Sunday, January 3, 2016

My Top 10 Role-Playing Games Played in 2015

As I mentioned a couple of days ago, I played a LOT of games in 2015. At least 120 board games and role-playing games. It was, by far, the most board gaming I've ever done in one year, and it may be the most role-playing I've done within a calendar year as well. At one point in the fall of 2015, I was running THREE weekly games (Star Wars, DCC, 5e), and playing in ONE bi-weekly game (Rolemaster) and TWO monthly games (Star Frontiers, AD&D).

I also wrote over 50,000 words of RPG material for publication (some of which has come out already, and some is coming in 2016). I was busy! But it was all super-fun.

Anyway, here's where I ended up with my Top 10 Role-Playing Games Played in 2015. I organized it by system, rather than individual experiences, because maybe system does matter!

1. Dungeon Crawl Classics. When I started to write role-playing game material after I stepped away from the world of comics a couple of years ago, I wanted to work for Goodman Games. I was excited to run and play Dungeon Crawl Classics in a way that I had never wanted to run or play anything else. It seemed insane. And alive. And it was. It is. 2015 was a big year for me and Dungeon Crawl Classics. The Purple Planet boxed set finally came out. I wrote Advent of the Avalanche Lords. I contributed to what turned out to be a pretty thick book of madness for the d50. But that's not why DCC is my #1 role-playing game of the year. It's at the top because it was the most fun to run and play in 2015. Whether it was exploring Lankhmar with Michael Curtis, experiencing level 10 characters emerging from rags and nonsense with Marc Bruner, running an improptu session for Catastrophe Island 2 when Doug Kovacs grabbed me at the Embassy Suites and threw me to a table of 10, playtesting the Crawljammer dreamscape of the "Nightmare Beasts" with Fred Dailey sketching away like a courthouse artist, or making up a new subsystem for the "Age of Undying" after the cleric of Cthulhu rewrote the laws of reality, Dungeon Crawl Classic was there. And in NONE of those instances was the game played by the book. It was transformed, tampered with, stretched, expanded, overturned, and molested. It was a great year to play DCC. I suppose any year is.

2. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. I worship at the church of Gygax and regularly misread the holy book (the 1e Dungeon Masters Guide). Not only did I run a few sessions of 1e, sort of, in my own sacrilegious way, but I played in a fantastic game at TotalCon in which we played Smurfs and Papa Smurf was corrupted by the elder gods. We had to destroy him to save smurfanity. It was great fun. And now I'm in a monthly game in which we are the chosen ones returning to a world gone wrong. Only it's AD&D, so we're not super-competent, and that only makes it better. I love Vancian magic, descending AC, and pole arms.

3. Marvel Superheroes. This is the classic TSR-era FASERIP system. I ran a game at TotalCon that was basically Secret Wars meets Mad Max, months before the new Secret Wars or Mad Max came out. It was so great -- Venom Zombie Galactus was spectacular, though Ant-Man and Dazzler held their own! -- that I started working on an original post-apocalyptic superhero game that should get some playtesting in 2016. But I can't get Marvel Superheroes out of my head. It is the second game I ever loved, after Moldvay D&D. And it is still a thrill to dish out Karma and watch what the players do with their heroes.

4. Metamorphosis Alpha. I played Bullwinkle at a ski lodge on a spaceship. Michael Curtis was the mastermind. It was a highlight of the year. I need to play this system more often.

5. Gamma World. James Carpio ran this using, I think, his memory of 2nd edition rules. It doesn't matter, because it's Gamma World and I got to play Misty Deth who pretended to be related to Steve Jobs and when that didn't work, blew up a whole lot of cyborgs.

6. Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea. I have an AS&SH adventure coming out in 2016, and I'll be running it at TotalCon this year, but in 2015 I yet again had a chance to play in a Jeff Talanian-run adventure, and he runs games like no one else I play with. I feel like he's the Crypt Keeper, but in his younger years. He's like a semi-sane master of horrific ceremonies. He almost looks serene as your character's life slips away into the void. I need to play this system more!

7. Torchbearer. I played this at GenCon in a game run by the designer, Thor Olavsrud. It's a fancy-looking book, full of what seems to be an excessive amount of rules for every little thing. I knew I wouldn't be able to run it without playing it first, because everything in the rules seemed like they were there for a reason, but they all felt counter-intuitive to me. Playing it, I didn't feel that way at all. It played a lot like the OSR games I have been running and playing, but with a bit more attention to the small details that are often waved away (like exact light sources and carrying capacity of sacks). It ends up making every decision more important, and therefore there are prices to be paid for every misstep. But the game moved along and didn't feel clunky. I like it a lot. Plus I got to play with Sarah Richardson and Mark Malone and they are among my favorite gamers in the world.

8. Rolemaster. Let me tell you about my character. His name is Jarn. He's a level 9 Ranger. He enjoys shooting things in the face and trying (but often failing) to climb out of ditches. He has only lost one arm and one thumb, but herbs have helped them grow back. He summons walls of wood and black bears. I have been playing this one Rolemaster campaign for over 3 years which makes it the longest RPG campaign of my life. Sometimes I want Jarn to meet a nice girl and retire. But the world doesn't want him to be happy.

9. Spirit of 77. I called the one-shot "Amsterdamnation" and the "poster" I created for this Powered by the Apocalypse game at the game day featured a day-glo Bootsy Collins. The PCs were Charles Bronson. Elliot Gould, Jim Brown, and other stars of the 70s. They needed to infiltrate a karate tournament to stop drug trafficking and/or the emergence of the serpent god. In describing this, I realize it should probably rank higher. But I think maybe it's best as a one-shot experience, hidden away where the ghost of Telly Savalas will never find us.

10. Star Wars: Edge of the Empire. I have mixed feelings about this game. I fell in love with it in the fall of 2015. I ran (and continue to run) it weekly. But the problem is that the weekly game is an after-school session and so it's limited to one hour. And this game really doesn't work on one-hour increments. The dice pool requires a bit more room to breathe. More room for creativity and interpretation and for one result to build toward another later result. That can happen, but the one hour time constraint makes it too condensed usually. When I ran a 5 hour session at a local game day, it was a spectacular success. I think once this mini-campaign ends in late January I will set this Fantasy Flight creation away for a little while and run Star Wars-inspired Crawljammer games instead. But there's a lot to like in this system, if you have creative players who can get into its nerve center and live with it a bit without caring at all about "official Star Wars continuity."

Okay 2016, I'm ready for you.

Friday, January 1, 2016

My Top 25 Board Games Played in 2015

Pandemic: Legacy blue box
By my count, I played 120 different board games and role-playing games in 2015. I played most of them more than once, and I know I played some of them ten or more times (Telestrations, Wrath of Ashardalon, Codenames, other classics), so we're talking probably 300 or 400+ gameplays in the past year. That is a crazy amount. I really tried to explore games this year and play as often as possible with lots of different people. It was a good year!

Anyway, here are the BEST 25 GAMES I PLAYED IN 2015! Only a few came out in the last year -- most are a bit older and one hasn't even been released yet -- but these are the ones I liked the most. These are the ones I recommend. Throw your Monopolies, Risks, and Cards Against Humanity into the basement and play these much, much, much better games instead:

1. Pandemic Legacy. My wife has been playing a Researcher named Barbara ("Don't call me Barb") and we have not yet let the world become overrun with the Chabola virus. We are heroes.

2. Seafall Legacy. I got a chance to playtest this with designer Rob Daviau early last year and even though it wasn't yet finished, it was my 2nd-best board gaming experience of the year. This one is more complex than Pandemic Legacy and far, far deeper than Risk Legacy (which we played through and found that, in the end, it's still Risk, which means its still kind of terrible), and I look forward to the real deal in 2016.

3. Imperial Settlers. Ignacy Trzewiczek is my favorite game designer and I will play this game any day. The Egyptians may be good at hoarding gold (and my daughter beats me by doing so), but I like playing the barbarians and making lots of babies and putting them to work. Life is hard.

4. Dead of Winter. Oh, what's that? We're supposed to be working together to survive the zombie apocalypse but the rescue dog is secretly a serial killer? Awesome.

5. Codenames. Vlaada Chvatil makes complex games that some people think are fun because they like to write boring computer programs or use Excel to chart their hobbies. But Codenames is a Vlaada design that actually IS fun. It's also kind of a word game, but not really. It's a spy game! With words. And assassins, so watch out!

6. Telestrations. This game is endlessly hilarious as long as you have players who will write what they literally see in the drawings and things get seriously out of hand. Also fun when recurring characters begin to appear in the drawings. Especially if they are offensive.

7. Carcassonne. I always feel tranquil playing this game. Unless other players are taking forever to make their decisions. Then I fantasize about sacking their cities with my little blue dudes.

8. Robinson Crusoe. Sometimes I say this is my favorite game ever. Maybe it is. Ignacy took the harsh living of Agricola and made you beg for the harsh living of Agricola as you try to survive on a deserted island that is trying to kill you. It is pretty awesome.

9. Rampage. Not-Godzilla will crush your buildings and eat your meeples. This game looks like it is for children. But it will make adults cry.

10. Splendor. I am pretty sure I have played this game about 20 times and I have won maybe once. Maybe. I change up my strategies, but wealth and prosperity elude me. Maybe I should learn from this.

11. Dungeons & Dragons: Wrath of Ashardalon. My wife loves these D&D board games which are kind of like role-playing games against programmed moves by the monsters, but she won't actually play D&D. Weird. But we had fun going through all the adventures in this set, even though the Legion Devils are the worst and I will never be their valentine. Also, she played a Paladin as if she were playing a Rogue, and I was all like, "heal me up," and she pretended not to hear any of my words. We still killed that Dragon, though. We killed him up.

12. Netrunner. I love this game and rarely get to play it because it cannot be played casually. You need another obsessive player who really wants to explore the strategies and build decks and nerd it up. It is more fun than Magic: The Gathering, exponentially less popular, and yet...I cannot look away. If mirrorshades didn't give away my hand, I would wear them.

13. Colt Express. I don't even own this, but my brother does and sometimes when I play Django I punch the air and pick up no bags of money from the ground. Sometimes.

14. Abyss. This is the Star Wars Episode I of undersea civilization board games, except it's actually good and you get to recruit starfish to help you hire weird aquatic wizards.

15. Roll for the Galaxy. Build a cool civilization that you mostly ignore because you are trying to figure out what combos have emerged in your space tableau. This game is Puerto Rico for folks who find rockets and kryptonite reactors more fun than harvesting indigo.

16. Ticket to Ride: Europe. Ticket to Ride deserves its place as the game that should replace Monopoly as the go-to family game at gatherings, and it's always fun. I'm into the Europe map these days, mostly because it involves tunnels and weird geography.

17. Pandemic: The Cure. The dice version of Pandemic is better than the board game version once you've figured out how to beat the board game. Because the dice cheat you and make you want to crush them into submission. Can't stop. Won't stop.

18. X-Wing Miniatures Game. I finally got to put my X-Wing miniatures to use at the end of 2015 and it was great to pit Chewie vs. Boba Fett and have Biggs zooming around providing support. I will play this anytime too. Come over for a Netrunner/X-Wing evening of fun. Bring cookies.

19. Wits & Wagers. This is the default game of choice at family gatherings. (Though Codenames has dethroned it this year.) I should learn to bet heavy when I know the answers. But I don't. Don't bring me to Vegas with you.

20. The Resistance. I thought maybe Dark Moon would replace this game for me, because it is just like this game but it has stuff to do during your turn other than be suspicious, but no one else seems to like Dark Moon but me. So Resistance it is, where everyone is a liar. Even your allies.

21. Rattle, Battle, Grab the Loot. All the board game experts on the internet have complained about how disappointing this game is. Listen: it's another Ignacy design, so I'm going to be inclined to like it. But I also like it because you can pimp your pirate ship and use your grappling hook cannon to shoot your friends' ships (their dice) out of the water (cardboard). I love this game, suckers!

22. Marvel/DC Dice Masters. I have no idea what the strategy should be for this game but I sometimes build teams based on who would make the coolest Suicide Squad lineup. It's fantasy baseball for comic book fans, but instead of just passively hoping your players have good at-bats, you get to roll Starhawk and say catchprases and taunt your opponent with your colorful fist of dice.

23. Camel Up. Sometimes the best simulation of betting on dog racing is this game with an upside down pyramid and some camels. Actually, I have no idea what it's like to bet on dog racing, but I imagine it is exactly like this, with oil slicks and chits.

24. Castles of Mad King Ludwig. You get to build the worst castle floorplans ever to win the favor oft the king. (Psst...he's crazy.)

25. Eclipse. This game is supposed to take 2.5 hours but it always takes 5 hours and the strategy everyone knows is to buy missiles or you lose. I always buy missiles, and I rarely win. Still, exploring space and conquering it is always fun, unless you go up against those jerky space civilizations who are all like, "I will form an alliance with you" and then they destroy you two turns later with their missiles.

Play some games!