Monday, February 25, 2013

Living Card Games

Several years ago, Fantasy Flight Games introduced a new method for distributing card games.  They acquired the licenses for the Call of Cthulhu and Game of Thrones collectible card games and rebranded them as Living Card Games.  The idea was simple - produce high quality, competitive card games using unique licenses and mechanics without the need for random booster packs.  This is accomplished by releasing smaller, monthly expansions with a fixed variety of cards - every player who buys a chapter/battle/data/asylum pack knows that they're getting the exact same cards as everyone else who bought the same pack.  With a fixed and card pool, deckbuilding and competitive play becomes less about who can afford the rarest, most powerful cards and more about who can use the card pool to create the most powerful deck.

For the most part, the system works incredibly well.  Monthly releases of fixed cards end up being cheaper than their collectible counterparts.  Players can swing by their local game store to get the latest cards and tweak existing decks or use their new options to try something completely new.  Game stores can profit from consistent monthly purchases and new players can start playing any of the LCGs knowing that there is a fixed card pool with little to no secondary market for purchasing single, powerful rare cards at outrageous prices.  With new games like Android: Netrunner and the Star Wars Card Game, players can easily get every card in the set on a regular basis without resorting to buying boxes (or cases) of booster packs

The system isn't perfect, though.  For long running games like Game of Thrones or Call of Cthulhu, the monthly releases over the years have created massive card pools.  New players looking to start these older games have to sift through dozens of packs and expansions to put a deck together.  Without guidance from sites such as Card Game DB, this can be very daunting.  Competitive play is also a challenge.  While there is a vibrant tournament community for LCGs, my own personal experience trying to get regular play days for Game of Thrones at my local game store has been a rocky road.  With games like Magic: the Gathering offering programs like Friday Night Magic, the Organized Play kits that retailers can order from Fantasy Flight pale in comparison.

For my money (in this case, literally), the benefits of the LCG system far outweigh the drawbacks.  I like knowing exactly how much I'm going to be spending on a game and having something that is regularly expanded upon helps satisfy the itch of playing a game that grows and changes as time goes on.  Despite needing players and organizers to put a little more effort into it, the Organized Play system from FFG has some great rewards and is growing more and more each year.  The LCG system is definitely working and I look forward to seeing more releases both from FFG and from other companies that might look to imitate the format.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

First Impressions: Star Wars: Edge of the Empire Beginner Game

I recently had the opportunity to run a few friends through the Star Wars: Edge of the Empire Beginner Game by Fantasy Flight Games.  While I'm not quite ready for a full review, I thought I'd discuss what I liked, what I didn't like and what I'm wary on.

For starters, the components are excellent.  The pre-generated character folios have some great full color art right on the front.  It's easy to look at Oskara, the Twi'lek bounty hunter or 41-VEX, the droid colonist and get a good impression of what to expect from the character.

A nice spread of all the Beginner Game's components - look at them folios!
The proprietary dice are very nice, high quality polyhedrons in a set of color blind friendly shapes and colors that make them very easy to distinguish from one another.  The game also comes with a staggering array of cardboard tokens to represent player characters, non-player characters and ships as well as a full-color, double sided map.  Really, the only complaint I have with the components is with the box it all comes in.  I'm not sure if Fantasy Flight was just thinking folks would toss the box and keep all the tokens and dice in bags, but it's probably the flimsiest cardboard I've seen from them outside of their Print on Demand line of mini-expansions.

The adventure itself is a very simple affair.  It's extremely linear and introduces game mechanics slowly from encounter to encounter.  The core mechanic of the game is in building dice pools based on your character's abilities and proficiencies.  Once the pool is complete, players roll and see if they can get more success symbols than failure symbols.  If so, then they've succeeded and whatever task they were attempting.  However, the dice also have symbols such as Threat, Advantage, Despair and Triumph which have no direct affect on whether a roll succeeds, but may change the situation around a given roll.  The adventure slowly integrates new options for interpreting these additional symbols.

The varied results of the dice pool mean that a GM has to be on their toes to react and explain the action based on what is rolled, but the Beginner Game has plenty of tables and charts to easily identify all the options available to players and GMs alike.  The game also has a fantastic initiative system which allows players to decide who goes in which initiative slot during combat - a subtle change from more traditional RPGs that I think will have a positive effect on players all around.

So where do I stand?  Well, I'm definitely excited to play some more.  I haven't had this good of a time roleplaying in the Star Wars universe since Wizards of the Coast's Saga Edition.  I have a good track record with Fantasy Flight's RPGs and this one has potential.  I love the dice system and how it opens up a lot of options for players and GMs to interpret the dice pool.  However, I am anxious to see the rules for character creation and how deep they go.  Additionally, I have no idea how the Force is going to be handled and that can make or break any Star Wars game.

The core rulebook has a nebulous release date of "somewhere in the second quarter of 2013".  I've got one on preorder at my friendly local gaming store, but until then I'll be running a few more sessions with the Beginner Game contents just to put it through its paces and test these core mechanics backwards and forwards.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

I'll choose the purple ships. Blue? Wait... Teal?

If you were to sit down and play a game with me, the odds are pretty good that you'd learn something about my genetics.  If said game had different colored pieces for each player, you'd notice that I tend to go for either black, white or something very prominent like yellow.  The reason for this is because I suffer from deuteranomoly, commonly known as red-green color blindness.   For me, colors like reds & greens or blues & purples have a tendency to blend together, making them tough to distinguish from one another.  This can make some games frustrating to play if hues are too similar or if the lighting in our play area is too dim.

Some facts about color blindness 

Someone who is color blind is often thought of as not being able to distinguish any colors at all - seeing the world in black, white and gray.  In reality, the vast majority of people classified as being "color blind" can see colors, but they are often skewed or tend to blend together.  Red-green color blindness is the most common form.  It occurs in approximately 8% of the male population, 0.5% of the female population and accounts for 99% of all color blindness.  After that is blue-yellow color blindness which is only present in approximately 0.01% of the entire human population.  Total color blindness is a very rare and serious vision condition which inflicts roughly 0.003% of the entire human population.

From Left to Right - Original Image, Deuteranope (red-green) Simulation, Protanope (blue-yellow) Simulation

Now, here's an example.  Most of you should be able to tell the difference in these images.  I, on the other hand, have a hard time distinguishing the left and center images from each other at all and the rightmost image is just slightly different.  As you can imagine, this kind of deficiency can throw a serious wrench in gaming since so many games rely on colorful iconography to relay important information.

Dealing with deficiency

In most cases, my red-green problem is just a minor inconvenience, but color blindness of any type presents a unique challenge for game designers and can become an issue for groups of players who have one or more color blind individuals among them.  One of the best positive examples of this is the Ticket to Ride by Days of Wonder.

I won't go into a huge breakdown of the rules for Ticket to Ride, but there is a fair amount of color matching that needs to be done between the cards and the different train routes.  In addition, each player has a unique set of colored trains that they use to mark who has claimed which route.  It can be a huge mess and, in fact, I have a really hard time playing the mobile app Ticket to Ride Pocket because the greens and oranges tend to blend together.  However, Days of Wonder has made the boardgame itself (and the iPad version of the app) much more color blind friendly by including shapes on the route spaces that correspond to shapes printed on the cards, making it easier for me to match them to each other.

Where shapes are impractical (perhaps your game has too much iconography as it is), then bright primary colors can succeed.  Runewars by Fantasy Flight Games is a great example.  The 4 different factions in this empire-building wargame are light blue, dark purple, red and green.  Having a lighter blue against the darker purple makes them easier to distinguish from one another and the red and green pieces are colored using very stark, bright hues.

A selection of components from the Runewars: Banner of War expansion
Boardgamegeek is also chock-full of resources for various games to make them more color blind friendly.  Usually, these take the form of reference sheets or alternate component lists.  Last but not least, if you have any type of color blindness or know someone who does and it seems like a game company hasn't taken this into consideration, contact them!  Most game companies appreciate any sort of feedback that will help them make future releases more attractive to prospective players.

Some helpful links

This humble article could have easily turned into a discourse on ocular genetics.  The subject is pretty fascinating, so here are just a few links to websites where you can learn more!