here.
(if we ever get expansions this will probably hit 9/10)
Tea consumed during this review: PG Tips with milk and 2 sweeteners.  Brew rating: 9/10.

If you enjoyed this article and want to see more of the same, come and like us on our Facebook page to keep up to date with our reviews, as well as our general day-to-day ramblings!

KICKSTARTER UPDATE: Unfortunately WarFields didn't succeed in reaching its funding goal on this occasion, however Menaveth Games are planning a relaunch next year taking into account the feedback from their backers.  If you liked the look of the game then keep an eye on the Kickstarter website and get in on the action when it comes back around!

Monday, 2 September 2013

How we get our Kicks...

Hello there, fellow gamers, we just thought we'd bore you all with one of our rare non-review posts (don't worry, more actual shiny reviews are right around the corner).
First of all we just want to thank each and every one of you from the bottom of our hearts.  Games & Tea is going from strength to strength, with August not only being our busiest ever month hit-wise, but in fact receiving more hits than the previous 3 months combined!  There's even a link to our Monty Python Fluxx review on the Looney Labs product page for the game, so we certainly hope we're making in-roads with the gaming community.
Our original mission statement was to try and bring you reviews of any games we could get our hands on.  Having real lives to juggle alongside this game-love has made this a slow process, but we're still getting through our review pile.  At the moment our next two scheduled reviews are Pirate Fluxx and Letters From Whitechapel, so stay tuned for both of those!  However we don't just want to be a blog which brings you reviews of well-known games, but we'd also like to shine the spotlight on little-known games, which we like to hope we accomplished by reviewing the wonderful board game Felinia a few weeks back.
As an extension of this we've decided that we'd like to start poking our nose into Kickstarter territory, in the hope of not only bringing more indie games to light, but also giving ourselves a warm, fuzzy feeling from helping them to see the light of day in the first place!  Obviously Games & Tea is not something we receive any money for, it's entirely done for the love of the hobby.  We don't have some kind of magical games budget to dip into, and all of our reviews are of games in our own collections, bought with our hard-earned cash from our real-world jobs once bills have been paid (food is often optional, and has been known to take second-place to games).  This also means we don't have an infinite Scrooge McDuck-style pool of money to throw into projects, but when we see those which interest us, we'll happily do our part to see them to completion.
So this weekend we've backed our first 3 projects on Kickstarter, and here they are...

First up, Amg! Ice Cream! by Tessa Kennedy.  A card game of ice-cream battles on the Planet Dubious.  The first thing to attract us to this project was the name, which we admit might seem shallow, but you know what they say about first impressions!  But on closer inspection we saw a lot to make us want to back the game.  We universally loved the artwork, what can we say other than we're suckers for cute things?  The nature of the game sounds like a good laugh, and it looks to be a good wind-down or warm up game for a long games night.  It's advertised as a game for little and big kids alike (and let's face it, all gamers are big kids!), and any family-friendly games which will inspire a new generation of gamers can only be a good thing.  It's very good value compared to a lot of other Kickstarter games, with a copy of the game costing just a £6 pledge, or for £8 getting the game complete with a box, and further pledge values are optional coming with further rewards.  And the last decider was the fact that Amg! Ice Cream! is a home-grown project from a British designer, so it's always nice to back local talent (and nice not to have to pay international shipping!).
So take a look, and if you want to see a review on Games & Tea in the future then you'll have to help make the game happen!  Funding closes for this project on September 24th.

Next up, we decided to back Tessen by Chris and Suzanne Zinsli of Van Ryder Games.  On this occasion we were attracted by the price initially, costing us just $25 including international shipping.  Obviously we weren't going to throw this money in just on the basis of a low price, so we started having a good peek at the game.  Tessen is a combat-based card game set in feudal Japan, where players battle eachother across a series of rounds with up to 5 creatures on each side.  The cards themselves look nice, with complete lack of rules text to clutter them up, and it's advertised as quick to play, making it another game which could be good for breaking up long game nights, rather than hopping from one 2-hour epic game to the next.
If you want to get involved with Tessen then time is short, as the funding period ends on September 3rd, however it has already met its target, so if you don't pledge now then you may be able to order it in to your local hobby store or track it down online in a few months time.  Needless to say Games & Tea will be reviewing it as soon as our Kickstarter copy arrives early next year.

Then our final project was WarFields by Menaveth Games, another 2 player battle-based card game.  In WarFields both players start with a King, a Knight and a Worker, and have to build an army to slay their opponent's King.  The big appeal to us (and the mechanic which prompted us to pledge) was the resource-collecting element.  Both players draw cards for their army from a communal deck, but to buy the units you need gold, and this is produced each turn by the Workers or can be gathered by selling cards from your hand.  This reminded us of old real-time-strategy games on the PC such as Command & Conquer or Age of Empires, and was instantly appealing.  The second aspect which clinched our support was a multi-tiered battle system.  Each player's battlefield consists of three rows, and troops on each side can only attack the next row along with melee combat, or two along with ranged combat.  This means that not only do you have to build your army from your own resources, but tactically advance it towards your opponent's rear line in order to kill their king and win the game.  All this is presented in a professional-looking package and has made us very eager to see it as a completed project.
As soon as we'd pledged our support to the project we were given a link to a print & play copy, so we'll hopefully be able to bring you a beta review very soon!
To secure a copy will cost a $25 pledge in the US, Canada or China, or $39 to the rest of the world.  Funding closes for WarFields on September 29th and they have quite a high funding target, so if it looks like it could appeal then we'd urge our readers to show their support.  Hopefully once our review's up and running it might sway a few undecided minds!
So those are the first 3 Kickstarter projects to get our support, but they certainly won't be the last!  We'll just have to wait and see what takes our fancy next time!