Answer the Call!

I’m taking a break from my Star Wars reading schedule to talk about another branch of fiction that has held me in its sway, albeit only recently – weird fiction. The names of Lovecraft and Cthulhu are of course well-known in pop culture, and even beyond, but I only seriously decided to investigate what all the fuss was about in 2012. As it happens, I bought the first volume of Lovecraft tales and left it on a shelf for five months before actually looking to see what it was all about.

Call of Cthulhu

The first story I read was, naturally, The Call of Cthulhu itself. And I must admit, I was a bit disappointed. I suppose I didn’t know what to expect, but it certainly wasn’t that. Lovecraft has a wonderfully gothic, verbose manner that I really enjoyed from the off – lots of high-flung prose overflowing with adjectives and similes like nothing I’ve ever read before. While there is an uncomfortable undercurrent of racism to his works, such things must be looked at in context, and while this is not intended to excuse, I find it difficult to understand people who dismiss him now for writing what was accepted at the time. It’s the age-old thing of judging the past by the present.

However, what I found most unsatisfying with the tale was its presentation, I suppose. The story is basically one of the narrator’s investigation into the cult of Cthulhu, prompted following his discovery of some papers in the possession of his late uncle. As such, it jumps around a bit, from describing events in 1925, to events in 1908, then back to 1925. Essentially, the tale is one long report, because nothing really happens within the story itself – the narrator describes what he read among his uncle’s papers, which leads him on to describing a police raid some years previously, which leads him back to describing a diary he then read. While these events range from the bizarre to the terrifying, there is very little dynamism because we’re seeing them all through the narrator’s filter – and the narrator is clearly in no danger because the events did not feature him.

All in all, I was a little put-out. In particular, I failed to see how this tale could have proven to be the seminal work of gothic horror and weird fiction that it appears to have become, much less spawn an entire “Cthulhu mythos” around it.

That was all back in 2012.

Over the past two years I have, in fits and starts, returned to Lovecraft’s fiction, reading other tales from the three-volume Penguin series. In this time, I have come to gain a fantastic appreciation for Lovecraft as a writer, and also to completely re-evaluate my thoughts on this tale, which I read again this morning.

There are a couple of points which I think need to be understood about Lovecraft, in order for you to really appreciate his stories for the classics that they are. Aside from the fact that gothic horror, I would contend, is not meant to be ‘scary’ in the sense we have come to appreciate the word nowadays, a lot of Lovecraft’s work is first and foremost cosmic horror. He isn’t reliant on supernatural evil such as vampires and werewolves, but instead on the terror of the impossible made manifest, and the threat more to his protagonists’ sanity than to their actual physical well-being. Indeed, there aren’t a great many physical injuries described in the stories I have read thus far. Rather, it is the threat of insanity that is the biggest terror in his work. That, coupled with the fact that his protagonists are usually scholarly, professor-type characters, who are no doubt even more afraid to lose their grip on their mind, all adds to the creepiness.

We have become so much of a visual-based society in recent years that the power of words in the imagination seems to have lost its ability to work as effectively, I feel. Take, for instance, this first description of the god Cthulhu:

It seemed to be a sort of monster, or symbol representing a monster, of a form which only a diseased fancy could conceive. […] A pulpy, tentacled head surmounted a grotesque and scaly body with rudimentary wings; but it was the general outline of the whole which made it most shockingly frightful.

Is that better at conveying the horror of the story than, say, this:

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#cthulhu

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Or this:

cthulhu_rising_by_somniturne1

Personally, I much prefer the written word. While it’s true that Cthulhu is a tentacle-faced demon god as per Lovecraft’s description, there are sufficient blanks in there to allow us to really creep ourselves out thinking about it. Particularly the eyes. But when we see it, it becomes a case of, “Oh, that’s freaky” and we move on. I’ve read a lot of criticism of Lovecraft’s stories that seems to centre on this fact: his stories lead up to a ‘big reveal’ that invariably isn’t fully described because of the horror that the protagonist is experiencing (so far, all of the stories I have read have been first-person narrations), which leads reviewers to feel cheated. To me, this misses the point. Lovecraft’s work allows us to exercise our imaginations in ways that horror nowadays doesn’t require. He gives us just enough that we are left with a sense of deep unease. But anyway.

The story is also one of suspense. Split into three ‘chapters’, the first deals with the narrator’s description of an earthquake, following which an outbreak of group mania occurred within the international artistic community, alongside unrest among what are clearly meant to be more primitive areas of the world. One artist somehow sculpted a bas-relief in his sleep of Cthulhu, and its appearance is strikingly similar to an idol recovered on a raid of a voodoo cult in the Deep South some years earlier. A cult is described as worshipping the Great Old Ones, who are said to lie dreaming, waiting for the stars to align before they return to conquer the earth in a fiery apocalypse. During the period of mania, it transpires that a boat was caught in a storm off New Zealand, and only one person survived. The sailor professed to not recall what happened during the maelstrom, but the fact that he came through it clutching at a similar idol spurs the narrator to find his diary, which describes the boat coming upon an uncharted island of weird geometrical proportions. Unwittingly, the sailors awaken Cthulhu, who chases the ship but is driven off by the one surviving sailor. His heroics unhinge his mind, and he mysteriously dies when he returns home. The narrator, convinced that what he has learnt of the cult of Cthulhu means he too is not long for this world, locks away what he has discovered in a box, hoping that, when he too is inevitably disposed of, his research will remain hidden.

The suspense that is built up from the description of the bas-relief and the inexplicable collective madness, through the voodoo cult ceremony in Louisiana, and culminating in the description of the discovery of R’lyeh and the awakening of Cthulhu himself is quite masterful. I’m only sorry that it took me two years to realise that! But as I said, I feel that it is a greater knowledge of Lovecraft’s work that has enabled me to appreciate this tale more for what it is. To that extent, I would probably not recommend this tale as an introduction to his work – either The Dunwich Horror or The Shadow over Innsmouth are much better in this regard, being more classically-proportioned horror stories. You also need to be prepared for the previously-mentioned prose – take the description of R’lyeh, for instance:

Johansen and his men landed at a sloping mud-bank on this monstrous Acropolis, and clambered slipperily up over titan oozy blocks which could have been no mortal staircase. The very sun of heaven seemed distorted when viewed through the polarising miasma welling out from this sea-soaked perversion, and twisted menace and suspense lurked leeringly in those crazily elusive angles of carven rock where a second glance shewed concavity after the first shewed convexity.

It is wonderful, I have to say! As another blogger puts it, the words flow ‘with a life of their own’, and the result is an imagery that really does leap off the page.

The biggest horror, for me at least, is not in the half-described Shoggoths or other weird creatures that torment Lovecraft’s characters, but in the Ancient Ones themselves, and the fact that they just don’t care about humanity. While later writers would attempt to create a pantheon out of Lovecraft’s gods, for Lovecraft himself, Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth and Azathoth have no interest in humanity. They will bring about the end of the world not because they’re evil, simply because they will. And often, there is little that can be done to stop them. In Call of Cthulhu, the Norwegian sailor manages to drive Cthulhu off while he escapes, and the subsequent storm once more pulls R’lyeh to the bottom of the ocean, but Cthulhu hasn’t been defeated – as the narrator himself tells us at the end of the tale:

Who knows the end? What has risen may sink, and what has sunk may rise. Loathsomeness waits and dreams in the deep, and decay spreads over the tottering cries of men.

Since Call of Cthulhu was published in 1928, there have been all sorts of tales published within the so-called Cthulhu mythos. While Lovecraft himself is reputed to have preferred the term “Yog-Sothothery” for his work, the label has stuck, and even today weird fiction is being produced that adds to the mythos. For me, my love of boardgames has brought me to such awesome incarnations as Arkham Horror, Mansions of Madness, Call of Cthulhu LCG, Elder Sign and Eldritch Horror, and it is a familiarity with the tales behind these games that makes them all the more enjoyable. It seems Lovecraft’s fiction has successfully permeated most aspects of pop-culture, frequently gaming, though he has never transcribed well to film. Perhaps because most of Lovecraft’s brilliance lies in the way he has crafted his stories through words?

Cthulhu

 

(All extracts are from the Penguin Modern Classics edition, 1999, ed. ST Joshi)

The Last Command

The Last Command

Phew, it’s been a roller-coaster of a ride through the Thrawn trilogy! I’m quite surprised that I finished it so quickly, I normally like to savour these things… Well, anyway, I’ve now finished the final book in the trilogy, so will have a look back at how awesome it was!

As you may remember, we left out intrepid heroes having lost the Katana-fleet to Thrawn, who has been generating clone troopers to crew this new fleet with. In the month since that skirmish, the Grand Admiral hasn’t wasted any time in launching the next phase of his plan to take back the galaxy. Luke is busy trying to track down the source of the clones, though he doesn’t realise he’s following a carefully-laid trail designed to throw the New Republic off the real clone factory.

On Coruscant, Leia finally gives birth to her twins – Jaina and Jacen – but not long after the event there is a break-in by an Imperial Intelligence team determined to capture them for Joruus C’baoth. Mara Jade, who had been injured during the battle at the Katana-fleet, is recuperating on Coruscant and manages to help thwart the kidnap attempt – however, the lone survivor from the team implicates her as colluding with the Empire, and she is promptly placed under house arrest. Thrawn had been concerned that Mara might know the location of the cloning facility on Wayland, and intended to silence her just in case.

As it happens, she had been to Wayland only once, but when Leia reveals the news that Thrawn has been cloning troopers, she feels she must cast her lot in with the New Republic and put a stop to it, lest another round of Clone Wars is unleashed on the galaxy. Luke, Han, Lando, Chewie and Mara set off for Wayland, leaving Leia protected by a group of Noghri, determined to repay their debt to her.

Following a series of attacks against New Republic systems that sees tremendous gains in territory for the Empire, Thrawn launches a siege of Coruscant itself, with a cluster of cloaked asteroids released into orbit around the planet. The Grand Admiral manages to convince the Republic that they have launched a total of 287 of the asteroids, when in actual fact the number is much lower. However, fear of letting even one through the planetary shield puts the capitol world out of the war.

Talon Karrde, doing some snoop work of his own, attempts to form a coalition of smugglers to act as unofficial intelligence operatives for the New Republic, though unfortunately the ship thief Niles Ferrier is invited to the gathering and later reports back to Thrawn. Determined not to stir up the fringe against him at this time, Thrawn decides to leave the smugglers alone, even after one of them attacks the Imperial shipyards at Bilbringi. He does, however, manage to implicate Karrde as being responsible for a raid against the smugglers, one which Ferrier had actually organised – Karrde manages to expose Ferrier for the double-dealing thief that he is, and in the confusion, the ship thief is killed. When Karrde decides to return to Coruscant to collect Mara and Ghent, he brings the New Republic confirmation that the Empire had only cloaked 22 asteroids, which is the number that the government had actually found. However, Leia has had a Force-vision of Luke being attacked by C’baoth on Wayland and enlists his help in going to her brother and husband’s rescue.

The New Republic decides to obtain a crystal gravfield trap in order to confirm that the asteroids have indeed been cleared, but unfortunately the only known traps are held in Imperial space. Colonel Bren Derlin therefore begins preparations for a feint at Tangrene, while Admiral Ackbar organises the real assault for Bilbringi. The smugglers’ coalition decide to try to get their hands on a trap to sell to the New Republic, and with all the evidence pointing to an assault on Tangrene, begin their own preparations to infiltrate Bilbringi. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Thrawn determines that Bilbringi is the real target and prepares to trap the New Republic forces when they arrive at the shipyards.

C’baoth, increasingly unstable, decides to return to Wayland, where he takes personal charge of the cloning facility. When Han and his group arrive, they trek through the forest and come across two groups of natives, who they manage to enlist the aid of in their assault on the facility. Infiltrating the Emperor’s storehouse, the group splits up, with Lando and Chewie trying to destroy the cloning facility with detonators while Luke and Mara try to find a self-destruct button in the Emperor’s royal apartments.

However, they find C’baoth waiting for them. He forces Luke to duel with a clone he has had produced from the hand Vader severed at Cloud City, in an attempt to turn him to the Dark Side. Leia and Karrde arrive on Wayland and, together with Han, attempt to rescue Luke, but the insane Jedi clone manages to fend them off with Force lightning. Mara eventually manages to take hold of Leia’s lightsaber and kills the clone of Luke, finally fulfilling the Emperor’s last command to her. C’baoth, enraged, nearly kills them all by bringing down the mountain, but is eventually killed by Mara. The heroes manage to escape just as Chewie and Lando have set the facility to blow.

At Bilbringi, the battle between the Empire and New Republic is going decidedly in the Empire’s favour when the smugglers start causing havoc within the shipyards themselves accompanied by Rogue Squadron. Forced to split their task forces to defend the shipyards as well, the Empire suffers a massive blow when Thrawn’s Noghri bodyguard Rukh fulfills his people’s desire for vengeance by killing the Grand Admiral. Captain Pellaeon orders the Imperial forces to retreat before they are annihilated.


As with my synopses of the previous two books, this really doesn’t do the story justice. I would go so far as to say that The Last Command is the most complex, and most richly rewarding of the trilogy. Seeing how the story works itself out is, itself, a work of art.

I do, however, have a fairly large criticism of this book – it’s just too much like Return of the Jedi. A strike team under Han’s leadership treks through a forest in order to sabotage an Imperial facility with the help of the primitive natives, to say nothing of Luke’s confrontation of C’baoth in what is pretty much an identical setting to the confrontation with the Emperor on the second Death Star. Part of me thinks it’s a bit lazy, and part of me thinks Return of the Jedi might have been so much better had Zahn written it. But anyway.

Something new about this book is the increased level of detail. I mean, the previous two books are detailed enough, but all of the characters introduced by Zahn are his own creations. Here, however, we see the benefit of the box of West End Games’ RPG materials Zahn was sent by Lucasfilm in order to further entrench the story into the overall saga. Pash Cracken, son of Alliance Intelligence chief Airen Cracken, gets some face time, and some of the planets created by WEG are mentioned.

Something that I love in any Star Wars story is the fringe element. Mos Eisley, Jabba’s Palace – all these wretched hives of scum and villainy hold an eternal appeal for me. Zahn seems to have a particular affinity for creating memorable fringe types. In the last book we were introduced to the ship thief Niles Ferrier, but in this book we get to meet a whole host of other smuggler chiefs and mercenaries, some of whom had been mentioned in passing earlier in the trilogy. What I like most about this is how Zahn shows us a room with about half a dozen smugglers in it, and with a few short paragraphs manages to make each one distinct and individual to the point where we feel like we know them as well as Han and Chewie – or even Karrde himself.

I’ve mentioned the clone thing in connection with the last thing, but it’s here that the issue becomes, well, an issue. Of course, given that this book was released in 1993, Zahn cannot possibly be faulted for the continuity errors that appeared in light of the prequel trilogy that began in 1999. However, as I said last time, I find it odd that Lucasfilm signed off on the trilogy if the plan for the prequels had been there all along. That aside, the prequels really mess with these books perhaps more than any other. Dark Force Rising dates the Clone Wars to 35BBY, and The Last Command has Mara specifically state that the clones were trying to take over the galaxy. We now know that the Clone Wars took place between 22-19BBY, and that the clones were actually the good guys (well, kinda). Furthermore, Zahn provides all sorts of details about maturation cycles, the fact that the Force has an impact on mass-produced people, and also details that clones were produced in something called Spaarti cylinders. No mention of Kamino whatsoever. All of this isn’t Zahn’s fault, he merely pitched a story that was subsequently approved by the people who alleged to have all of the details. We know, for example, that the original idea of an insane clone of Obi-Wan was rejected, and yet the folks in charge agreed that the clones were the bad guys? Hm. The whole point is moot now, of course, because technically speaking, none of the Thrawn trilogy actually ‘happened’. But I find it annoying, all the same.

As Zahn wrote history, the prequels sound a lot more interesting. Yeah, Palpatine was elected constitutionally, and the gradual reformation of the Republic into the Empire seemed to happen a lot earlier than Lucas later decided it did. The Clone Wars sound a lot more interesting in Zahn’s version, but this would have required the Republic to have had a standing army at the time, something Bail Organa later tells us they didn’t have before the clones were created. The idea of clonemasters as an antagonist force seems better than the separatists, though I suppose clonemasters would have been kinda like mad scientists? Perhaps not the most theatrical of villains.

This book, however, still has so much to commend it. I particularly liked the fact that Zahn leaves one fairly major plotline dangling at the end of the story, something that isn’t actually resolved until Specter of the Past – just why is Borsk Fey’lya so damn keen to see Mount Tantiss destroyed? Hmm!

I cannot recommend this trilogy enough! Go on, get yourself a copy and see what I mean!

Previous:
1. Heir to the Empire
2. Dark Force Rising

A Touch of Evil…

Full of enthusiasm from writing about Runebound, I want to take some more time now to wax lyrical about yet another of my favourite board games of all time, this one a little more easy to get a copy of: A Touch of Evil!

A Touch of Evil

Published by Flying Frog Productions, this game is quite simply awesome. With the Runebound/Eldritch Horror posts that I’ve made in the past, you might get the impression that I like big board games that fill the table with their stacks of cards and piles of bits, and you’d be damn right I do, but FFP manage to produce games that put me in a very happy place indeed. A relatively small company, with a relatively short portfolio of games, they nevertheless have tremendously high-quality stuff that is simple to learn, simple to play, but an incredibly immersive experience all the same. They currently have five board games to their name, and each one, while having a similar system, is nevertheless overflowing with flavour and theme that makes them feel entirely different to each other. Their mission has been to create games that focus on theme and fun rather than overly-complicated mechanics, and boy have they succeeded!

If you’ve seen the movie Sleepy Hollow, you’ll feel right at home with A Touch of Evil, which is about as direct a homage to the early-nineteenth-century American Colonial Gothic theme as it’s possible to be. The game is co-operative, where you take on the role of an adventuring hero fighting to overcome the darkness surrounding the town of Shadowbrook, though you can also play competetively, where you race to be the first hero to defeat the evil in the land. There is supernatural evil there, and it’s up to you to investigate and stop it before it stops you!

A Touch of Evil

The board is an exquisitely-illustrated map of Shadowbrook and the surrounding area, and as in the film, there are classic Colonial locations such as the windmill, the manor, the covered bridge, and the abandoned keep. During the course of the game, the heroes travel around encountering the spaces and uncovering clues that allow them to further their investigation, until they can face the evil and, hopefully, overcome it.

A Touch of Evil

Heroes have three skills – spirit, cunning and combat – as well as one or more special abilities, an honor value, and a life value. These skills are used to overcome tests or to fight while encountering the locations around the board, and can be levelled up through finding artifacts, buying items at the Blacksmith, and skill tests in the town. The currency of the game is investigation (the blue tokens), which are gained mainly through successful skill tests at encounters.

On your turn, you roll a 6-sided die to determine how far you can move, then encounter the space. If it is one of the four corner locations, you draw a card from the appropriate deck. Broadly, the manor and the windmill are safer locations than the abandoned keep or the olde woods, but you can be attacked anywhere, and also find items to buff your skills. Throughout the game you also have the opportunity to draw event cards, which you can play to give your hero an advantage such as preventing wounds, or rolling extra fight dice. Usually you can draw these while in town, but you also get one if you roll a natural 1 for movement.

A Touch of Evil

Skill tests, such as that shown above, are resolved by rolling a number of dice equal to your value in that skill, so for Katrina to make the Cunning 4+ test shown above, she will roll three dice. If she rolls at least one 4+, she is successful, and gains investigation as the card shows. For fights, the same basic principle is followed – fights can be described as Combat 5+ tests – for every result of 5 or 6, you hit the enemy (although, Katrina’s special ability is to hit on a 4, 5 or 6). Enemies – either the villain himself or one of his minions – roll a number of dice at the same time, and hits are assigned at the same time. In this way, it’s possible to defeat an enemy while being knocked out at the same time.

A Touch of Evil

Like heroes, the villains each have an oversized card that shows their combat and life stats, and also any special abilities they have. I’m playing here against The Scarecrow, but there are also such classic villains in the core box as the Werewolf, the Vampire, and the Spectral Horseman (Sleepy Hollow again). The game has two modes built-in, the Basic Game and the Advanced Game. Basic Game stats aren’t particularly easier, they just don’t muddle things up quite so much – usually, in the Basic Game the villain only has one special ability, and in the Advanced Game he just does more. There is also the villain’s Minion Chart. Usually, you will only fight the villain once, at the end of the game, so to make things more interesting, he also has a horde of minions that will interact with the heroes more often. Once the heroes have all acted, there is a ‘Mystery Phase’, where a single mystery card is resolved. These are never good, often bringing more doom to the players. These cards will bring minions into play, will move the shadow track (more shortly), or will generally make it more difficult for the heroes. They can also provide buffs to the villain in the same way that heroes can find objects to buff themselves:

A Touch of Evil

The heroes’ task is to find the lair of the villain, and they do this by buying Lair cards, which show a particular location on them. The shadow track is used to determine the cost of these cards, as well as interacting with the villain in other ways. It isn’t a timer for the game (although one of the mystery cards can make it one), and you might go half a dozen or more rounds without it moving at all. Divided into five phases, with four stages per phase, the track marks the decreasing cost to buy a lair card as the villain grows in power – in the final two phases, it only costs one investigation to buy a lair card, usually because so much craziness is going on, it should be pretty obvious by that point where the villain is hiding!

So when you have a lair card, and you’re feeling brave enough to take on the villain, you can start a Showdown with said villain. First, you need to get to the place on your lair card, then pay the cost shown on that card to start the Showdown. Some cards will also interact with the villains, perhaps giving them bonuses for the first fight round of the Showdown. At any rate, once you’re there, it’s time to stop the evil!

A Touch of Evil

You have the option of forming a hunting party to go after the villain. You may have noticed the six cards across the top of the board originally? These are the six town elders, all of whom have at least one Secret they are hiding. Throughout the game, while investigating for clues as to the supernatural evil stalking the countryside, you can also use your clues to investigate each of the elders, to see if they are working directly with the villain or if they’re just a drunkard or a coward. Each of the elders has a skill value and a special ability that can be used if you bring them with you in your hunting party, though you need to be sure you’ve thoroughly investigated them beforehand. If you gamble on an uninvestigated elder, you could have a nasty surprise when they join your party!

A Touch of Evil
Sophie the midwife joins the Necromancer as an Evil Elder – and what evil, too!

All elders have one life point, and during the Showdown, the villain must ascribe one of his fight dice to damaging one elder with you, so they can be quite useful for soaking up damage if nothing else! When it comes down to it, you and the villain both roll, and if all goes well, you’ll defeat the big bad and win the day! If not…well, there are other heroes…

A Touch of Evil

I categorically LOVE this game! The theme is wonderfully executed, and you can get lost for hours or force a showdown and have the whole thing over in 45 minutes. I’ve played it countless times, in conjunction with all the expansions at one point or another, and I just can’t get enough. Oh yeah – there’s expansions!

A Touch of Evil

Each of these beauties adds something awesome to the game, though it remains perfectly playable and perfectly enjoyable by itself. From the new boards and new stuff of the big boxes, to the addition of new heroes and villains in the aptly-named Hero Packs, there are all sorts of good things waiting to be found here!

I’m constantly impressed with Flying Frog’s support for their games, and A Touch of Evil is no exception. In addition to all that bumph, they’ve also produced two smaller card-packs, and web exclusive villains that you can print off and enjoy! Of these web villains, I think I was most impressed with The Shadow Witch, I was overwhelmed when I first tried her out! There is also the ‘Christmas Special’, The Volgovian Nutcracker, who leads his hordes of toy soldiers and sinister teddy bears against the heroes! I’m also a huge fan of the sheer amount of content they pack into their games. Along with all of the cards and stuff, there’s a whole host of extra counters that have no specific rules for them, but are there specifically for you to do whatever you want with them. You’ve seen, in the images above, counters for the villain, and The Coachman ally, but there are all sorts of other things in the box, and the same with the expansions as well. In idle moments, I’ve come up with a few ideas for utilising the additional content from Something Wicked, but not all of it is forgotten, as some of the web villains use certain counters as well, which is always good to see.

None of this is doing the game any real justice, of course – if I wasn’t so camera-shy, I would have done a vlog with my entire gameplay shown for you! My best advice to you all, though, is to go out and buy this beauty right now. Lose yourself in the fight against supernatural evil, then come back here and tell me what you think about it! I do so love a comment or two!

It’s my fervent hope that, at some point soon, I will also produce some blogs about the expansions as well. They’re each one so awesome that they really deserve special treatment, so stay tuned for that, as well! Until next time…

A Touch of Evil

Smash Up!

It’s a double feature! I told you to prepare for extra geekiness while I was off work! Following on from discussing one of my absolute favourites of the board gaming world, I’m going to bring to you a little feature on a more recent acquisition, Smash Up!

Smash Up

I feel like I could get into trouble for sounding snooty or elitist when I talk about games sometimes. It’s never my intent, but it just kinda happens, because I refer to games like Runebound or Arkham Horror as “serious games”, implying that other stuff just isn’t serious enough for me. Nothing could be further from the truth! To some extent or other, I love all games – it’s not always about the bits on the table or the cards in my hand, it’s about getting together with friends and having a whole ton of fun. But I also play games for escapism, and sometimes I want a depth of involvement that can’t be obtained from anything but a four hour trek through the wilds of Terrinoth or the streets of Arkham. But as much as I would call myself a “serious gamer”, I don’t mean that in terms of a serious attitude to gaming, sat at the table with a poker-straight face all through the game. Games are about having fun, and even my four-hour escapist fight against the Dragon Lords fulfills that! But all of this apart, some games are light, easy to play, and are an absolute riot to play, and Smash Up is one of the best of this category!

The basic premise is simple. At the start of the game, you pick two factions from a fabulous array of classic archetypes such as zombies, aliens, ninjas, pirates, etc. You shuffle the two decks to form your draw deck, and you draw five cards. The game also has one of my favourite methods of determining first player – rather than the usual  roll-off or “pick randomly”, the person who woke up earliest that day goes first! Awesome! The object of the game is to score 15 victory points, which you gain by smashing up a procession of bases. Base cards are fought over between the players by playing minion cards at them: each base can only take so much smashing, and when the total minion strength matches the base’s breaking point, the person with the most strength there wins that base (some bases give the runners-up victory points as well). As well as minions, you can also play event cards, which can alter the gameplay in various ways.

Smash Up

In the above picture, my alien ninjas are currently counting 9 strength, against the Mushroom Kingdom’s breaking point of 20. When there is a total of 20 strength at this base, if I have the most minion-strength there I will score 5 victory points, and any runners-up will score 3 and 2 respectively. You can also see that minions have special abilities, usually allowing you to shift minions around to foul up your opponents’ strategies.

Smash Up

My opponent – playing the steampunk killer plants – is stretched between two bases, playing the long game… urgh, I don’t mean to sound like some sort of tactician or something. There is no hint of derogation intended here – this game is fast, fun and simple, and that’s all there is to it! You can take a tactical view and try to work out where best to play minions and whatnot, but to be honest, the game itself almost fights against such a manner. AEG have made the entire thing so utterly tongue-in-cheek that it laughs at itself. The rules booklet is, itself, hilarious to read through. The fact that the expansions are called “Awesome Level 9000” and “The Obligatory Cthulhu Set” are further proof that you aren’t supposed to take this game seriously! If ever there was a game so completely designed to have you in hysterics at the game table (or, indeed, rolling around on the floor), it’s this one.

Smash Up

I was chuckling a bit too much when taking that photo above. I mean – alien ninjas! Steampunk killer plants! It’s all just entirely too whimsical – and I love it for it!

There’s not a lot else to say about the game, really. It’s just really, really fun, and definitely one of those games that will lighten the day after something gruelling like Horus Heresy or something. It’s pretty cheap to pick up on amazon, too, so you should really investigate! To persuade you further, here’s Wil Wheaton playing the game on his awesome show, Tabletop. Enjoy!

Runebound

The dark lords are gathering, ancient powers are awakening, and a chill has fallen across the land. Now is a time of danger and rising evil. Now is a time of fear for the innocent and the helpless.

Now is a time for heroes!

Hey folks! Welcome to my latest gaming blog! Today’s entry is a very special one for me, because it’s one of my all-time favourite games ever made. It’s a fantasy adventure board game for 2-6 people who have way too much time on their hands – it’s Runebound!

First released all the way back in 2007 by Fantasy Flight Games, Runebound is a high fantasy adventure game where the players take on the role of heroes trying to rid the land of Terrinoth from the evil of the Dragon Lords. The worst of them all, High Lord Margath, has been returned to the land by the evil of the necromancer Lord Vorakesh, and it’s up to you to stop him!

Runebound

The game is awesome. I first played it with the now-ex girlfriend in 2008, and was just bowled over by the amount of theme that comes out of it. The whole production is just fantastic, I cannot recommend it enough! The unfortunate thing is, however, it’s been out of print for a while now, leading to speculation that a third edition might be on the way (there was, way back when, an abortive first edition that didn’t make it past the first small expansion pack). If you can find a copy, PICK IT UP! And bask in its awesome!

(The thought occurs to me, now, that a lot of people probably won’t be able to find this game because of its rarity. I just want to say that this post isn’t meant to make people jealous, but rather act as a tribute to a game that I really, really love).

It’s a sign of just how much I love this game, I feel, that I actually own everything for it. Over the course of three years, a series of five big box expansions came out, alongside which came four sets of six smaller expansion packs, as seen above. The first set of these smaller boxes adds more items and allies you can purchase, the second adds more to the encounter decks, the third completely replaces the encounter decks, and the fourth are ‘character packs’ that bring even more of a RPG-element into the game, allowing you to level your chosen hero in all manner of ways.

So let’s take a look at this game.

Runebound Runebound

It’s an adventure board game, which means the hero character that you choose at the beginning travels around the board encountering various monsters, levelling up in order to encounter increasingly difficult monsters before the game is resolved by either beating the most difficult monster of all – High Lord Margath himself – or defeating three of the tough monsters. There are four encounter decks, with difficulty ranging from easy (green) to tough (red). As well as monsters, there are events that can either be good or bad, and encounters, which usually test one of your hero’s skills or act as a sort of mini-quest. The heroes all have three attributes: mind, body and spirit, which also act as combat stats (ranged, melee and magic, respectively). Heroes are usually good at one and not so good at the other two, to varying degrees. In addition, the hero has one or two particular skills which add bonuses to certain attributes during skill tests.

Truthseer Kel

The hero I’m playing above is Truthseer Kel, a promo hero not in the base game and for years one of the most difficult-to-find parts of the game. I’d wanted her for so long because of the absolutely amazing miniature. Anyway, the attributes are arrayed along the bottom of the card, with the larger number denoting the bonus to that attribute, and the smaller number the value of combat damage you inflict with that hero. In addition, there is a special effect at the top, and the skills in the middle. Kel’s life value is in the top right, and her exhaustion value underneath; heroes might be caused to take exhaustion which slows them down by making them roll less dice for movement.

Runebound dice

And what delightful dice they are, too! The icons represent the types of terrain your hero can enter on his turn; only one icon per die is chosen, and if you’re exhausted you roll one less per exhaustion counter. The icons for roads, plains and hills generally occur more often; the mountains and rivers, less often, and the swamps and forests, rarer sill. There are also nine town spaces on the board, the Free Cities of Terrinoth, and you can use any symbol on the dice to move into them. In towns, you get to heal, as well as buy items or the services of allies.

Runebound

But how do you get the money to do this? Well, you get gold from defeating challenges. Most will give at least one gold, though as you scale up, and some will provide other benefits along the way. To defeat challenges, you must go through all three phases of combat, though you can yourself only attack in one of those phases (there are items that allow you to attack in two phases, however). For the other two phases, you must defend; either way, you roll two d10 dice and add your attribute value to the result – if you equal or exceed the challenge’s value, you succeed. If you fail, you take however many wounds the challenge dishes out. In the above picture, Vorakesh’s Necromancers only deal damage in the magic phase – as I’m also attacking in the magic phase, I get to make my attack but if I don’t succeed, I take the damage as if I’d failed to defend.

Runebound

As it happened, I failed to defeat the Necromancers, and their damage equaled my life value, so I’m knocked out. I go to the nearest city and lie down, because I need to recover, obviously! The challenge card then goes along the top of the game board – the Undefeated Challenge track – and a marker is placed on the hex where that challenge is. In later turns, I can go back for revenge – which is exactly what I did!

As the game goes on, though, you get to buy stuff in the towns to help in your quest to defeat Margath. Items and allies range from the cheap, kinda-handy stuff to the more expensive, really useful stuff. It’s a good strategy to buy allies as soon as you can, because allies allow you to effectively attack in a second phase of combat. You can have a maximum of two allies (allowing you to attack in all three stages of combat), as well as two weapons (one in each hand) and one item of armour. Within the market stacks, however, there are also artifact items that don’t appear to count towards that limit. Such items include runes (given the game’s name, this might not be entirely unsurprising!), which do all manner of things, from buffing your attacks to healing you and your allies.

When I play Runebound, I usually like to play a magic user, just because that’s kinda my thing. When I’m doing this, there are certain cards that I will go after that can set up a tremendous chain of buffing my attacks, and have frequently allowed me to defeat really massive monsters in the ‘before combat’ phase (oh yeah, some cards have a ‘Before combat’ action, usually testing skills with adverse effects for failures that weaken you for the combat proper. However, there are also weapons and stuff that grant you Before combat actions too).

Runebound

The above cards are all pretty awesome! Combined with certain allies, you can often guarantee victory in the easier challenges before you have to go through the fight round proper.

Runebound

As a general rule, if you’re playing a magic user for instance, you don’t want an ally whose best combat value is his magic value. However, Runesmith Shan is an exception here because of his Before Combat ability, allowing you to make two magic attacks between the hero and the ally. However, as a magic user, you need to ensure you’ll actually live to see the magic phase. Unless you spend your time levelling up your other attributes to defend really well, you’ll want to get some allies. Cannon fodder allies are fine, but ones that do some real damage in either of the other two phases are the best. I’ve got Sir Loren here, but the best two – in my opinion – are these guys:

Runebound

I also think Jirta the Fierce is worth having as an ally simply because of her little quote there…

So what’s all this about levelling up? Well. You may have noticed that the game board is littered with little cardboard tokens? These are the adventure counters, and show a space where you will encounter something. When you end your movement on one of these, you draw the appropriate colour of encounter card and go through the combat stuff as outlined earlier. If you succeed, in addition to the loot, you get to take that counter, and flip it over, where it becomes your experience point total from the encounter. Some of the earlier pictures show Truthseer Kel with such tokens. When you get five XP, you can choose one of your attributes, or your life or exhaustion values, and take a corresponding token to level them up. (If you increase your life value by 1, you can no longer take on green challenges; increase it by two, and both green and yellow challenges are off-limits, etc). Runebound has been highly criticised in the past for this levelling mechanic, as it allows you to buff all of your attributes until you’re essentially generic. Furthermore, there’s no real in-built timer mechanism in the game, so you can essentially go through hours taking on green and yellow challenges, and levelling until all of your attributes are +20 or something, then just decimate the red deck and win.

However, I have mentioned in the past (I think) being a theme-player, and personally I like to level only once or twice in the subsidiary attributes, focusing my main objective on increasing my main attribute. If I’m going to be a magic user, I’m gonna be one kickass wizard!

So you go through the green to the yellow challenges…

Runebound

…and from the yellow to the blue challenges…

Runebound

…until you’re ready to take on the red challenges…

Runebound

…and once there have been three red Dragon Lords – or Margath himself – defeated, the game ends!

It’s an excellent game, the high fantasy setting and theme are just amazing. While it says it’s for 2-6 players, it is entirely possible to solo this game because, basically, it’s a race game. While there are rules for PvP combat, most players will be focused on the task at hand and attacking other players is largely unnecessary. As such, perhaps the greatest criticism of the game is the amount of downtime between turns. Two people playing is usually fine, three is possibly the biggest number you’ll ever want to play with. Simply because you take your entire turn in one go, so you move, you encounter etc without the other players doing anything. The more people you play with, the longer you’ll have to wait for your next turn, and it can make it quite boring. I played it once with four people and we quickly ended it by going for the higher coloured adventures just because it was dragging on so much. While a solo game might sound a bit dull, I have to say I find it really immersive, as you can really get into the RPG feel of the game, reading the flavour text on the cards, and really tell a story of your hero and the fight against Vorakesh and Margath. To this end, I have one or two house-rules to make the game more thematic, my particular favourite being that heroes can only level up in cities. Like they’ve gone there for training or something.

Runebound

The expansions for Runebound all add so much more to the game. I feel like I want to write more blogs on each one, so I won’t go into vast detail here, but suffice it to say, they’re awesome! Each big box changes the location, so we have an island (with sea travel!), a desert, an ice world, and a jungle world. There is also the Midnight expansion, which is a sort of cross-over with the Midnight RPG setting – basically, evil has won, and you play sort of refugee heroes operating in the shadows. Of all the expansions, Midnight differs the most wildly, as it features one player against the others – the Night King. Consequently, it’s the most difficult to play solo, but I have done it a few times. There are all sorts of cool mechanics involved in this one, such as making sneak tests to get into the towns and whatnot. But like I said, I’ll probably cover each of these in future blogs, because I love them all so much!

Runebound is quite simply my go-to fantasy game. No matter how often I play it, I always enjoy myself – even when playing with just the base game, as I did in order to write this blog. It’s tremendous fun, I only hope we haven’t seen the end of the game yet!


Post script
Unfortunately, though, I feel that we have, in fact, seen the end of the Runebound game. For about two years now, people have been clamouring over on the official forums for a third edition, or just revised second edition. But I don’t really see anything happening there. Terrinoth is a Fantasy Flight Games creation, and they have set a number of their other games in the universe, notably Descent: Journeys in the Dark, but also Runewars, a sprawling war game; DungeonQuest, which has recently had a revised edition announcement; Rune Age, a deck building game that is another of my favourites, and most recently, BattleLore second edition. All of these games come emblazoned with ‘set in the Runebound universe’ on their boxes, but there has been no move to keep this ‘parent game’ in circulation.

Furthermore, the new second edition of Descent, which has been expanding at a rate of knots since it was released in July 2012, has significantly moved the setting away from the tales of Vorakesh and the Dragon Lords. While some enemies persist, Descent has shown us new evils that have arisen, notably Zachareth. Runewars and BattleLore have shown us that Terrinoth is now faction-based (resurrecting the Battle Mist game), rather than hero-centric, and it would be difficult to imagine where a new version of Runebound would fit.

Furthermore, in a more meta-based approach, games like Runebound have themselves begun to fade into legend. None of this subsequent paragraph is meant to sound elitist whatsoever, but unfortunately, it probably will anyway. In the past, it was quite common for “serious” board games like Runebound, or Arkham Horror, to last between 2 and 4 hours. In recent years, there is a distinct move towards quickening the pace of such games, perhaps as gaming has become increasingly mainstream and to entice new faces who might be scared off by being around a table with bits of card for so long. While Arkham Horror’s recently arrived sibling Eldritch Horror has, on paper, the same playing time as the elder game, I find it does in fact play significantly quicker than AH. Battlelore plays in half the time of Runebound, etc etc etc. Perhaps, then, reflecting a trend in general for people to be less inclined to focus on one activity for such a length of time, board games are also shrinking their playing times, but unfortunately there isn’t (to my mind) any way to shrink Runebound down without significantly altering the game so as to be virtually unrecognisable. Perhaps, then, it is this reason that is preventing a new edition from coming.

Hopefully I’ll be proven wrong, and there’ll be new Runebound for everyone to enjoy soon. It’s getting on for four years since there was last anything new for this game, though, and I do find it increasingly unlikely as time goes on.

Hm. I don’t want to end this post on such a downer. Runebound is awesome! If you can, play it now! It’s awesome! 🙂

Runebound

 

Ah, revision!

As you may or may not know – but as I’m sure you’re eager to learn – I have an exam on June 4. Since October, I’ve been muddling through A200 Exploring History Medieval to Modern for my Open University degree, and the sixth and final essay was submitted off at the beginning of this month. I have two and a half weeks to go before I sit down in front of the exam paper, so in that time I suppose I need to make sure I remember the past seven months-worth of learning!

Urgh.

I’ve never been very good at revision. When I was in school, I tended to rely on the fact that I have a very good memory, as I didn’t know where to begin. I mean, is there a ‘way’ to revise? I don’t know. I think I’ve heard people talk like there is. But the idea of making notes about stuff I already made notes about once seems a bit daft, to put it mildly!

To this end, anyway, I have decided that the best thing I can do is just look over all of the course material once more, and try to assimilate that into some sort of coherency. Hm.

Today, anyway, I have been looking back over the first of the six blocks that made up the module, the fascinating ‘England, France and Burgundy in the fifteenth century’ – and I mean that with no trace of sarcasm, as I really enjoyed this one. Dealing with basically the second half of the Hundred Years War, and leading right up to the Wars of the Roses, it was a truly interesting block.

For one thing, I didn’t know that France at this time was largely a collection of duchies without formal centralised control – that was only brought about by Charles VII once he had expelled the English from Normandy and Gascony (though Calais would remain in English hands until the next century). It was really interesting seeing how the modern state of France was formed out of this, as it’s easy to forget (I think) that England is actually the oldest centralised state, and most of Europe caught up over the last five hundred years or so. The adventures of Charles VII, Henry V, John Beaufort and of course, Joan of Arc, really do deserve wider currency!

The best thing about this block, though, was the Burgundian bits. The Duchy of Burgundy was originally a vassal duchy of the Kingdom of France, but the dukes had increased their power-base into being almost a kingdom-within-a-kingdom. Philip the Good (it seems all the Dukes of Burgundy had awesome nicknames) made some shrewd marriages that landed him territory in modern-day Belgium and the Netherlands, increasing his influence out from under that of his vassal lord, and his son, Charles the Bold (see?), was taking steps to join up the two areas into a homogenous duchy when he was killed in 1477. While I suppose it’s not technically a state, seeing the territorial expansion of Burgundy in this period is nevertheless really fascinating!

Up next is the Reformation, and John Calvin in Geneva…