Board Game Review: The Captain Is Dead

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2020 | Posted by eeknight

The-Captain-is-Dead-board-game-review (1)Anyone else feel like we’re living in a Golden Age of board games? Or have I just been playing more because of COVID? We’re spoiled. Gone are the days of cutting out your own cardboard counters and coloring in your own dice with a crayon.

What, none of you ever played Metagaming MicroGames? They were pretty great. I think Sticks and Stones was the first time I experienced a point-buy mechanic.

But enough GenX 80s nostalgia.

The latest in my personal quarantine parade of top-notch-in-every-respect board games is The Captain Is Dead from The Game Crafters (J.T. Smith and Joe Price) and AEG. I tried this game, originally developed on Kickstarter, with the kids the other night. Everyone had a raucous and exciting time. It’s one of those games you end up thinking about after the box is closed and put away. As a matter of fact, the kids are still talking about it two days later. It’s designed for 2-7 players, though after a couple sessions it seems to me there would be no effective difference if you wanted to solo play handling 2-7 crew yourself; no mechanics would need to be changed.

The premise is that you’re in a starship and have just suffered a massive, Wrath of Khan-style surprise attack from aliens out for a bit of the old ultra-violence. Multiple systems are down. Aliens are teleporting in to occupy the ship. The crew may be afflicted with strange disorders. But worst of all, the Captain is gone, crisped without so much as a “Kiss me, Hardy.”

You could say this game beings in medias res.

And if you don’t play tight and co-oppy, it’ll end there too.

You maneuver surviving officers and crewmen around the ship trying to restore function, with the overriding goal being getting the jump drive repaired so you can get the heck out of Dodge. And that’s the first of the many wonderful elements to this game, there are 18 characters to choose from, ranging from a fleet admiral down to a janitor (color-coded according to their role in the starship’s sub-systems, because cost-saving 60s TV production measures live on through the ages like military specs), each with unique abilities that I believe would combine to make this game highly replayable. There’s even an ensign, if for some reason you want the rest of your co-opers to constantly yell “Shut up, Wesley!” at you.

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Many Paths of Character Creation

Tuesday, September 15th, 2020 | Posted by Patrick Kanouse

Star Wars Force & Destiny-small Star Wars Force & Destiny back-small

For many RPG gamers, creating characters is one of the highlights of gaming. They get to make significant choices and craft and hone their character to their vision. If they are invested in the character, players typically engage more in the collaborative storytelling environment that RPGs are. For many players, this is the most creative time in the process, for thereafter they engage in the setting as laid out by the game master (GM). They may have an influence on the game and that setting, but the act of creating primarily — if not exclusively — resides with the GM after character creation. Even in truly sandbox games where the players can go wherever and do whatever, they are operating within the construct of the GM.

RPGs across the spectrum devote pages to character creation, often taking up a significant portion of any rulebook and entire supplements that provide new options. Most games lay out these options as a series of choices the player makes — though always reserving GM fiat.

Dungeons & Dragons, Star Wars: Force and Destiny, and others use a process whereby you select a species (if applicable), select a career, apply a number of adjustments to the basic character template, and then make choices about talents and specializations and skill choices. The names may vary (class, feats, etc.), but the basic principles remain. For example, in Force and Destiny from the core rulebook, players choose from one of eight species. These have default attribute score adjustments and some level of unique trait or ability (breathing underwater for Nautolans for example). Players then choose from one of four careers and then choose from one of three specializations in that career. One of the narrative or logical challenges with this construct is that if you want to play a 40-year old human smuggler, you may have the exact set of skill points, etc., as other players, who may have a 20-year old bounty hunter just making her mark on the world. Truth be told, this is not a significant challenge, but one nonetheless. Particularly in class-based systems. My 40-year old cleric is at level one — the same as that 20-year old barbarian.

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A Rough Guide to Glamour Goes Gold

Sunday, September 13th, 2020 | Posted by Nick Brooke

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I always enjoy catching up with my Australian friend Michael O’Brien (“MOB” to his friends). We met back in the nineties when we were part of the so-called Reaching Moon Megacorp, a group of ardent Glorantha fans working on the pioneering RuneQuest/ Glorantha magazine Tales of the Reaching Moon – he was an editor, I was the dogsbody. (I should mention that MOB is a director of the Chaosium now, alongside our American Reaching Moon Megacorp colleague Rick Meints – it’s a small world, sometimes).

As MOB and I live on opposite sides of the world, we usually only bump into each around conventions. And so, the last time we met was at Dragonmeet in London last November. MOB was about to launch the Jonstown Compendium, Chaosium’s community content site for RuneQuest and Glorantha on DriveThruRPG. And he talked to me about things that might now be possible…

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An Inaudible Blast from the Past: Silent Death — The Game of Spaceship Combat (Part 1)

Monday, September 7th, 2020 | Posted by Tony Den

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Silent Death – Metal Express original box set (Iron Crown Enterprises, 1990). Art by Angus McKie

What do a fantasy miniatures line and a contemporary science fiction novel have in common? Not much at a glance, but if you put on your Dirk Gentley’s Holistic Detective Agency hat and apply the theory of The Fundamental Interconnectedness of All Things, a relatively straight line can be drawn between the two.

A recent post here at Black Gate about Chaos Vector, an exquisite looking new novel by Megan E. O‘Keefe, got my attention. While I dearly want to lay my hands on it (and its forerunner, Velocity Weapon), what really piqued my interest was the beautiful SPAC (Single Person Attack Craft) with its forward swept wings on the cover.

You see, it looks quite a bit like a ship called a Talon, from the beloved space combat game Silent Death. Which triggered this article, and a step back in time to the late 1980s…

Iron Crown Enterprises (I.C.E.) was a game publisher known mostly for their successful Middle Earth Role Playing line and the complex Rolemaster fantasy role playing game. They released the Rolemaster Future Lore book in 1985 , which subsequently spawned the SpaceMaster Science Fiction line (stay with me here). Star Strike, a space combat game for SpaceMaster, was created by Kevin Barrett and released in 1988. That could have been the end of it, and this article could be covering Star Strike, a game I’ve only read about…

It did not end there! While Star Strike was relatively successful for its time, it was dogged by its heritage. Even though it was a fast-paced space combat game, its association with the notoriously crunchy SpaceMaster came at a cost. While Rolemaster and SpaceMaster had loyal fan bases, plenty of gamers found them to be overly complex and rules heavy.

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Maximizing the Crunch: Dystopia 23

Monday, August 31st, 2020 | Posted by Patrick Kanouse

Dystopia 23-small

In my last article, I reviewed one of the most rules light systems I have ever read. Some game masters (GMs) and players like games with a hefty amount of crunch — that is, game mechanics that require dice rolling or calculations and with a level of specific details for certain types of tasks. Dystopia 23 may take this to the most extreme I have ever experience. The Primer is 149 pages. By comparison, the quick start rules for The Expanse were 42 pages. For The Witcher TRPG (called Easy Mode) they were 32. For Cyberpunk Red Jumpstart Kit, two booklets were a total of 98 pages — including a lot of flavor text. In terms of crunch, Dystopia 23 pummels those quick start rules into the ground.

When the Dicegeeks podcast interviewed Dystopia 23’s creator, Jason Carruth, he made no bones about how he loved to see a lot of crunch in a game. He reveled in the joy of designing crunchy games.

Before I cover the mechanics, however, let’s talk about the setting. Dystopia 23 covers familiar cyberpunk ground. The game takes place in the 23rd century. After economic collapses and mismanagement, the corporations have become the power in the world. Hordes of impoverished people struggle in the sprawls — vast favelas and slums that buttress up to the walled cities where the middle and upper classes live. Sprawls are unpoliced anarchy, which gangs and other various power brokers seize upon to exert control, often with as careless disregard of human lives as corporations. Even the cities are divided, with corporations having purchased areas for their exclusive use.

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A Report on Modiphius’s Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of—Part Three

Monday, August 24th, 2020 | Posted by Gabe Dybing

Conan The Monolith sourcebook-small Conan The Monolith sourcebook-back-small

In the previous two articles in this series (Part I and Part II), I have explained Conan 2d20’s core mechanic, character structure, and combat. I believe that this is what is required to begin to “grok” the principles of this game. For the concluding installment in this discussion, therefore, I will address criticisms, provide “mini-reviews” of the various Conan 2d20 supplements, and point to the overall Conan gaming community.

My online Conan group initially formed around me as GM. I ran two adventures over five sessions. Currently someone else is GMing and is soon to pass the “story stick” to someone else. This method of shared GMing, I believe, is representative of Robert E. Howard’s source material: episodic, (in our case) “main characters” come and go.

The current GM once gave to me what I think are accurate estimations of Conan 2d20 overall. He gives the artifact of the game (beautiful, full-color art throughout, well-bound, a place-ribbon included in every volume) and the system itself an “A.” Rules presentation he awards a “C.” He says, when he recommends Conan 2d20 to prospective gamers, he feels like he is recommending a friend who he knows is lazy to a job interview.

The laziness, perhaps, results from rules presentation. The book forces quite a bit of cross-referencing to figure out some of the particular action resolutions. Moreover, the reader must learn that some terms, which may at first appear to be synonyms of each other, likely have particular meanings in terms of game mechanics. This confusion is mitigated only partially by the use of capitals to denote particular mechanical functions. A lot of the rules, unfortunately not always expressly stated as such, must read as logical propositions, i.e., “if A and B, then C.” And this sort of reasoning delightfully spills out into the forums. Also on the forums are outright new rules constructions and innovations, usually to fill in what has inadvertently or by design been left out of the book. To be clear, the rulebook often states its ethos as being a flexible system wide open to GM rulings, but this assertion is compromised by the presence of Skill Talent trees: it is not unlikely that a chance GM ruling or group consensus, which may result in a campaign precedent, will “invade” a feature conferred by a Talent, which consequently invalidates the worth and usefulness of that Talent. With this measure of ambiguity, Conan 2d20 rules lawyers are likely to find many opportunities to bring suits to court.

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The Party Always Comes First

Monday, August 17th, 2020 | Posted by Patrick Kanouse


One often learns about small, independent, or quirky games from game store owners or fellow RPG enthusiasts. So it was from a friend and player in my ongoing Star Wars campaign that I heard about Party First by Gamenomicon published in November 2019. This rules light game has some intriguing mechanics and a setting waiting to be fleshed out by the ambitious game master.

After reading it, I imagined a group of friends were together one evening and wanted to roleplay, but they did not have their rule books and did not want to be weighed down with a lot of runway to get to a game. Pure speculation, but it has that feel that players can pick it up fast and be gaming in minutes. The book is only 46 pages. 46. I do not have a source book on my self that is that short, and while the brevity speaks to a rules light devotion that does not mean that the system is not well thought out or complete.

The setting is a familiar yet alternative Earth. I have long been interested in history, and World War I, the fall of the Russian Empire, and Rasputin have always been of interest. Party First hits all of that sweet spot for me. However, it is not Earth. Countries and people have recognizable but different names. Rus for Russia. Anglia for England. Dervish Empire for the Ottoman Empire (another particular area of history I enjoy). Vladislav Lesnik for Vladimir Lenin. All of these are laid out in an alternative history.

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A Report on Modiphius’s Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of — Part Two

Tuesday, August 11th, 2020 | Posted by Gabe Dybing

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This is the second article in my “explanation” of Conan 2d20. Last time I focused on 2d20’s core mechanic and on this game’s design philosophy insofar as it is an emulation of the “physics” and flavor of Robert E. Howard’s Conan fiction. This one will detail more aspects of gameplay, particularly player character components and action scenes.

Last article, I maintained that Conan 2d20 characters begin as powerful in mechanical ability (unless the alternative Shadows of the Past character generation is used). When I argue that this system is one of the better ones for Conan gaming, my rationale begins in this place. People who want to play a Conan version of Swords & Sorcery, I believe, don’t come to that desire by imagining operating a 1 Hit Die noob who is struggling to survive an attack of rats and who must run from most monsters. In contrast to this vision, Conan characters, though chronologically beginning their careers as young people, are formidable. Consequently, right away in the “campaign,” the GM is free to throw whatever she wants at the characters, just as Robert E. Howard challenged Conan with whatever he fancied, with whatever he believed would make an exciting story.

I realize I am thinking of Conan 2d20 in relation to the elephant (no, not that Elephant in the Tower, but that other elephant of gaming), and I’ll try to give it a rest after this. The comparison is in front of me because, as I explained last time, I have read many reports of people giving up on 2d20 because its rules are too far off from their familiar d20 expectations. My argument is that this is because Conan 2d20 is formulated, specifically, to emulate Robert E. Howard’s Conan. Whether it succeeds or not is very much still under discussion, and, elsewhere, that discussion goes on and on. But I believe that the Original Game, as awesome as it is, is built, out of its wargaming roots, as a melting pot or synthesis for all of fantasy literature. Conan 2d20 does Conan, just that, with all of its requisite limitations of “real” characters doing heroic things. The d20 iterations of Sword & Sorcery — even those “hacked” to better do Conan — still contain some difficult features, qualities inherent in and virtually impossible to remove from the system design. Chief among these is level-based advancement and, in most cases, the magic systems.

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A Report on Modiphius’s Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of — Part One

Thursday, August 6th, 2020 | Posted by Gabe Dybing

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That title is probably the last time, in this article, that I’m going to refer to this game with all those words. It was important to get it right, the first time, but usually I just call it Conan 2d20.

Because that’s what it is: it is playing a Conan game by using Jay Little’s 2d20 engine or mechanic, which he designed for Modiphius. There are other Conan RPGs out there, all of them, of course, out of print: an “original” TSR Conan RPG (I’ve never had the experience), a GURPS version (I only just learned about this one, and I’ve never played GURPS — the Hero System was my game of choice during the “universal system” era), and Mongoose’s d20 version (which I did play, at GaryCon one year, and it was a delight!). Outside of RPGs designed — or modified — specifically to accommodate a Conan vibe and setting, there are a number of options ranging from d20 derivations from Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea to Low Fantasy Gaming to Crypts & Things to Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells to “other system” derivations such as Savage Worlds to RuneQuest to Barbarians of Lemuria to many others that I’m either forgetting or about which I simply don’t know. Of these other games, when I make an argument that Conan 2d20 is my most favorite system for accurately emulating Conan pulp fiction, I should make clear that I have not played all of them, though I have read (and even played) most of those listed above.

Getting into Conan 2d20, for the casual gamer, or for the merely curious, demands a fair amount of cognitive load. This is because, I believe, the system is so innovative — and those innovations are precisely what makes this a Conan game. I have encountered many anecdotes of gamers and consumers gleefully obtaining this gorgeous hardcover tome (or PDF), riffling through it, saying, “Huh?” then setting it aside with a “Sorry, not for me, but the art is pretty, and this still makes a good resource.” This describes my own initial reception, as I was losing my mind to higher Levels of play in Pathfinder and, with immense relief, was going “old school” by picking up Swords & Wizardry. But I kept sneaking glances at Conan 2d20 and thinking “what if?” Bob Byrne and I tried to do something via Play by Post. In my home group, a year or so later, I got a 1e enthusiast to start running for my casual players so that I could give 2d20 a go with two seasoned players. But then, after I had successfully run two adventures, the pandemic hit, and these two players weren’t interested in online play.

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After Action Report: Gen Con Online

Monday, August 3rd, 2020 | Posted by Patrick Kanouse


Gen Con is a major — the major — tabletop gaming convention of the year. 60,000 gaming enthusiasts arrive in Indianapolis (where the con has been held since 2003) to participate in thousands of board games, card games, miniature games, role-playing games (including live action), seminars, reveals, auctions, and cosplay. And more. Spread across the Indianapolis Convention Center, multiple hotels, and Lucas Oil Stadium, the scale of Gen Con is unmatched.

However, with COVID-19 disrupting major sports, shuttering millions at home (who are fortunate enough to work from home), and sparking debates about masks, conventions big and small canceled in-person events months ago. San Diego Comic Con. GaryCon. Origins. Who’s Yer Con. TravellerCon. Gen Con. Many have attempted some sort of online alternative, a path Gen Con 2020 followed.

Gen Con undertook the challenging task of offering an extensive virtual convention, featuring many tabletop gaming sessions and the sprawling, chaotic, glorious Dealer Hall of gaming companies, artists, dice creators, and many others hawking and showing off their goods. In past Gen Cons I have run games, participated in seminars, and spent hours roaming the Dealer Hall. From Thursday evening to Sunday afternoon, my weekend would be little else but gaming, shopping, and some sleep along with visiting a food truck to scarf down a meal between. This year would be different.

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