Sunday, 20 October 2013

Cards Against Humanity: A Party Game For Horrible People (UK Edition)

This review features subjects which may cause offence.  If you are easily offended by ANYTHING then for the love of God stop reading now!!!
So far at Games & Tea we've stuck very closely to non-offensive games.  Certainly most specialist games do tend to have complicated rule sets which can make them largely inaccessible to younger players, but with enough time and teaching they can plausibly be enjoyed by the entire family.  Every now and then, however, a game comes along which is undeniably for adults only, and it's with utmost pleasure that we're able to bring you a review of the newly-released (and long-awaited) UK Edition of Cards Against Humanity, a party game for 4 or more people.

Because horrible people like parties too.
Cards Against Humanity is a Kickstarter success story, and has found itself a very strong fanbase thanks to its wickedly dark sense of humour and very basic game mechanic.  The box itself features no unnecessary ornamentation; what you see on the box is exactly what you'll find inside the box.  This is a party game for horrible people, and as long as you have a dark and twisted sense of humour and can make a joke out of any subject, you'll fit right in.  If, on the other hand, there is ANY subject at all which you find too sensitive, then it's best to steer clear, because the odds are it features somewhere in this game!
But we're getting ahead of ourselves.  Upon opening the box, players will be greeted by a short rules card, and a rather generously-sized stack of cards; 90 black and 460 white.  These two decks are separated out and given a decent shuffle, and then each player is dealt an opening hand of 10 white cards.  The player who most recently pooed (yes, this is an official rule) is the first player to take on the role of The Card Tsar, and the game is ready to begin.
The Card Tsar takes the top card off the black deck, and reads it out to the rest of the group.  All of these cards take the form of either a question, or a phrase where the key words have been left as blank.  Many of these questions lend themselves easily to innuendo or offense, but some are actually quite innocent at first glance, which can actually make the next part of the game that much darker.
With the question/phrase presented to the group, the other players must pick a white card from their hand as their answer, and hand the card face-down to The Card Tsar.  Once all players have submitted their responses, The Card Tsar shuffles them together and reads them aloud one by one to the group.  When all of the submitted white cards have been read out, The Card Tsar chooses their favourite, and the player who submitted that white card scores an Awesome Point.  The players then draw back up to 10 cards, and the next player to the left takes on the role of The Card Tsar for the next round.  Play continues this way until one player reaches a number of Awesome Points decided at the beginning of the game.
That's the basics of Cards Against Humanity, and it's easy to see how with such a simple mechanic it's achieved such popularity.  One of the greatest parts of the game is playing to The Card Tsar's sense of humour.  If you have a set gaming group and you're very familiar with what makes eachother tick, then you can tailor your white cards accordingly.  A card which one player may find hilarious might not make another player tick at all, so sometimes you can have an agonising wait on your hands, waiting for that perfect play.
This may be a perfect example.  Nicolas Cage has well and truly become an internet legend, and his bee-based demise in The Wicker Man is a firm favourite amongst his fans.  To someone who appreciates this, the card combination above is virtually unbeatable, but to those unfamiliar with his cult status then it would probably only cause confusion.
They're in his eyes.  Oh dear.
On top of this basic rule set, there are some optional house rules which can enhance gameplay, or make things a little easier for players struggling with their white cards.  A popular rule is "Rando Cardrissian", where, during each round, one white card is randomly pulled from the deck and added to the stack of answers.  This card belongs to the non-existent extra player, and if he wins the round then he scores an Awesome Point just like everyone else.  If Rando wins the game, then all of the real-life players suck.  Other rules allow for players to discard a white card if they don't understand it (but they must face the humiliation of admitting their ignorance to the group), or spend an awesome point to discard as many cards from their hand as they wish, and draw back up to 10.
As you can probably tell from the way we've spoken about it, we're very big fans of Cards Against Humanity, and everyone we've played it with has enjoyed it thoroughly.  However, we can't stress enough just how much this game can offend if played with the wrong crowd.  Whilst most of the black cards aren't too bad in themselves, there are a couple of risqué cards, such as "During Michael Jackson's final moments, he thought about [blank]"
The white cards, however, are where the potential for offensiveness truly lies, and where Cards Against Humanity earns its description of "a card game for horrible people".  Some of the worst white cards include "Auschwitz", "Wanking into a pool of childrens' tears", "Chunks of dead prostitute" and "AIDS" (there's a very good reason we put that warning at the front of this review).  This makes Cards Against Humanity something of a marmite game, as most people will either love the sense of humour or loathe it for being in poor taste.
The Good Points
  • Cards Against Humanity may well be the easiest-to-learn game we've ever played.  One player poses a question, the other players answer it.  There really is nothing more to learn, so absolutely anyone with a dark sense of humour can play.
  • The game is absolutely hilarious to play, and is one which you genuinely don't mind losing.  Of course it's nice to win, but Cards Against Humanity is more about laughing at the card combinations rather than fighting tooth and nail for points, which does make it a perfect party game.
  • Nicolas Cage.
  • Bees.
The Bad Points
  • Due to the way it plays, Cards Against Humanity does need a minimum of 4 players to function smoothly, so really is more of a party game than a regular games night game (unless your games nights do actually feature 4+ people, in which case you're sorted!)
  • We should mention the overall politically incorrect tone of the game; anyone easily offended will not enjoy playing.  However, on account of the warning at the top of the page, those people should have stopped reading by now, and so this point is no longer valid.
Recommended Number of Players: 4+ (The more the merrier!)
In order for The Card Tsar to have a good selection each round, Cards Against Humanity recommends a minimum of 4 players, which can be augmented with addition of Rando Cardrissian (who turns out to be an unerringly good player!).  The fantastic thing with this game is that it does improve with more players, and the best games we've played have featured 8 of us including the dastardly Rando.
Average Game Time: 30-90 minutes
We are giving quite a wide window here, but that's because it's hard to put an average time on Cards Against Humanity.  It entirely hinges on the number of players, and the target number of Awesome Points.  Typically at Games & Tea we play to 5 Awesome Points, and with 4-5 players this takes around 45 minutes.
Replayability: High
With so many cards in the set, and so many combinations available, Cards Against Humanity is extremely replayable.  Even if you reach the stage where you've seen every white card a dozen times, it's just as much fun to see someone else's reactions to the cards when you introduce them to the game for the first time.
The Future: Bright (or should that be dark?)
As well as having a great deal of replayability in the basic box set, there are already 3 expansions available, each featuring new black cards, new white cards, and blank cards of both colours so that players can make their own.  These are all the more fun if you have a regular gaming group, as you can personalise the set with your own in-jokes.
Price: £20/Free
Cards Against Humanity costs a thoroughly reasonable £20 (we'll address the "free" option in a moment), although availability is somewhat limited.  The UK Edition has only been recently released, with the original US version formerly only available from the official Cards Against Humanity website.  With the long-awaited UK release, the core game and the expansions are now all available on Amazon, but we're unaware of it being available through any other channels.
If you have the capacity for mass card printing, however, the PDF files for the entire set of cards are available to download for free from the website!  If you wish to do so, then both the US and UK versions can be found here.
Tea consumed during this review: PG tips with milk and 2 sweeteners.  Brew rating 8/10.
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Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Showdown: Icons; A Non-Collectible Card Game From Wyrd

It's always nice when we manage to get our hands on a new release (it makes us feel like we're actually keeping on top of things for a few minutes!), especially when it's from a company who have generally found their way into our good books.  So it was with a great deal of excitement that we cracked open our copy of Showdown: Icons from Wyrd Miniatures over the past weekend and started playtesting!
Showdown: Icons is a competitive, non-collectible card game for 2 players.  This means that unlike games like, for example, Magic: The Gathering, you only need to buy the initial Showdown: Icons box and you'll have everything you ever need to play the game.  Much like the time we backed WarFields on Kickstarter, this was the initial appeal which had us leaping on the game.  We do enjoy card games here at Games & Tea, but aren't such big fans of the long, drawn-out and expensive deck-building process, which often negates the need for gameplay itself, with the winner often being decided well before the first card is even played.  Any card game where both players face off with a balanced deck and need to rely on skill (with perhaps a smattering of luck) to bring home the victory usually makes a good first impression here.
The first thing which you can't help but to notice about Showdown: Icons is that it's small.  Really small.  So small we actually almost looked straight past it on the shelves of our FLGS, Titan Games.  On the one hand this is does help to make the game nice and portable, and credit does have to be given to Wyrd for their maddenly efficient packaging in this respect.  On the other hand, it does leave you with an initial feeling of "Is this it?", as you sit there holding a fist-sized box for which you've just been parted from your hard-earned cash.
If we did a "Box Contents" entry for Showdown: Icons, this would be it.
Upon opening the box you'll be greeted by the sight of five decks of cards and a double-sided rules leaflet.  Now anyone who has experienced Wyrd's tabletop systems in the past will know that they have an affinity for basing their cards on a standard 54-card (including Jokers) poker deck, and they haven't broken with tradition with Showdown: Icons.  Admittedly this did lead to a minor rage outburst at first, having paid through the nose for what initially seemed to be a set of 5 poker decks.  However, it did turn out on closer inspection that there was more to Showdown: Icons than this.
Each deck is themed after a suit and a character from a standard playing card deck, and the boxes are decorated with some rather lavish artwork to depict these characters.  From left to right in the picture above, the decks are The Jokers, The Ace of Spades, The King of Clubs, The Queen of Hearts, and The Jack of Diamonds.  In each deck (aside from The Jokers), the cards of the chosen suit have special abilities which can turn the tide of battle, whereas the remaining three suits are very nearly standard playing cards (with one exception, to be explained below).  The decks do have different themes, meaning that players have to treat them very differently if they want to pull off effective combos, but still maintaining the balance needed for any non-collectible card game to be competitive and enjoyable.
So what's the aim of the game, and how does it actually work?  Well it's time to find out...
We paid extra for the limited "Kryptonite-infused" edition.
Like most combat-based card games, the aim of Showdown: Icons is to defeat your opponent by reducing their health down to zero.  With the decks being based on poker decks, the life of each player is represented by the deck's four aces, which are removed at the beginning of the game before the decks are shuffled.
Now we were quite impressed at how Wyrd had set up this health system, as at first glance it may seem as though this is gearing up to be a very short-lived game; after all, how tactical can a game be when each player only has four points of health each?  Well each of the aces come with a number of benefits, and these benefits only start to take effect as the players take damage.  This means that the closer you are to defeat, the more formidable opponent you become.  This did remind us of Wyrd's tabletop/board game Puppet Wars, in which player's individual troops became tougher as their army dwindled, and they've succeeded in bringing that mechanic to life once again here.  Some aces allow you to prevent further damage, some to tamper with your opponent's hand, and so on.  It's a system which has left all of our games of Showdown: Icons going right down to the wire, rather than one player ever claiming a sweeping victory over the other.
The other two cards to be removed from the deck before beginning the game are the Red and Black Jokers.  Again, those familiar with Wyrd will know that they like to attach special functions to the Jokers in their decks, and Showdown: Icons is no exception.  In this instance the Black Joker is a card which players can re-use during any round of combat they wish, whereas the Red Joker effectively represents the player's character themselves, explaining each of their abilities which can trigger at the end of combat, granting bonuses to themselves or penalties to their unfortunate opponent.
Once these six cards have been separated from the decks, the remaining 48 cards are shuffled, each player draws a hand of 5 cards, the first player is decided at random (by a good old-fashioned cutting of decks), and the game is ready to begin.
The combat system in Showdown: Icons is very simple, but incredibly devious.  Each player (starting with the first player) places a card face-up in the centre of the table.  These cards are the players' Feints.  Once the Feints are played, each player plays a face-down card beside it, and these cards are each player's Strike.  The Strikes are then flipped face-up, the numerical values added to those of the Feints, and then all manner of wonderful things can happen, all depending on the cards' Disciplines...
Each card in the game has one of three Disciplines, as shown along the short-edge of the card.  These can be Physical, Intellect, or Cunning.  If the Disciplines on the two players Strike cards are different, then the highest total wins the combat for the round, if the two Disciplines are identical, then the player with the lowest total wins the combat.  At this point this may still sound like a game of chance, right?  Well this is where it gets interesting, and turns Showdown: Icons into a game of bluffing and insidious mind-games.  If the Strike and Feint cards of the player who wins the combat are  of the same Discipline, then that Discipline triggers, and the effect on the player's Red Joker card takes place.
For example, in the photo up above showing the Red Joker, the Physical trigger is "Heal one damage", so if that player won the combat for the round with a pair of Physical cards then they get to restore one of their health points.
This leads to very interesting combat rounds, especially when both players are running low on health.  If your opponent plays a Cunning card as a Feint, are they planning to try and activate their Cunning trigger, in which case you may want to play a Cunning card of a lower value to win the combat?  Or are they bluffing to try and get you to play a Cunning card so that they can romp home with a high-value card of another Discipline?  Or are they double-bluffing with every intention of playing that second Cunning card after all?  If you've ever seen the film The Princess Bride then you'll find combat rounds to be comparable to the famous Battle of Wits...
"Where was I?" "Australia."
Finally, as mentioned earlier, the chosen suit of each deck also comes with an array of special abilities; Actions, Combats and Reacts.
Combat cards can usually be played as either Feints or Strikes, granting the player extra bonuses if they manage to win the round.  Actions are played at the beginning of the round, and can bestow all manner of advantages from modifying the effects of Triggers, to altering the face-values of various suits and Disciplines.  Reacts tend to be played after the combat round is over, and can nullify Combat effects or prevent Triggers from going off, so can be used to buy some more precious time to turn the tide of battle.
These cards, really, are where the different decks actually start to come into their own.  Up until this point the decks are very similar, with just minor differences in the Jokers separating them.  With the effect cards, the decks each adopt their own theme, meaning that players will have to adapt their play styles to accommodate them.  The King of Clubs, for example, is largely about restoration - healing damage and returning the player's best discarded cards to their hands.  The Jack of Diamonds is about disrupting your opponent's best-laid plans, allowing you to change your Feint card at the last moment, or even switch yours with your opponent's.
After enough games with each deck, players will inevitably start to favour the theme of a particular deck to suit their play-style, and an encounter between two experience players fielding their preferred decks is certain to be a masterclass in deception and mind-games!
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is Showdown: Icons in a nutshell!  The game continues with the first-player role passing back and forth until one player takes a hit to their final ace, granting victory to their opponent.
The Good Points
  • Showdown: Icons is entirely balanced.  There's no way to embellish the decks, and so it entirely becomes a game of skill.
  • As has become Wyrd's habit, the cards are actually made of plastic, so will be able to withstand a tremendous deal of gameplay with very little wear and tear.
  • The selection of 5 different decks introduces the variety to the game which would otherwise be denied by its non-collectible nature.
  • The health system, wherein a player gets stronger as they take more damage, allows for a competitive game right to the finish.
  • It's compact enough to carry around in a shoulder-bag, and quick enough to play opportunistically.
The Bad Points
  • Showdown: Icons is quite expensive, considering the fairly basic contents of the box.
  • It is very much a game of bluffing and mind-games, so if you're not a fan of trying to get into the head of your opponent then you probably won't enjoy this.
  • Sometimes the combat rounds can become quite complex, and at the end of the turn it's easy to forget who was the first player.  The addition to the box of a First Player token would have solved this basic issue.
  • Due to the workings of the game, Showdown: Icons is impossible to play with more than 2 players.
 Recommended Number of Players: 2 (no other option)
Showdown: Icons can only be played with 2 players.  We did try to work out a way to have a 3 player free-for-all, but bearing in mind the way the Disciplines determine whether the highest or lowest total wins the combat, the system simply wouldn't work.  Of course if anyone does figure out a way to play this game with more than 2 players whilst retaining its balance then we'd love to hear about how you did it!
Average Game Time: 15-20 minutes
Showdown: Icons is a bit of an odd one, in that it has the short play time typically associated with casual party games, but requires some deep, thoughtful gameplay.  It's nice that it takes such a short amount of time, however, as it allows players to squeeze in a quick opportunistic game, or play best-of-three matches to extend the experience.
Replayability: Medium
Whilst it is a fairly neat little game, there isn't a great deal to extend Showdown: Icons' shelf-life.  It's short play time will make it a good start-up game for gaming groups, and the 5 decks give it a degree of variety, but there's not a great deal to make it stand the test of time.
The Future: Dim
From the looks of it, Showdown: Icons appears to be a standalone game.  A balanced game like this certainly isn't one which would benefit from booster packs or anything similar, but at the same time it does leave it with a very limited lifespan.  Once it reaches the point where all players in a gaming group are no longer getting a kick out of playing the game, there won't be anything new with which to refresh it.
Price: £30
It's hard to gauge whether you're getting good value for money with Showdown: Icons.  When broken down, it's only £6 per deck, which doesn't seem quite so bad, but when looking at the big picture it feels like a lot of buck is granting you very little bang.  If bluffing games are your thing, however, and you do with to invest, then it should be easily available, being a new release from one of the larger tabletop gaming companies.
Tea consumed during this review: Twinings Every Day/Green Tea Blend with milk and 2 sweeteners.  Brew rating: 10/10.
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Monday, 7 October 2013

Diary of a Roleplay Beginner #2: First Session

So just a few short days ago I was talking about how excited/nervous I was about my imminent first roleplay session, and how I'd been throwing myself full-on into the world of Privateer Press' Iron Kingdoms system.  Now I can say I've sat through my first session, and can ramble needlessly about how it felt.

Even though I'd watched the first session of this new campaign, and had thoroughly studied the core rulebook to give myself all of the necessary background, I still felt nervous sitting down amongst the other party members and taking on the role of my Gun Mage for the first time.  I knew every facet of his history and  how he'd react to people from various walks of life, but still actually giving voice to the guy seemed more than a little intimidating.
The session kicked off with a little bit of a "here's your present situation" summary following the events of the previous session, at the end of which the party was set an investigative task and introduced to the two men who'd be assisting them: myself, and another newcomer to the group.  And so I had to take it from there!

From what I gathered whilst spectating, adopting a voice for your character isn't an essential part of roleplay, but it is a nice way of giving your character an extra bit of flavour.  With my character being more than a little hard-nosed and pragmatic, I'd decided to give him a sort of Russel Crowe-Gladiator voice.  The first time I opened my mouth to speak I have to admit I felt a bit daft, but as soon as I started talking and wasn't met with fits of laughter or eye-rolling from the rest of the group I immediately started to feel more comfortable and could happily throw myself into the character.
And I think this was something I hadn't been able to fully appreciate when looking in from the outside; at the end of the day we were all there to have fun and lose ourselves in another world as a completely different person.  Making fun of another player or the way they portray their character would achieve nothing aside from spoiling that player's experience and creating a negative overall atmosphere.
Of course that doesn't mean that all of the characters have to be nice to one another, and it's a lot of fun when two characters butt heads!  By the end of my first session I'd managed to rub up one character the wrong way with my gruff nature, but found my way into the good books of another for the exact same reason.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  The session turned out to be a purely narrative one, which I was more than happy with as it gave me a chance to practice the social aspect of the game before having to get to grips with the combat system.  An arcanist - who happened to be a close friend of our employer - had gone missing a few days ago, and it was our job to scour the town and gather clues.  The GM presented us with a list of locations we could visit, and let us make up our own minds as to where to investigate first.
The party began to split up, and so, still a little unsure of myself, I joined the largest group and followed them to the Arcanists' Guild, and it was here that my confidence was able to start growing.  We entered the guild as a party of 5, so I was able to mill around in the background a bit, but it turned out that only arcanists could visit the missing man's quarters, which narrowed the party down to myself and one other, forcing me to start taking a more active role in the hunt for clues.  By the time we'd well and truly looted his room I was feeling more confident, and headed out on my own to see where the trail lead me.
I really enjoyed this gradual step-up system, going from being part of a crowd, to one of a pair, to striking out solo.  With so many characters in our party I had plenty of time to think about my next avenue of investigation whilst the GM was doing the rounds with the others, meaning I never felt pressured or as though the spotlight was particularly on me, and I quite happily hopped around town following the trail of breadcrumbs our GM had laid out for us.

There were some interesting events throughout the session, with my false cover almost getting blown during one part of my investigation, another one of our party almost starting a bar fight and laying a criminal low with a bottle and tray, and an exciting climax to the evening when our resident gambling addict found his way to a gambling den and had us all cheering on his frantic dice-rolling!

So my overall first RP experience was definitely a positive one.  I stuttered and stumbled at a few points, but the rest of our group was patient with me and the GM was happy to do another round of the table and let me recompose myself.  I'm still nervous about going into my first combat experience, which seems to be all set up for the next session, but I now feel comfortable about taking parts in the more narrative aspects of the game.  All I can say now is roll on session #2!