Posts Tagged ‘Reviews’

Advent Reviews: Werewolves (of Miller’s Hollow)

Werewolves is the quintessential party game. I love playing it – unfortunately, it is difficult to gather enough people to play it.

What kind of game is this?

Werewolves is a funny kind of a game. It exists in many versions, and was played for a while without any commercially released edition. It was originally known as Mafia, and can also be found ind the guise of “Do you worship Cthulhu?” All that said, the version of the game that really made it famous was “The Werewolves of Miller’s Hollow”.

In any version, one player is the moderator. All other players receive a character card, showing whether they are a common villager, a werewolf hiding in the village, or one of a number of special characters, most of which are on the side of the villagers.

The game is played in a number of day/night cycles. Each night, the moderator tells everyone to close their eyes. When everybody has closed their eyes, the moderator tells the wolves to open their eyes and vote for whoever they want to eat that night. After the werewolves are done, a number of other characters can open their eyes, one at a time, in order to use their special powers – like the Seer, who will point to someone to find out whether they are a werewolf or not.

After the night phase, everybody opens their eyes, and the moderator tells them the results of the night: Who died, and what else happened? Then the players debate who they suspect of being a werewolf, and vote to lynch someone. The game ends when all the werewolves are dead, or when the werewolves overpower the villagers.

How many people should you play this with?

The more the merrier! I think a minimum for playing this is eight players and a moderator. But the game really shines when you have 10-15 players. This will make the game a fair bit longer, and the first player to die will be out for a fair while. This is unfortunate, but you can help it either by involving the dead players in the game, or by having them start a second game at some point.

What do I think of this game?

This game is so much fun! It hits a sweet spot between roleplaying and board gaming, and causes some really fun situations when everybody is slinging accusations back and forth. The rules are very light, and not very strict, but that is perfect for what the game is – not least because it makes it easy to bring new people into the game very quickly.

A few interesting things to note

How important artwork is. The difference in the feel between this version of the game and the one called “Ultimate Werewolf” is more or less just the artwork, and yet I much prefer Werewolves of Miller’s Hollow.

How fun it is to have a game you can customize so much. Each time, the moderator chooses a set of cards, which means none of the players can be entirely sure what’s in the pile. That keeps you on your toes.

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Advent reviews: Dominion

Today, I’m reviewing a household favorite: Dominion. It’s no accident that we have all but one expansion for this game (nor is it an accident which one we haven’t bought). My SO in particular is fond of it, and used to play it extensively on the free on-line service, Isotropic. That service has sadly closed, and has been replaced by an inferior commercial version, leaving us to play only the physical game.

What kind of game is this?

When biologists talk about a certain species or type of animal, they may refer to a “type specimen”, by which they mean the one used to define the type or kind of organism, and the yardstick by which you determine which other specimens belong to the same kind. Well, Dominion is the type specimen for the kind of game called a “deck-building game”.

In Dominion, each player starts with his own small deck of ten very basic cards. Throughout the game the game, players will add cards to their deck from a selection of cards, called “the supply”. In the supply is three types of money cards (gold, silver and copper), three types of victory cards (estates, duchies and provinces), one type of bad card (curses) and ten so-called “Kingdom cards”. The Kingdom cards vary from game to game, and includes some very different cards. Most of the cards are action cards that allow you to do things on your turn, like draw, play or buy more cards, but there are also special kinds of money and victory cards that change the way you buy cards or score at the end of the game.

The list of things you do on your turn is deceptively simple. On your turn, you:

  1. may play an action card from your hand.
  2. may play as many treasures as you want from your hand,
  3. may buy one card from the supply, depending on the money you have received from the action- and treasure cards you have played. Bought cards go to your discard pile
  4. put all played cards on the table, as well as any unplayed cards in your hand, in your discard pile, and draw five new cards.

…but of course it’s not that simple. Many action cards allow you to play more cards in your action phase, or they allow you to buy more cards in your buy phase, and so, you will often be playing five or ten action cards in your turn, before you play any treasures. Some cards allow you to do things to other players, while others allow you to react to things happening to you, even on other players’ turns. Many cards will tell you to “trash” (remove) cards from your deck, something that is an important element in many strategies.

The game ends when the most valuable victory card has sold out, or when three of the other piles of cards have sold out. Then you count all the victory points in your deck – the person with the most points is the winner.

How many people should you play this with?

According to the box, the game plays with 2-4 players – and I’d gladly play it with 2, 3, or 4 players. Playing with two players is in many ways a more strategic game than playing with three or four, but I would say it plays equally well with two, three and four players. You can also play it with 5 or 6, but I think I might recommend splitting up into two groups instead.

What do I think of this game?

If somebody asked me to point to a beautifully designed game, I might point to Dominion. The rules are simple, yet the depth of the game is immense. Despite the more than 200 different kingdom cards, all the cards interlock in neat and easily understandable ways. The designer of the game, Donald X. Vaccarino, has apparently stated that there is only one combination of cards that he would have prevented had he known of it. That is a testament to the thorough design of the game.

Playing Dominion can be very much a cerebral challenge. Even if you own all expansions and all 200+ different cards, each game will start with a set of ten different kingdom that you can use to construct your deck. As such, the main challenge in any game of Dominion is looking at the available cards, spotting synergies between different cards, and developing a strategy that will allow you to gain more victory points than your opponent.

An important part of advanced Dominion strategy is what is called “deck control” – controlling which cards are present in your deck. Adding a card to your deck means that card is more likely to appear in your hand, replacing other cards – so you must make sure each card is replacing less useful cards, instead of more useful cards. As such, trimming cards that are no longer useful can be a very strong move, as this improves the odds of drawing useful cards. 

All in all, for a 20-30 minute game, Dominion is a very deep game that has entertained us for many, many hours. The basic game is pretty simple to learn, but particularly once you start adding some of the more advanced expansions – like Dark Ages and Cornucopia – there is a lot of options to explore and experience with. But despite the multitude of different cards, the setup of the game limits the number of different cards you have to deal with at a time. While this game is definitely not for everyone, for those who like it, it contains hours and hours of gameplay.

A few interesting things to note

  • The game was one of five Mensa MindGames in 2009.
  • There are a few recurring themes throughout the expansion. Each expansion has at least one type of card that serves a similar function to the “Village” card of the original Dominon-box. Most of them have “village” in the title, like “Mining Village” or “Fishing Village”, while others are called “Hamlet”, “City” etc.
  • A number of expansions change the basic setup of the game. Prosperity adds another tier of money and victory cards (“Platinum” and “Colonies”) while Dark Ages changes the cards you start the game with, and some of the cards require particular cards be added to the setup that can’t be bought, but only gained in ways specified on the cards (“Spoils”, “Ruins”, “Mercenary” and “Madman”).

Advent reviews: Dixit

Dixit is one of my favorite games. Quick, engaging and beautiful, easy yet challenging, and full of creative juice.

What kind of game is this?

In Dixit, you have a deck of big cards, each with a different and very evocative piece of art on them. Each round, one player will select a card from their hand, give it a title (titles can be anything; I recently gave a “title” which was whistling a song), and put it face down on the table. Each other player will then select a card from their hand they think could carry that title, and put it with the first card. The selected cards are then shuffled, and put face up on the table. All players except for the first player will then look at the card, and try to guess which card was the first player’s. The first player will get points if at least one, but not all, of the other players guessed his card, while the other players will get points for guessing the first player’s card, and for each player who guessed their card.

This means that the first player wants to give a hint that is vague enough that not everyone will be able to guess it, but not so vague that nobody can guess it. The other players want to put out a card that everybody will think is the first card, and they want to find out which card the first player put out.

How many people should you play this with?

The box for Dixit Oddysey (which has better components and more rules variants than the original) says 3-12, though 8-12 is mostly for a team game (which I haven’t tried). Three is ok, but far from optimal. I think it shines at 5-6 players – you have a good amount of cards you have to decide between, but it will be your turn relatively often. 4, 7, and 8 are all fine as well – 4 means not so many options, 7-8 means almost too many options, and you won’t be giving a title very often (which is just fine by some; I kinda like doing it).

What do I think of this game?

This game is great. It is one of not very many games my mother will enjoy. It’s a lot of fun to try to guess which picture would inspire someone to a certain title, and trying to come up with a title really tickles your brain. Not to mention that the artwork is beautiful! It’s very evocative, and most of it is chock full of little details and ambiguous meanings.

It’s also not a very competitive game. I usually don’t care too much where I end up on the score track. The interesting thing is trying to pair titles and images, and hearing the other players explain why they picked each card. This also makes it a very good game to play with writing groups or improv theatre groups – or as warm up for a roleplaying game – as it really gets the creative juices flowing. And the cards can be used as writing prompts.

This is a game I’ve played with children of eight and people over sixty. Both have enjoyed it. Frame of reference is important, because that will help you understand the hints better, so being an outsider in a crowd of friends can make it more difficult to get a lot of points, but it is still an enjoyable game.

In other words, a good game for when you don’t want heavy strategy or fierce rivalry. Also a game that can work well with gamers and non-gamers alike, and one which I wouldn’t hesitate recommending as a game for non-gamers and families.

A few interesting things to note

  • Many games use the logic, maths and spatial skills of the brain. This uses another function of the brain: the so-called “theory of mind”. Theory of mind is the mind’s ability to deduce what other people are thinking. This is one of the things that autistic people usually lack.
  • If I recall, the rule-book gives the scores as 3 points for the first player if he gets it right, and 3 points for everyone who guessed his card. I usually change it, so that the people who guess his card gets two points. Otherwise, it’s actually a mechanical disadvantage to be the first player, as he can never get more than the initial three points, while another player can guess the right card AND have loads of people guess the card he put down. It’s no big deal, just something to consider.

The Remarkable Bastion

I have often backed the so-called Humble Bundle. The good thing about it is that you gain access to a number of interesting games, without having to look up an pay for each individual game. Some of the games I won’t ever get around to playing, but that’s ok – particularly because sometimes, I stumble across a little pearl like Bastion by Supergiant Games.

The Calamity

The game starts as our protagonist, known simply as The Kid, wakes up to find his world in ruins. Left are fractions of the old world floating in the open space, the rest destroyed by something called simply “the Calamity”.

Soon The Kid encounters another survivor who has made his home in The Bastion, a safe haven that will protect them in the wasteland around them, as long as they will provide it with cores and shards to power it. Most of the game, then, The Kid travels from place to place in search of these crystals of power, unlocking  or improving six buildings as he does so.

Challenging and varied.

The basic gameplay seems pretty straightforward. Your mission takes you through a number of levels, fighting a host of different monsters. You start out with only a single weapon, a great big hammer, but as time goes by, you gather 11 different weapons. At any given time, you can carry two different weapons and one special skill, changing only between levels and at very occasional armories scattered around the landscape.

And you’ll want to change. Every weapon is used in its own distinct way, from the hammer that requires you to stand still to hit an area to the dueling pistols that you should fire very rapidly. Each weapon has five levels of upgrades that you can apply to it, and each can be explored using the proving grounds that pose challenges to test your mastery of each weapon.

Finally, you can test out different outfits by going to one of four dream places, each sending waves of enemies at you while the narrator tells you something of the background of one of the principal characters. Winning here is also one of the best ways to gain more fragments – the currency of the game, fragments of the old world.

Winning in these dream gauntlets is no easy matter, and is one of several things that mostly take the grind out of what could have been a rather grindy game. You can’t return to a level that you have already defeated, meaning you won’t have an incentive to go back to complete each level as you will in some games. Instead, you will be able to buy anything you missed – for fragments, of course – from the “lost and found,” one of the buildings of the bastion. The dream levels are quite different from each other, and each outfit handles each dream world quite differently. This gives you an incentive to return to each several times, besides just the fragments earned.

All in all, the gameplay of Bastion is very solid handiwork. It doesn’t strike me as groundbreaking, but it is interesting to experiment with, and it’s challenging without being frustratingly difficult. The gameplay is not, however, what makes Bastion such a remarkable gameplay experience.

 

What makes it remarkable, instead, is the way it tells the story of the game. The story is told by a gruff narrator, who is also present as one of only four characters in the game. These characters are nothing special, really – just the four people who survived the Calamity. Now, they are trying to find a way to get along in the post-calamity world.

This creates a story that works on so many layers: We experience each character’s emotional turmoil at the same time as we unravel the horrible tale of two peoples who couldn’t find a way to get along. Focusing on a relatively small number of characters means the game can dwell on each of them in turn, revealing why they act as they do.

Most of the story is told as voiceovers to the action levels. In this way, the player listens to it out of the corner of his ear while he is busy keeping the Kid alive. The narration is extremely well written, evocative without being emotional, indirect and intriguing without being confusing or coy.

Add to that the rather stunning soundtrack, swinging from melancholy through happy to intense. It mixes sounds of hammers on metal and bluegrass guitar with airy synth and dreamy song. All in all, the soundtrack helps give Bastion a very special mood to it that supports the story well.

A Bastion of Storytelling

All in all, Bastion is quite a positive experience. It’s an evocative experience that reveals one way that games can tell a really good story using relatively simple means, applied judiciously. When the game is done, I want to fire up the “New Game Plus,” not only to play with my toys some more, but also to revisit the story in the light of what is revealed throughout the game.

I have often backed the so-called Humble Bundle. The good thing about it is that you gain access to a number of interesting games, without having to look up an pay for each individual game. Some of the games I won’t ever get around to playing, but that’s ok – particularly because sometimes, I stumble across a little pearl like Bastion.

The Calamity

The game starts as our protagonist, known simply as The Kid, wakes up to find his world in ruins. Left are fractions of the old world floating in the open space, the rest destroyed by something called simply “the Calamity”.

Soon The Kid encounters another survivor who has made his home in The Bastion, a safe haven that will protect them in the wasteland around them, as long as they will provide it with cores and shards to power it. Most of the game, then, The Kid travels from place to place in search of these crystals of power, unlocking  or improving six buildings as he does so.

Challenging and varied.

The basic gameplay seems pretty straightforward. Your mission takes you through a number of levels, fighting a host of different monsters. You start out with only a single weapon, a great big hammer, but as time goes by, you gather 11 different weapons. At any given time, you can carry two different weapons and one special skill, changing only between levels and at very occasional armories scattered around the landscape.

And you’ll want to change. Every weapon is used in its own distinct way, from the hammer that requires you to stand still to hit an area to the dueling pistols that you should fire very rapidly. Each weapon has five levels of upgrades that you can apply to it, and each can be explored using the proving grounds that pose challenges to test your mastery of each weapon.

Finally, you can test out different outfits by going to one of four dream places, each sending waves of enemies at you while the narrator tells you something of the background of one of the principal characters. Winning here is also one of the best ways to gain more fragments – the currency of the game, fragments of the old world.

Winning in these dream gauntlets is no easy matter, and is one of several things that mostly take the grind out of what could have been a rather grindy game. You can’t return to a level that you have already defeated, meaning you won’t have an incentive to go back to complete each level as you will in some games. Instead, you will be able to buy anything you missed – for fragments, of course – from the “lost and found,” one of the buildings of the bastion. The dream levels are quite different from each other, and each outfit handles each dream world quite differently. This gives you an incentive to return to each several times, besides just the fragments earned.

All in all, the gameplay of Bastion is very solid handiwork. It doesn’t strike me as groundbreaking, but it is interesting to experiment with, and it’s challenging without being frustratingly difficult. The gameplay is not, however, what makes Bastion such a remarkable gameplay experience.

What makes it remarkable, instead, is the way it tells the story of the game. The story is told by a gruff narrator, who is also present as one of only four characters in the game. These characters are nothing special, really – just the four people who survived the Calamity. Now, they are trying to find a way to get along in the post-calamity world.

This creates a story that works on so many layers: We experience each character’s emotional turmoil at the same time as we unravel the horrible tale of two peoples who couldn’t find a way to get along. Focusing on a relatively small number of characters means the game can dwell on each of them in turn, revealing why they act as they do.

Most of the story is told as voiceovers to the action levels. In this way, the player listens to it out of the corner of his ear while he is busy keeping the Kid alive. The narration is extremely well written, evocative without being emotional, indirect and intriguing without being confusing or coy.

Add to that the rather stunning soundtrack, swinging from melancholy through happy to intense. It mixes sounds of hammers on metal and bluegrass guitar with airy synth and dreamy song. All in all, the soundtrack helps give Bastion a very special mood to it that supports the story well.

A Bastion of Storytelling

All in all, Bastion is quite a positive experience. It’s an evocative experience that reveals one way that games can tell a really good story using relatively simple means, applied judiciously. When the game is done, I want to fire up the “New Game Plus,” not only to play with my toys some more, but also to revisit the story in the light of what is revealed throughout the game.

Soulless – an Alexia Tarabotti novel

Take Jane Austen, transplant her to steampunk Victorian London and throw some vampires and werewolves into the high society setting and you’ve got the world of Soulless, the first book in Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series, featuring Alexia Tarabotti as the strong-willed female protagonist

Soulpunk

Miss Alexia Tarabotti has no soul. In a London where soulful vampires and werewolves are the cool kids in the class, with many fine men and women aspiring to immortality, having no soul is mostly a minor inconvenience for Alexia. What is more of an inconvenience is that she has with two beautiful half-sisters from her mother’s second marriage, which leaves Alexia as the weird spinster sister, who has even inherited a slightly tan skin from her Italian father. Alexia, however, is nothing if not practical, and is coping admirably with her fate.
Her life takes a surprising turn, however, when miss Tarabotti accidentally kills a shockingly ill informed vampire trying to feed from her. This turn of events brings Lord Maccon, Her Majesty’s chief supernatural law enforcement officer back into Alexia. Lord Maccon is a distressingly uncouth fellow, being a Scotsman, and a werewolf alpha to boot, and he and Alexia have no desire to spend more time than necessary in each other’s company. Unfortunately, Lord Maccon is also in possession of a powerful animal magnetism and a preference for women with southern complexion and wide hips. And of course, the dead vampire is not the only peculiar thing to happen to miss Tarabotti, necessitating more encounters with the Scottish Lord.

Austenpunk

The genre is quite unequivocally steampunk. Dirigibles rule the skies, weird aetheric devices are state-of-the-art, and weird pseudo-scientific theories on the origins of vampires and werewolves abound.

The Steampunk genre is a curious fish. In most iterations, it is a genre that says: what would Victorian times be like if the laws of physics were radically different, allowing for very different, much flashier science, with the resulting very different social dynamics. At a glance, it might seem like a kind of historical science fiction, but that’s not really where it’s at. It’s usually more proper to call it a kind of Science Fantasy, a genre that covers fantasy stories with technology playing a significant part. Star Wars is of course the prime example of this, with its fairytale setting and it’s magic – sorry, force – wielding knights.

The Parasol Protectorate doesn’t go to those kinds of extremes. In many ways, it keeps the weirdness relatively low. The supernatural and the weird science is there, but it never takes over completely. There’s still room for the other part of this weird hybrid creature, stitched together in the literary lab of Dr. Calliger: namely Austenesque society comedy/drama. Particularly the first parts of the book are very much in the veins of Jane Austen, though with a comedic touch and a modern view of sexuality. The latter is particularly revealed as the book goes on, and Miss Alexia finds herself in some scenes that Austen would never have presumed to engage in, involving naked men and (gasp) physical intimacy!
The sexuality certainly has its place in the book. One of the interesting points in the book is the clash between repressed Victorian society and the more basic instincts of the supernatural characters. I would, however, question the gratuity of it. While this reader enjoyed the description of Alexia’s almost scientific exploration of the art of kissing, certain scenes towards the end of the book add little to the story, and might unkindly be speculated to be the author’s secret erotic fantasies in literary form. And while the Austenian tone works well to underline Alexia’s social hardships, the end of the book is drawn long by purely social scenes that seem to add little development to the story. The last parts of the book might easily have been cut short by several pages without losing any plot development. A shame, because the pacing of the book up until that point had been very good.

Punk Deluxe

The book in general is very good. It is a light and easy read, and it successfully balances the Austenesque with steampunk so that societal intriguing can take over when supernatural action runs out of steam – and vice versa. The characters are very well portrayed, particularly the main characters, and very few are portrayed in an entirely one-sided manner. Unfortunately, the villains fall in the latter category, being treated to very little “screen” time, being added almost as a pretext towards the end of the book. Hopefully, this will be different in the following instalments of the series.
And so, I fully recommend Soulless. It’s not a perfect book, but it is witty, entertaining and fresh, without being too much of any. It’s even a book I might recommend to some non-steampunk friends as a good book regardless of the fantastic elements.

[Reading Group] Oculus Tertius

Oculus tertius was, as far as I can remember, the first Fastaval scenario I ever played. I have mixed memories of it; part of this, I think, was due to the group I played it with, another is that we were a little young to be playing the game – I remember resisting the idea of playing a female character.

Now I’ve come back to look at the game, and find out what this game is really about. Continue reading

Return with the Slaver

I have maintained radio silence for some months while I finished my thesis and got used to the fact that there is a life on the other side of graduation. Now I’m back!

I am unfortunately not currently in a situation where I foresee a lot of roleplaying taking place in my immediate future. For this reason, the next while may see me returning to my original mission statement for this blog, dealing with storytelling in all its forms, and not just a roleplaying blog. I may post reviews and thoughts of/on books I read, films I watch, and radio I hear. I also foresee some posts on a couple of computer games, just as I may well discuss boardgames. Also, don’t be surprised if non-fictional storytelling crops up – I didn’t graduate in journalism for nothing.

But for now, I’ve got a couple of roleplaying posts coming up. The reading group is returning after a hiatus – keep an eye on this spot (and this) on the 15th of December, when a review of Occulus Tertius, the first Fastaval scenario, I can remember playing, should crop up. And the rest of this post is dedicated to the latest scenario I’ve played AND GM’ed: The Slaver from Ascalon, a Red Box Hack hack scenario by Johannes Busted LarsenContinue reading

[Movie Review] Avatar

Movie Poster for Avatar

The movie poster for Avatar, featuring the Na'vi princess.

Since it came out, James Cameron’s Avatar has been hailed as a masterpiece, the harbinger of a new era of film-making. A film to bush the boundaries, and to boldly go where no film has gone before.

And it is. The story is epic, the animation and camerawork is grand, and the idea is genius. There is no doubt in my mind that this film will be the film of the year. It will win at every feasible award show, and its Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic ratings will skyrocket. All this, because (at least, it might seem so) that’s how the film was made. Would you expect anything less from the maker of Titanic?

Dancing with Pocahontas in space.

In a future world where humanity are colonizing planets far away in space, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) wakes up on Pandora, a moon circling the planet Polyphemus in the Alpha Centauri system. He’s there to pilot a so-called “Avatar,” an organism, made by combining DNA from the indigenous Na’vi with DNA from a human. The human providing the DNA can then take control of the organism thus produced.

Except Jake wasn’t meant to be an avatar pilot. His deceased identical twin brother was. Jake is a crippled ex-marine, while his brother, like the rest of the avatar-team, was a scientist.

Jake is not particularly enthusiastic about the project – nor is the leader of the Avatar project, Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), thrilled about having him and not his brother. The tough chief of security, ex-marine colonel Quaritch, on the other hand, is thrilled to have a marine on the inside of the wuss scientist team, who can tell him all about the Na’vi – such as how to get rid of them most efficiently.

Of course, Jakes attitude to the whole thing changes when he meets the Na’vi and is accepted into their tribe where the scientists have all been rejected. It can come as no great shock that Jake will soon face the consequences of the humans’ advances on Pandora, and pick a side in the inevitable conflict between Na’vi and humans. Guess who he’ll choose…

2D in 3D

Avatar is, in most ways, an amazing accomplishment. The digitally produced sceneries are breathtaking, not least when viewed in 3D. The alien biology of Pandora is very original, while still seeming believable and coherent. The human technology seems just as well constructed. You get the impression that Cameron has gone out of his way to listen to scientists and take their views and ideas seriously.

The composition of the film is just as impressive. The pacing of the hectic and the subtle, the bad and the good – it works. The plot is believable, yet still contains surprises.

Most of the characters work just as well. Jake is a brilliant protagonist – we can relate to him, and while he starts out with several issues he needs to resolve, he is still likeable, especially as we see the good sides of him come out. Sigourney Weaver’s character is the same: a scientist with a bad attitude, but a heart of gold.

But it’s not all just peachy. First of all, the Na’vi seem too much like stereotypical Indians – many of their lines could have come out of Dances with Wolves, or similar, white-man-goes-native style films.

Secondly, the villains are two dimensional and somewhat unoriginal. The middle manager, doing anything for profit and the Marine colonel with a thirst for battle are both characters we’ve seen in loads of films. Especially the marine colonel urgently needs something to properly distinguish him from the million movie characters like him. Why on earth is he so battle thirsty? Why has he decided the Na’vi are bad? We are never told.

Just as some characters seem shallow, certain facets of the plot seem a bit tired. Why another film where a giant corporation tramples all decency and human compassion? Another one to put on the pile with Alien (all four of them), Blade Runner, I Robot, Robocop, Terminator – should I continue? Couldn’t we for once see a film where the men with the money see the error of their ways and help find a common ground? And why another film about a white man who meets the noble wild, learns of their ways, and leads them to victory against his former allies? I saw Dances with Wolves, thank you very much – I have no need to see it again in space.

The inevitability of academy

But when you’re watching the film, these things are minor, and very forgettable, annoyances. You’ll be far busier being amazed by the glorious images and the riveting story. This film is a shoe in for the technical Oscars, pushing the boundaries of computer assisted filmmaking, and doing wonders in sound and music. And while I can’t see any of the acting meriting awards, the director and scriptwriters are likely to receive nominations, at the very least.

Because this film is a milestone. It pushes boundaries of what can be done with computers, and sets new standards for all coming films to aspire to. And, what to me seems just as important, it sheds light on some neglected parts of what science fiction can do.

All in all: there are few, if any, excuses for not watching this film. Go on, don’t be shy. But do take it for what it is: a grand, masterfully produced, Hollywood blockbuster, tailored to be just that.

Oh, and if you don’t know anything about Avatar – take a look at the trailer:

To be honest, it pretty much says what I just said above…

[Reading Group] Tropical Zombies

So, I finally got around to reviewing the scenario that I chose myself: Tropical Zombies!

I stumbled upon Tropical Zombies around a year ago, when I needed a scenario to play with the people in the Swansea Roleplaying Society. That required a scenario with few enough handouts that I could translate it in the minimal time I had available. And for that, Tropical Zombies is ideal. All the characters are one page – between them! Yep, that’s right, two rows of three characters, with a picture, basic stats like “Part,” “Sex,” and “Age,” a name, selected skills, selected weapons, background and a quote – and only the background is in Danish. Just what I needed.

But I didn’t just pick it for the easy translatable characters. I picked it – and opened it in the first place to look at the characters – because it looked fun. And guess what? It is.

Haff you met my gut Freund, Der Doktor?

Six American teenagers find themselves stuck in the Amazon jungle when their bus is pushed over a cliff. Luckily, a sleepy little town just happens to nearby. The townsfolk all praise Der Doktor, who lives nearby and is the great benefactor of the town. Soon, however, the peace is gone as zombies descend upon the unfortunate teens.

The characters parody classic horror movie cliché as much as the plot does. We have Janet Goodgirl and Mary-Lou Bimbeau, as well as Jonathan Gheek and DUNC. They each fulfill a character cliché, such as the “token asian” and the “boorish quarterback,” and each character description contains an estimate of how long that character is likely to survive, based on their moral character and likeability. The skills further enforce the stereotypes, giving DUNC “Beer Drining 85 %” and “Cow  Tipping 75 %,” while Janet Goodgirl has “Moralize 70 %” and “Hysterical Screaming 45 %.”

The final part of the scenario is a few advices on how to enforce the movie cliché. In many ways, a very minimalist scenario without long preambles, gm instructions or NPC descriptions.

And yet, it works

The scenario, as written, is in many ways as the movies it emulates: very typical and without grand inventions in plot or production. Sure, the layout and drawings are quite good, and the whole thing is mercifully brief and easy to navigate. But the scenes are sketchy, and the plot is linear and railroading. As I said in the beginning of this review, I played this scenario with great success. So, what’s the secret to success in the zombie infested jungle?

To metaplay.

One game sidebar contains the advice to play the game as a B-movie. Not just to plot it as a B-movie, and to use as many clichés as possible. No, to actually pretend this is a cheap movie, and to describe how microphones enteres the picture frame, and how you can clearly see the cheap make-up on the zombies. The bus-driver and the shopkeeper are played by the same actor, and the scenery may fall down at any moment. The players are really actors, and the GM is the director – who may yell “cut!” and demand another take of the scene. It’s a brilliant idea, and one that can quickly take the scenario from the amusing to the absolutely hilarious.

When I played it, however, we took it one step further.

Anyone will have heard horrible tales of on-set drama. And honestly – who believe that Tom Cruise or Mel Gibson really are the heroes they portray?

With that in mind, we played a significant part of the game outside of the camera’s view, with the actors playing out their own personal intrigues and petty fights. And of course, the actors weren’t necessarily anything like their characters. “Michael Goodguy” was really a lecherous, stuck-up SOB, who was disliked by everyone – and so on. The result was absolutely, rolling-on-the floor hilarious. As a gm, I often didn’t get to say a word – but I didn’t mind, because I was in stitches by the players’ antics.

And so, that is the beauty of Tropical Zombies. It’s not what is in the text of the scenario that is so brilliant, but what it allows the players and the GM to do.

So if you want to have a night of fun without any pretensions to art or deep emotional development, Tropical Zombies is definitely worth a look.

So, my usual summaries:

What can we learn?

  • Sometimes, the brilliance is not was is in the scenario, but what isn’t (even if a scenario should always strive to guide the gm and players well).
  • A character doesn’t need to be long to be useful for great play.

Who should play this game?

  • Anyone can play this game.
  • The game game will benefit from players who are able to improvise to the benefit of the group. That means finding a tone and doing silly without it derailing the game completely, and without hogging the spotlight. Also, it requires players who can relax, and accept the silly – pretentious or artsy players may not find the game funny.
  • The gm should be equally comfortable railroading with extreme prejudice, guiding the players along the predetermined plotline, and sitting back and allow the players to take over the game with their riffing clichés and wackiness.

Written too hastily, and not penetrating as deeply as I had hoped when choosing the scenario. But, alas, my time is brief at the end of the year, and I’d rather get it done (like they do in Copenhagen (one may still hope in this 11th hour)) than have a perfect review stuck in my head.

[Reading Group] And the next piece is…

I have, by a unanimous vote (Johs was the man, and the vote was his) been chosen to select the next scenario for the reading group.
That left me to decide which criteria to use. One of the great things about the reading group has been getting to read many different and interesting shapes the genre “scenario” can take. So I could definitely choose something that I really want to read.
On the other hand, one of the main reasons for this whole endeavour is to highlight scenarios that have not received enough attention, scenarios that we think other people should read – and play, of course.

And so, these are the scenarios I considered, but didn’t choose (a list I provide as much for my own benefit, so that I may come back to it next time I have to choose):

  • Den Gale Kong George: I played this at my first Fastaval, and was very impressed with it. Besides, I would like to read one of Mikkel’s scenarios, but have never gotten around to it. HOWEVER: It’s not as if Mikkel needs advertising, being already one of the brightest stars in the Fastaval sky.
  • Dragens Dom: I’ve read, but not played this scenario. It looks neat – HOWEVER I have no personal experience with it, and since I’ve already read it, I would rather read something else.
  • Occulus Tertius: I played this a long, looong time ago – in fact, it may have been my first Fastaval scenario ever. HOWEVER: I have no idea about the qualities of it, and remember it as a rather conventional game – so I don’t really want to endorse it before I’ve read it.
  • Memoratoriet: I’ve always been curious about this game. Besides, it’s a larp, and I want to further larps as a scenario form. HOWEVER Morten was one of the writers on Memoratoriet, so it wouldn’t be proper for him to review it. Besides, I want to play it, not read it. And is it even available online?

This leaves this as my choice:

  • Nantunaku Manga, by Malik Hyltoft. This was the first scenario I played at Fastaval 2005, and I had the great privilege of having Malik as GM for it. It won the Audience Otto that year, something I thought was well deserved – it was the same year I played Den Gale Kong George, and while that was quite an experience, it was nowhere near as much fun as Nantunaku Manga. Since then, I have run it a couple of time, and I have a great fondness for it – for several reasons that I shall not gush about here, but wait until the proper review, so that a) you’ll have a reason to read that, and b) my co-reviewers won’t be influenced by me in their reading of the scenario.

And there you have it. I am anxious to know whether you will be as fond of it as I have been, and whether my recollection of it can stand up to scrutiny.