Sunday, 31 May 2015

Guild Ball - An Overall Sort-Of Review, Part 1: Team Lineups

Last year we mentioned a new tabletop system we were backing on Kickstarter, named Guild Ball, and a couple of weeks back we posted a brief article showing off the contents of our pledge after they'd arrived.  To summarise, we were extremely impressed with the components, and were left feeling excited about our impending first games.
Now in that article we mentioned that we wouldn't be reviewing the gameplay of Guild Ball, wanting to keep the focus of Games & Tea on out-the-box games, but frankly we were so enamoured with the gameplay that we couldn't resist putting together another article giving it our overall thoughts.
The reason we've never been interested in reviewing full tabletop systems over board/card games is that there are too many variables to go into - we like to talk about turn sequences, game components and so on, but when there's an infinite possibility of actions to choose from each turn, and the components are determined by the shopping habits and play style of each individual hobbyist, it can be a struggle to keep the article at a decent length!  As such this will be slightly different from our usual review format, and we hope you bare with us and still find it an enjoyable and educational read.

So for those who missed the Kickstarter, and missed our fanboy gushings over the game, and haven't seen it at the UK Games Expo (and so on and so on...), Guild Ball is a tabletop miniatures game which is half way between a sports game and a skirmish game.  It's set in the fictional Empire of the Free Cities, where the great guilds all play each other at the titular game - a medieval mob football style game.
The guilds are all based on areas of industry, and at the time of Season 1 there are 7 guilds to choose from; Butchers, Fishermen, Brewers, Masons (the Teamaster's personal favourites), Alchemists (the Tea Boy's personal favourites), Morticians and Engineers.  While not a guild, there is also the Union, which can be fielded as a team, but who's members are also free to play for a selection of the other guilds.

Each team consists of 6 players.  The captain and the mascot are both mandatory, and whilst we expect that later seasons will give us a selection, at this early stage in Guild Ball's life each guild only has one to choose from.  The remaining 4 places are where players get to customise their teams, and tweak them to match their preferred style of gameplay as they start to build up experience.
This is where Guild Ball stands out from the only other major sports-based game on the market right now - Dreadball.  It isn't simply a case of "These are your strikers, they kick the ball," and "These are your defenders, they stop your opponent from kicking the ball", each player has unique stats and abilities.  So instead you have "This is Harmony, she can do all of these wonderful things", and "This is Mist, he's basically Batman".  While the Union players are free agents and as such work as individuals, the guild-specific players all tend to have abilities to work off eachother.  In the Masons Guild, for example, the team starlet - Harmony - gets an armour bonus when close to their heavy hitter - Brick - as he's protective over her.  The team captain - Honour - gets an attack bonus when going after the same player as the mascot - Marbles.  Now this does mean that it will take a few games before any new players even begin to squeeze the maximum potential out of their lineup, but the trade off for this is that the team rosters have an incredible degree of flexibility, helping players to become invested in their chosen guild rather than having to go down the route of collecting multiple teams to get any kind of replay value from the game.

Just to give an example, here are two of the starting lineups for the Teamaster's Masons Guild.  The top team is pure Masons, and so there's a lot of synergy going on there.  In the bottom team, 3 of the players have been dropped out in favour of Masons-compatible Union players, so while the team no longer gels quite so well, it's now much quicker and favoured towards fast strikes.

At the point of Season 1, most guilds have 7 players on their own roster, with 4 compatible Union players to choose from as well.  So with the captain and mascot slots filled, this leaves 9 choices to fill the 4 remaining spaces, giving the players plenty of freedom to build a team to suit their style of play.
And speaking of style of play, how do they work?  Each player comes with a stat card, which tells players what they can do whilst at the same time allowing them to keep track of the damage done to that player...

The top bar of each card gives the player's stats, which come under 6 categories:

  • MOV determines their base and maximum move distance, so for example 6"/8" means they can jog 6" or sprint/charge 8".  The higher this number, the quicker the player.
  • TAC is the number of dice in their dice pool when attacking another player, so a higher TAC means a stronger attack.
  • KICK is the size of their kicking dice pool and the maximum kick distance, so 3/8" would mean an 8" kick range and 3 dice to try and succeed in that kick.  The higher these numbers, the better chance of scoring goals and successful passes.
  • DEF is the player's base defense, and is the target number an attacker must roll in order to hit the player.
  • ARM is the player's armour, and dictates how much damage is deflected before getting through to the soft and squishy player underneath.
  • INF determines how much influence the player generates, and how much they can be allocated.  So 2/4 means they'll generate 2 influence, but can be allocated up to 4.  We'll go into influence in detail in the second part of the review, but in a nutshell it's the currency used to perform almost any action.  Attacking, sprinting, passing, shooting - all of these require influence.
The Character Traits on the front of the card address any passive abilities the players possess, such as DEF boosts in the presence of other player, MOV bonuses, and so forth.  The bottom of the card shows the players damage boxes - once these have been depleted then the player is knocked out.
The rear of the card tells you their base size and melee range, the details of any activated abilities, and explains how they cause damage in combat.  Again, this will be further addressed in the next article.

Before we wrap this article up, we should also take a moment to talk about the quality of the miniatures, as this is a tabletop system and so the hobby element is a key part.

First of all, the sculpts themselves.  Long gone are the days of hunched-over Space Marines, shuffling awkwardly around the battlefields of the 41st Millennium.  These days, most miniature-based games do provide nicely detailed and dynamic models for hobbyists to enjoy.  Guild Ball is no exception, and in fact has left us salivating over some of the nicest models we've ever had the pleasure of owning.  The poses are incredibly dynamic for the best part, and even the ones which aren't don't feel disappointing.

In terms of casting quality and assembly, Guild Ball's quality shines through.  There's very little cleanup work required on the miniatures, with mercifully few mold lines and little to no flash on those we've built so far.  They also fit together very nicely, and don't generally require the fine tools of a NASA engineer and the steady hands of a neurosurgeon to assemble them correctly.  The only criticism we'd put forward is that the blisters include character artwork, but not an image of the built miniature, so we have on a couple of occasions found ourselves wondering where pieces go.  In fact one of our Union models - Snakeskin - came with a dagger sheath which ended up in the spare bits box, as it didn't have an obvious place to go and the model seemed complete without it!

So that's all we really have to say on the subject of the teams.  The model quality is astounding, the player lineup happily full of variety, and the synergy throughout the teams works to give Guild Ball an excellent learning curve.
Tune in for the second half of the review, where we'll talk about the gameplay, including how that influence works, gathering momentum, and the consequences of beating an otter into unconsciousness.

Saturday, 30 May 2015

Batman Fluxx: A First Impressions Review/Preview

As most UK-based gamers will be well aware, this weekend is the 2015 UK Games Expo: an annual event held at the Hilton Metropole Hotel at Birmingham's NEC.  This year was the second year that we were in attendance, and whilst a general write-up will be forthcoming, there was something else we wanted to report on first and foremost.

A couple of weeks ago whilst pootling about on Twitter, we saw a retweet of an announcement for Batman Fluxx.  As fans of both of those words, this got pulses racing a little here at Games & Tea HQ.  It's scheduled for release in early August, so it was put right at the top of our shopping list and no more was thought of it.
What we didn't realise was that this weekend Looney Labs would have a table at the UK Games Expo, and that Batman Fluxx would be one of the games available for demo (along with a couple of other Fluxx prototypes, which we can't mention due to the copyright negotiations still ongoing).  So we had the opportunity to have a look through the deck, play a game with Fluxx creator Andrew Looney himself, and take a few photos along the way!  Seeing as we completely overlooked the fact that is was Games & Tea's 2nd birthday just a few days ago, this felt very much like a belated present!

The head Looney himself - Andrew Looney - proudly showing off one of the latest additions to the Fluxx family!
Now whilst we have done reviews of games in development before, this is the first time we've reviewed a game after just a single playthrough, and without a reference copy in front of us.  For this reason we've branded this as a first impressions review/preview, and will be putting up a full review once we've gotten our grubby mitts on our very own copy, and put it through its paces to determine its replay value etc.

As with our last few Fluxx reviews, we'll be dispensing with the basic gameplay mechanics, and just address the elements of Batman Fluxx which make it stand out from the rest of the family.  For those unfamiliar with Fluxx on the whole, take a quick look at our Monty Python Fluxx review, in which we explained the game's core mechanic.

So to start with the basics, Batman Fluxx is Fluxx with a Batman theme - yes, this may sound like we're stating the obvious, but the point we're getting at is that you'll find the familiar New Rule and Action cards in the deck which are fairly universal, eg. Draw 4, Trash a New Rule, Draw 2 and Use 'Em, etc etc.  And - as with all other Fluxxes - the backs of the cards are of the same universal design, meaning that they can be integrated into other decks.

Yes, this means you can have Pirate Batman Fluxx.

"Bring me the Jokarr!"
On the front of the cards, the first thing to notice is the illustration style.  Fluxx has always had a cartoony element to it, which both adds to its charm and serves to remind players that it's supposed to be a casual, fun game at its heart.  Whilst the recent Love Letter: Batman Edition featured illustrations from the New52 comics series, such serious imagery would look very much out of place in a Fluxx deck.  Instead, Batman Fluxx is filled with illustrations in the style of Batman: The Animated Series, which fits in very well with the general Fluxx feel.  Combined with the classy art-deco style sidebar and font, and Batman Fluxx is a game which is aesthetically very pleasing to play.

The Keepers in Batman Fluxx cover a range or characters, gadgets and locations.  As with most recent Fluxx incarnations, many of the Keepers have additional rules and abilities, just to keep the game moving at a more interesting pace.  Bruce Wayne, for example (above), must be discarded if Batman ever hits the table.  The Batmobile can be discarded to take an extra turn.  The Bank increases your draw by 2, and so on.  Other Keepers we remember off the top of our heads included Robin, Batgirl, Commissioner Gordon, the Bat Signal, and Wayne Manor.

The Creepers (of which we sadly forgot to take any photos, due to being so caught up in the gameplay!) are where the game truly becomes interesting.  Each Creeper in Batman Fluxx is one of Gotham City's famous supervillains, and so there are a fair few of them in the deck.  The Joker, Harley Quinn, Poison Ivy, The Penguin and The Riddler are all out in force, to name a few, so the chances are your favourite villain will be in there somewhere!  Now the most Creeper-heavy Fluxx edition to date is Zombie Fluxx, and it worked very well because many of the game's Goals required Creepers in order to achieve victory.  Batman Fluxx works in a similar way, with Crazy Love, for example, giving the win to the player with The Joker and Harley Quinn.  Now the interesting thing with Batman Fluxx - and the thing which makes its Creepers unique - is that if the active Goal doesn't include Creepers then no one can win if there are Creepers on the table.  This is a wonderful mechanic, first of all in that it gives players a Batman-style task of cleaning up the crime in Gotham City, and secondly in adding a whole new tactical element, as win conditions generally become harder.

That's basically all there is to say at this point about the new additions to the game!  In terms of how it all works, it does really capture the Batman theme while keeping things casual.  Things like the "no one can win" rule with the Creepers, Bruce Wayne's exodus from the table as soon as Batman appears, and the Bat-Signal's ability to 'summon' the dark knight from an opponent all fit together nicely.  The Goals we saw during our game were all nice little references to the cartoon/comics lore, such as Secretly His Daughter for having Commisioner Gordon and Batgirl (we are fans of Babs over here).  And of course the overall aesthetic is very pleasing, feeling very much like the cherry on top.

If we had to nit-pick (and as game reviewers, we do feel it's our duty), the win-condition difficulty increase as a result of the Creepers did feel like it would steer games of Batman Fluxx more towards longer play times than shorter ones.  Fluxx has always been renowned for games lasting anywhere from 90 seconds to 90 minutes, but the Creeper rule does seem to skew things more towards the latter, which may put off a few players who would normally consider Fluxx to be a filler game.
One thing we will be interested to see, however, is whether it can convert a few non-Fluxx fans.  It's always been a Marmite game in the gaming community, and we come heavily down on the 'love it' side of the line.  With Batman being so wildly popular, we can genuinely picture a few folks being swayed over onto our side, where we will be ready to greet them with hugs, cake and "I told you so's".

With a normal review this is where we'd do a summary breaking down the pros and cons, the price, average play time and so on, but seeing as this only a first impressions review we'll dispense with that until the full review in a couple of months time.  We will, however, quite happily give it a preliminary score based on our overall feelings from the day...


Saturday, 9 May 2015

Diary of a Roleplay Beginner #4: Taking Charge

Teamaster Rob here!  It's been a while since I last posted an article in the DoaRB series.  When I penned the first article in the series, it was intended as a shared experience to help new players see that taking a step into the big old hobby-world of roleplay needn't be so scary and overwhelming. There are so many systems out there, and so many people who take the hobby so seriously, that to someone starting out it can seem very intimidating, and this series of articles was intended to show the story of my own personal introduction into it all.
Article #1 in the series was an introduction, talking about my initial interest in the hobby, how I fell upon my first roleplay system (Privateer Press' Iron Kingdoms, if you were wondering), and the first session I ever sat in on, despite not participating.  Article #2 told the tale of my first session of active involvement, and how I slowly got to grips with the "Seriously, you can do ANYTHING!" mechanic of roleplays.  With my first session being purely narrative, Article #3 focused on the following session, which was my first taste of roleplay combat, as well as a few comments on my first negative roleplay experiences.
With those basics covered, the series dried up as I quite simply no longer considered myself to be a roleplay beginner.  Not a veteran, by any stretch of the imagination, but at the very least an enthusiastic amateur.
In the following year I had the pleasure of trying out another couple of systems; Firefly and Through the Breach, albeit with just a single session in each.  Again, I enjoyed the systems, and it was great to experience different rulesets, different GMs and different settings, not to mention the opportunity to play radically different characters.  But there was one feather left to add to my roleplay hat, and that's the topic of this article...

Enter the GM

That's right, the Teamaster is now the Gamemaster.  I've always enjoyed writing, and since getting started in the roleplay hobby I've been aching for a chance to get behind the wheel and run my own session, but - just like my entry into RP - the question of where to start reared its ugly head.
In terms of system, Iron Kingdoms seemed the logical choice - it was, after all, the system I was most experienced with.  From what I've gathered from my limited experience of the various systems, it does seem to be fairly standard practice to provide an example scenario with the rules, and Iron Kingdoms was no different.  There's a decent-length one shot session available to download from the Privateer Press website, providing a multiple-ended scenario, and all player characters, NPCs, and encounters laid out to take the bulk of the work off a new GM.  As I started to assemble a team of players, this scenario was the one I planned to use for the evening.

But, fortunately, my brain never ceases to run with new possibilities.  As tempting as the easy option was, it's always seemed like it would be more fulfilling to be capturing the imagination of your players and holding their attentions with a story of your own making, and so the Iron Kingdoms plan began to slip away in favour of something a little more ambitious, a little more exciting... a little more spacey...

Just because I adore board and card games, doesn't mean I don't enjoy my share of video games as well, and none more so than Bioware's Mass Effect trilogy.  Not only do I love the story of the games and the characters, but it's an incredible universe in which the games are set, and so I decided it would be a wonderful setting for my first roleplay.
This then moved me on to a brand new problem: which system should I use?
Iron Kingdoms may have been my most familiar, but it's not exactly compatible with a futuristic space adventure.  Storyweaver's High Space was a logical option, but would have required a fair chunk of reading and it wasn't a familiar system to any of my prospective players, so would have been slow going.  So I did the smartest thing any geek with a problem can do in this day and age: I threw it out to the internet!
Within 24 hours, @N20Games on Twitter threw back a suggestion of Fate - a name which vaguely rang a bell with my limited roleplay experience, but which I'd never looked into.  And ye gods, I was grateful for the suggestion!

Fate, from Evil Hat Productions.  For those unfamiliar with Fate, it's a rules-light, narrative-heavy roleplay system, designed to be generic enough to fit into any genre.  Unlike other systems which have their own established universes, Fate is meant for gamers who may want to run a roleplay set in their favourite franchise (Star Wars, Marvel, Game of Thrones etc), or simply based upon their own original concept.
For those who are absolute beginners to the GM world, there's also Fate Accelerated Edition (or FAE for short), which is effectively a set of quick-start rules for the system.  They're quick to learn, quick to teach, and seem quite fluid to play, so FAE ended up being the template upon which my Mass Effect one shot would be based.

So that left the small matter of the story!  At the time of posting this article the session is still a week away (and I will be uploading a follow-up article to talk about the results after the event), so I'm being cautious not to issue spoilers just in case any of my players may be reading!
Being good friends with The Hobbynomicon's Caustic Triton, we very often talk about roleplays, and some advice he gave me a while back about writing a session came back to me very quickly.  With a notepad and pen handy, and a decent knowledge of the background material already rattling around my grey matter, I started to write.
One of the worst things a GM can do to their players is make them feel railroaded.  A roleplay should feel like an open world to players, and if the GM is clearly funneling them down a narrow pathway then nothing they do will make the experience a good one.  With this in mind, I wrote out a nice, descriptive opening scene to set the tone, and then proceeded to set out a series of bullet-points, with branches off a number of them to account for player decisions.  To start with it seemed difficult, but once I'd got a very basic overall plot in my head, additional ideas started coming every hour or two, no matter where I was.  Within the space of a week I'd got a pile of maps drawn up, NPC details, and a list of key events.  I was pretty much ready to go on the story front, although more ideas continue to get added to the list of possible events for the session!

With a week and a half until the session, this left me with just enough time to indulge one of my favourite elements of the gaming hobby in general: miniature painting.
As much as I'd love for it to be the case, no one has released a series of Mass Effect miniatures to this date.  Mantic Games, however, have done some pretty damn good proxies in their Deadzone game.  Seeing as many of my Deadzone miniatures were assembled but unpainted from my release-day purchase of the game back in 2013, I dug out the box and began to paint.  With a week still to go, the lineup of player characters is starting to look pretty sweet...

Two humans, an asari, a quarian, a salarian and a turian are ready to report for duty, with a krogan next in line on the painting table.  A handful of NPCs are also lined up in case I have time to paint them, but if not then I'll be happy with each player having a painted miniature to use.

The Fate system (and FAE in particular) is quite easygoing when it comes to combat, so most of the session's going to be descriptive, but I am planning a couple of epic moments for the toys to come out and shine!

So I think that's all I can say for the moment without risking spoiler posts!  The session will be taking place next weekend, so hopefully I'll be able to come back with another update shortly afterwards, and talk about how well (or otherwise) it went!  So for now, keep rolling, and may the dice be ever in your favour.