Thursday, February 26, 2015

Mistfall Rogues Gallery: Of Beasts and Men

For ages beastmen were the most dangerous enemies of mankind and a constant threat always lingering beneath what humans believed to be the borders of their lands. Tough and ferocious, they have proven over time that they should never be underestimated, even when their simplicity might imply they are less of a threat than some of the creatures inhabiting the dangerous world of Mistfall.
Art by Enggar Adirasa

Rage and Resilience

Venturing into the wilderness, humanity would always find the same enemies waiting there: beasts of prey ready to defend their hunting grounds – or make do with new and different game that had decided to enter their territory on their own. And things got even more dangerous, when the Duskfather willed to elevate animal hunters and use them to create a race more similar to humans – but more ferocious and easier to control.

Natural hunters and warriors, beastmen usually employ a simple strategy: striking fast and hard. Their inborn resilience and toughness makes them difficult to repel, especially when in the heat of battle they make use of their inner rage to strike even harder at whoever stands in their way. Whenever able to tap into the potential of their true ferocity, beastmen become more than a match for Heroes seeking passage through their lands. The beasts of pray display similar features, and although less resilient, they may make up for the lack with sheer numbers and the relentlessness with which they stalk their prey.

Wildlanders in the Game

In a way, fighting beasts and beastmen is simple – although not necessarily easy – matter and players should never underestimate the sheer power and stamina the denizens of the wilderness demonstrate. Especially when augmented with magic of the shamans and the fact, that some of the beasts and beastmen will not be discarded when other enemies leave the game – making elimination the only viable option.

When facing off against beasts and beastmen players should also pay special attention to how easy it is to enrage these enemies, often allowing them to attack faster or hit harder. And this can make beastmen no less formidable than the devious Borderlanders or the terrifying undead.

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Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Pros and cons of standardizing in board games

Standardizing - yay or nay?

To even begin the discussion about standardizing game components, we need to ask ourselves if this is an actual improvement.

Having dedicated lately more than the fair share of my time to publishing rather than designing, I realized that there is a downside of standardizing - it kills some of the creativity of designers (myself included) on the altar of delivering a marketable, user-friendly, industry standard product. The designer in me is trying to fight the other side of my board gaming personality (the publisher) screaming for more freedom and less standard components. 

I - the designer - wish to have a giant board in one of my upcoming titles depicting a detailed map of the world, something which would make the War of the Ring giant board seem average, but I - the publisher - will most likely deny this request on ground of being unreasonable, too expensive and almost impossible to manufacture.

And that's not all... I - the gamer - had the pleasure of opening 46 game boxes bought in Essen and some of them gave me great joy of discovering clever assembly mechanisms and cute little tweaks which made some games special right of the box, while some others had some of the most twisted annoying components that went straight to the "I am not emotionally equipped to deal with this" shelf.

So, perhaps there's a middle ground and an agreement can be sought by the dreamy designer, the pragmatic publisher and the exigent gamer. 

Almost two years ago when NSKN Games was even younger than today, we decided to approach board game publishing with a specific set of mind - making each game component as functional as possible and packing everything in the least possible amount of space.

Same size boxes

In a post on the NSKN Games website called "Less is more" we described this "discovery" and its core principles. We adheres to these principles fully and Exodus: Proxima Centauri (revised edition), Praetor, Progress: Evolution of Technology and Versailles - board games published by NSKN Games since then - are all built accordingly. Our two upcoming titles for the first half of 2015 - Exodus: Edge of Extinction and Mistfall - are following the trend and will have the same ergonomic design. But is this all we can do? The short answer is no, there's definitely room for improvement and this is what I want to explore together with you today.

Game components one by one - standard or not?

1. Game box - it's the first thing you and I see and 90% of the times the box is the decisive factor in our interest and later buying the game or not.

Image source: BoardGameGeek
My first few games were of various sizes and shapes, from the standard square Ticket to Ride box, to the monstrous Twilight Imperium "coffin" and the tiny Catan Card Game. Through the years I have become pickier and the box of Dungeon Fighter caused me head aches because it's just marginally larger than the standard square and yet it does not fit on my very standard IKEA shelves... so I had to let it go.

Image source:
My plea if for standard boxes which save shelf space. Fantasy Flight Games - one of the trend setters in the hobby industry - has given up the iconic "coffin" boxes and switched to square boxes of various heights. I do not know the actual reason behind this move but I can speculate that they are standardizing and making their products gamer-friendly. Think only of Imperial Assault or Descent 2.0.

What is your opinion, do you prefer standard boxes or are you a fan of unlimited creativity and prefer cubical or cylindrical boxes?

2. Rules

Squares, rectangles, A5, A4, letter... the rules is modern games are all over the place. We at NSKN tried our own standard, 285x285mm booklets which are roughly the size of the box. It was or choice for the past 2 years because it allows large graphic examples, the page can be divided into 2 or 3 columns according to needs and it is cost effective.

Cost effective is one of the keys for small publishers like us to succeed. Once we evolved past the point of mere survival (as a company) we had the luxury of rethinking our publishing paradigm and look again for better solutions.

I have been advocating for "our size of the rules" for quite a while until I have recently made an experiment of my own: I took the rules of a random game, put them in both the large square format and A4 (which is almost the same as letter size) and read through them timing myself. Reading the same amount of rules text in A4 format took me about 25% less time. Therefore, the rules of our next game are coming in A4 format, even if that adds a few cents to our production costs.

Which is your preferred rules format? Do you even have one? Is this a key aspect for you when it comes to buying or even playing a game?

3. Boards

This is the point where the discussion gets complicated.

Having analyzed 50 games with non-modular boards published after 2012, I found the following distribution: more than 50% are a 4-fold square or rectangle, 30% are 6-fold rectangles and the rest are... all over the place. When it comes to modular boards, the most common shapes are rectangles, hexagons and starred hexagons, but the distribution here is too difficult to assess because of the wide range of options. Furthermore, less and less of modern board games have an actual board, with German style games sticking more to the original conservative model with an actual board.

I mentioned before that the designer in me wants a giant game board. I have spoken to a few manufacturers and the largest single piece board they can make is 100 x 70 cm and this is not really what I had in mind. Anything beyond that would require all kinds of non-standard "stuff" (I was afraid to ask) and the price would increase five to ten fold for a board just 1.5 times as large.

Comparing boards with the same total area, a 4-fold cut is 30% cheaper in average than a 6-fold cut thus the industry preference for the former. Even when it comes to ergonomics and table space, a square 4-fold cut seems preferable. And yet in Versailles we went with a larger 6-fold board very close to the manufacturer's upper limit because it suited better the game's needs. My inner fight between the designer and the publisher was a clear victory for the designer, while the publisher saw the margins decreasing under his eyes.

Using any standard game board will also save significant costs with the cutting knives when manufacturing with an established large board game factory. For small publishers saving this kind of money may very well make a big difference.

Modular boards offer a greater flexibility and sometime much greater replay value. They do not necessarily increase the manufacturing costs, but they usually do. Yet more and more designers and publishers walk this road, because creativity is no longer limited by a rectangle.

So... what is you view on game boards? With or without? Modular or classic? Does this aspect even matter when it comes to your liking and buying games? 


Writing for quite a while now, I have only covered about half of the topics I had in mind. So. I'd love to see your opinions and I'll resume my train of thought next week.

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Eulogy for Middle-Earth

I visit the Fantasy Flight Games website regularly. I am a fan of a good few of their games, so I pop in now and again to see what they are up to. Only recently did I notice something that I probably should have spotted some time ago. Middle-Earth Quest, one of my all time favourite games, is gone – and has been gone for some time. What the hell?

Middle-Earth Quest seemed to have everything going for it: a well known, very much beloved world, a ton of cards both big and small, some really great artwork and a sprinkle of little plastic dudes and dudettes. Simply put, it was absolutely up to par with what FFG has so many of us hooked on, and (with the Middle-Earth licence) a little more.

I remember vividly the day when I brought the box home, I also remember my first games. I would face off against my wife (who was not my wife back then) as Sauron or as a fellowship of heroes, and we would play it almost every day. Middle-Earth Quest completely took over our spare time, occupying evening after evening for a good few weeks. And even now, almost six years later, it still takes over our table on a regular basis.
Image source: BoardGameGeek
There are good reasons why this game became one of our favourites so fast, despite its long playing time and the typical FFG-style rules (something they now do much better), which would make finding this one thing we don’t remember a five minute endeavour. Middle-Earth Quest is beautifully atmospheric, it’s tense, it’s (mostly) very well paced, and it’s surprisingly cerebral. So cerebral in fact, that I now honestly think it was too smart for its own good.

The heroes in Middle-Earth Questt are not expected to blunder around the map in search of monsters to slay and treasures to loot. The development of each character is an element of natural progression and not one of the goals, which will then open up the opportunity to kick the snot out of the main baddie. The players will not be chucking dice. Instead, they will be managing hands of cards, carefully assessing the dangers and shrewdly picking their routes (evading combat whenever possible), so that every step they make will lead them closer to foiling Sauron’s plans and plots. They will have to work together, proving that their fellowship as a whole is more than a sum of its parts. And the Sauron player will have to keep up.

Image source: 
Now Middle-Earth Quest is gone. There will never be an official expansion we were so much hoping for (against our better judgement). There will be no more heroes, quests, tricks for Sauron. And I keep thinking that this is because Middle-Earth Quest was published before Vlaada Chvatil took to the BGG top ten with his Mage Knight, proving that adventure gaming can be as much of an intellectual challenge, as any Eurogame. That may have recalibrated the expectations that had taken down Middle-Earth Quest just a few years before.

Luckily, nobody will take my copy of Middle-Earth Questt away from me. I’m looking at it on my shelf as I’m writing these words, happy that it still gets to my table. It has astonished me, it has inspired me (and showed me the way I could go myself with Mistfall), it has shown a new way narrative and atmospheric games can go, instead of what seems to be the canon. Middle-Earth Quest, my friend, although you’re dead to FFG, you will live in my heart and – obviously – on my gaming table.

Now, let me take a look at my calendar to set up a meet.

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Thursday, February 19, 2015

Mistfall: The Wildlands

The denizens of the Wildlands are probably most well known to those who followed the Mistfall articles, as the beastmen became the rivals of humanity during the first ages of the world. Today we take a closer look at what the players can expect as their Heroes enter the lands of the first servants of the Duskfather. 

Hostile and Wild

The wilderness has never been a welcoming, especially in the northern, ice-ridden lands of the Valskyrr, and many settlers and conquerors would come to realize that venturing deeper into the north was a dangerous endeavour – and not only because of the creatures living there. Swept by cold winds, unforgiving, sometimes surprisingly barren and featureless, the Wildlands would often repel – or kill – those seeking passage on their own.

The half-man, half-beast children of Dusk inhabiting those hostile lands also left their mark, as the Wildlands were transformed by the Mists, and those who enter them now can often suffer from the effects of the dark sorcery the beastmen shamans dabble with.  But even without the dark magic, crossing icy plains and half-frozen rivers can prove a task able to wear down those who are not well prepared.

Art by Enggar Adirasa

Wildlands in the Game

Although occasionally a Wildlands Location can bring with it an opportunity to gain a bit of an edge, usually players will have to factor in the extra effort it may take to move out of a Wildlands or be ready to deal with some damage their Heroes may suffer upon entry. Still, most of the wilderness can offer them a little bit of respite, if they manage to successfully rid it of its original inhabitants. The enemies most often encountered in this terrain are both beasts and beastmen: strong, tough and often impossible to deal with by simply retreating when the going gets tough. 

Next time we will take a closer look at what the players can expect from the ones that call the icy wilderness their home.

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Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Agency and the Missing X

Recently I have been invited to sit in the guest chair of a Polish videocast called Rozmowy ZnadPlanszy to talk about Ameritrash games (if by any chance you understand spoken Polish, here’s a direct link to the episode). We talked about obvious differences between American and European games, about recent blurring of the lines, and about the evolution of the Ameritrash genre. Little did I know that I would stumble upon a very small but probably also a very important step only a few days later, while comparing the Decent 2.0 and the Imperial Assault dice.

Descent 2.0 Dice.

The Dreaded X in Descent 2.0.
If you are a fan of dungeon crawls, chances are you’ve held a set of these babies in your hand. If you’ve played both editions of Descent, you probably also remember that, although the dice from both sets used the same principal, the original Descent dice and the Decent 2.0 ones were a little different.  But we needed Imperial Assault to introduce one very significant change.

By just looking at the pictures you will not spot the one detail I’m referring to, as
Decent and Imperial Assault dice share Surges, Range (called Accuracy in IA) and damage symbols, with the newer game dropping the tired heart-shaped design for one that is probably more futuristic (although slightly less obvious). There is another dropped element: the dreaded X.

Now, for those of you who have never played
Decent: rolling an X while attacking means that the attack misses completely. No matter how much damage it would deal, the target escapes unscathed and unless there is a reroll available, nothing can be done to deal any damage. Without an X, you get to count the damage dealt, apply possible bonuses and subtract the defence granted by the target’s armour dice.

The (somewhat less) Dreaded X in IA
Well, to be totally honest, the X is not completely expunged: in Imperial Assault it appears on a Dodge Die, but only some characters get to use it. Whenever the Dodge Die is not involved, a smart player may actually set up an attack that will deal some damage regardless of what was rolled. And although the full effectiveness of such an attack is still a matter of a random roll, the basic outcome can be easily foreseen.

Some will probably say that this is coming back to the beginning, to the first edition of Descent, which allowed for precise calculations of minimum damage, as armour was a static value, not governed by any roll. However, as the X was still there (on the first edition Descent dice), the one in six chance of a complete failure used to be constant element of any roll. Until now.

American games have been evolving, borrowing ideas from other genres, approaching their inherent randomness in new ways and introducing changes big and small. Now, as evidenced by what is arguably a top tier product of a top tier company, another important step was made. The removal of the automatic failure allows players to make more accurate approximations. I’d even say that it encourages them to set up situations in which specific goals can be achieved exclusively through skill, without fear of being stopped by a stroke of bad luck.

Imperial Assault Dice

I don’t want to blow this small vanishing X out of proportion, as the whole modification may be just that: a small detail in a big game. On the other hand, it may be a sign of an overall change that will see American style games put more and more power into players’ hands. And that is (in my book at least) great news, as I love the theme, but most often I love agency even more.

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Thursday, February 12, 2015

Mistfall Rogues Gallery: Brigands and Sorcerers

Each type of terrain in Mistfall is inhabited by its own, distinct group of enemies the Heroes will have to face each time they enter a location not yet cleared of the Mists’ corrupting influence. Today we take a closer look at the those who either fell prey or decided to embrace the power offered by the nefarious Mists.

Art by Enggar Adirasa
The Lost and the Wicked

In ages past what is now known as the Borderlands used to be a part of inhabited Valskyrr. The proud and strong people that took this land as their own at the dawn of the world called these now abandoned places their home. Now, those who still live there wilfully or unwittingly serve the Mists, allowing it to spread its influence ever further.

Most of the Bordelands were not lost because of vicious beastmen attacks – they more often fell to acts of betrayal and villainy of those, who saw the Mistfall as an opportunity to reach their own goals and were ready to kill or enslave others on their way. As keeps and villages yielded to posisoned blades and sorcerous fire, many of the convicted criminals or power hungry madmen made their way to what they perceived as a land of new opportunities and a place where their skills could be used to satisfy their lust for wealth or power.

Travelling through those territories always carries the risk of encountering those who are more than eager to part travellers from their property, their freedom or their life. Terrifying news of captives taken away to become sacrifice in blasphemous rituals or bartered away to the beastmen keep those who live at the edge of the Borderlands awake at night, with their weapons always at the ready.

Borderlanders in the Game

As in game enemies, the inhabitants of the Borderlands can be a big problem to deal with. With abilities that allow them to instantly deprive a player of one of their key cards, and a formidable striking power to match, they really have the potential to make Heroes meet their doom.

When facing off against Borderlanders, watch out for dangerous synergies and choose your targets wisely. Sometimes it is better to suffer a few harder blows but protect your Hero’s key assets, than go for only a seemingly more dangerous enemy who simply deals a little more damage.
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