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…

Dark Force Rising

Dark Force Rising

Here we are, on part two of the fantastic Thrawn Trilogy, Timothy Zahn’s epic and trailblazing book series set following the events of Return of the Jedi. If you remember back to the first of the series, the Empire is pretty desperate for warships, but the New Republic had thwarted their attempt to raid the Sluis Van shipyards. However, the top military commander Admiral Ackbar had been placed under arrest for treason…

Dark Force Rising picks up the story immediately, as Grand Admiral Thrawn exacts retribution against the smuggler chief Talon Karrde for harbouring Luke Skywalker. Karrde has abandoned his base on Myrkr, and in a narrow escape relocates to a new base on Rishi. Meanwhile on Coruscant, the New Republic is in more turmoil with the reaction that a Grand Admiral is on the loose. The ambitious Borsk Fey’lya is determined to bring Admiral Ackbar down, prompting Luke, Han and Leia to try to salvage his reputation. Discovering that the only planet the Bothans aggressively defended during the Rebellion years was New Cov, Luke and Han check it out while Leia and Chewbacca leave to keep their rendezvous with the Noghri commando Khabarakh, where Leia hopes to end their continued kidnapping attempts against her.

On New Cov, Han discovers Fey’lya’s top aide in some kind of arrangement with a mysterious faction. The Empire suddenly begins a raid as a covert form of taxation of the planet, during which time Han and Lando, who has met up with them on the surface, leave with this new group for their base. Luke, with nothing else to contribute, decides to head off to Jomark and investigate the rumours of the reappearance of Joruus C’baoth.

Leia and Chewbacca eventually arrive on Honoghr, the Noghri homeworld, to discover an utterly devastated world. However, their appearance coincides with Grand Admiral Thrawn’s decision to personally inspire his commandos in their hunt for Leia. Khabarakh manages to hide Leia and Chewie just before Thrawn arrives at his village, and the assassin is questioned about his failure on Kashyyyk. The Empire arrives at a partial truth, that the Noghri was captured by the Wookiees and then freed, and Khabarakh is sentenced to a public shaming before formal Imperial interrogation begins.

Han and Lando are taken to the mysterious base Peregrine’s Nest, where they are introduced to a ghost from the past, Senator Garm bel Iblis. The Senator was believed to have been killed on Anchoron years past, but it emerges that he went into hiding and has since been waging a private war against the Empire. Wondering why he didn’t join the Rebellion before now, it eventually emerges that bel Iblis was one of the key architects of the original Rebel Alliance – the Senator for Corellia, it was he who had postulated the idea of an alliance to Mon Mothma and Bail Organa, and the subsequent treaty formalising the group was called the Corellian Trilogy. Following the death of Organa on Alderaan, Mon Mothma began to pull more power to herself, leading to bel Iblis leaving what he thought would be just another dictatorship in time. While nothing of that sort has happened, his pride has stopped him from joining the New Republic, and Han and Lando leave empty handed.

Garm bel Iblis

Although… bel Iblis’ fleet consists of three dreadnaught-class heavy cruisers, which Lando suddenly realises are part of the lost Katana-fleet. Pre-Clone Wars ships linked together with a full-rig slave circuit system, the crews had all been infected with a hive virus and, insane, jumped into hyperspace together, nobody knowing where. The fleet had been thought lost…

However, if there’s one person who knows more about the goings-on in the galaxy, it’s Talon Karrde. On a smuggling run years ago, the ship he was serving on had made an emergency jump to escape the authorities and landed right in the middle of the fleet. Thinking it a trap, they’d made another emergency jump, but later Karrde had realised what it was they’d run into. With Grand Admiral Thrawn’s bounty on him, Karrde is convinced that Thrawn wants the fleet.

On Jomark, Luke finally meets Master C’baoth and is startled at his manner, but is still eager to learn from him. However, C’baoth’s casual disregard for so-called “lesser beings” brings some doubts into Luke’s mind as to whether he’s doing the right thing.

Mara arrives at Abregado-rae to collect one of Karrde’s ships, but is unfortunately captured by the Imperials. Deciding to try to bluff her way out, she uses her former Emperor’s Hand code clearances to get access directly to Thrawn, where she bargains the Katana-fleet in exchange for a pardon for Karrde’s entire organisation. Thrawn agrees, and lets Mara leave to get the location. However, the Imperials track her to Karrde’s base, and kidnap him anyway. Mara feels betrayed by Thrawn, and comes to realise that this is not the Empire she once served. She determines to rescue Karrde, with the help of her nemesis, Luke Skywalker.

Noghri

On Honoghr, Leia feels helpless as the Noghri seem inflexible in their loyalty to the Empire. Years ago, a space battle devastated the planet, and it was Darth Vader who brought their salvation. However, when she realises just how long ago it was, Leia is furious – forty-four years of Imperial enslavement resolves her to liberate the species, and with Chewie’s help she manages to prove that the Imperial decontamination droids that have been supposedly helping to clean up the planet are in fact renewing the poison, keeping the Noghri people on the bare brink of survival while remaining firmly in their debt. The Noghri determine their debt has in fact been paid, and Leia leaves for Coruscant to get them some real aid.

Mara arrives on Jomark and manages to gain Luke’s support when she proves to him that C’baoth is working for the Empire. They head off to Thrawn’s flagship Chimaera to rescue Karrde, posing as a supply shuttle to gain entry on board. With Mara’s top-level access to the computer systems, they manage to spring Karrde from his cell, but when Thrawn realises they have intruders aboard, he orders the entire starship computer system shut down. The heroes manage to escape on the Millennium Falcon, which the Empire picked up from orbit around Endor where Leia left it, and head back to Coruscant.

Han and Lando receive a message “from Luke” to return to New Cov, where they find the starship thief Niles Ferrier waiting for them. He offers to team up to find the Katana-fleet, but Lando heartily mistrusts him based on past dealings. Ferrier’s real motive was to plant a homing beacon on their ship. Working for the Empire, Ferrier knows the name of the man who has been supplying bel Iblis’ ships, but not where to find him. Han and Lando, on the other hand, know where to find him but not the name. Ferrier tracks them to the Coral Vanda luxury submarine casino, where the Empire attacks. They successfully capture bel Iblis’ supplier, who turns out to have been Karrde’s former smuggling captain, and who likewise figured out what they had stumbled into on that botched smuggling run.

Everybody meets back on Coruscant, where Fey’lya attempts to salvage something of his reputation by casting doubt on Karrde’s story. Deciding they’ll send a tech team to check out the location, the New Republic commits a fatal error. Karrde requests that Leia send a team that night to try to salvage the fleet, but Fey’lya is livid when he finds out and sets out to follow them. Since Ackbar was accused of treason, Fey’lya has been gaining the support of the military while making not overt move towards the admiral’s position, but at the Katana-fleet, he makes a critical mistake and loses that support and his power.

Borsk Fey'lya

At any rate, the New Republic arrived too late: of the original 200-strong fleet, only fifteen ships remained. After a short battle with the Empire, the New Republic forces return to Coruscant with the disturbing knowledge that the Imperial war machine now consists of armies of cloned stormtroopers.


As with Heir to the Empire, my synopsis here really doesn’t do the book justice. There is so much going on that it is really a feast for the senses! The subterfuge and political infighting is perhaps more pronounced in this one, as we learn more of what Borsk Fey’lya is up to, and we also learn a lot about the early years of the Rebellion. While the book is by no means light on action, it nevertheless is a classic middle-act, where we’ve seen most of the major players, and now we get the proper adventuring underway, as both sides move into position and get things ready for the final confrontation.

However, while we learn more about the characters introduced in the first book, we also get to meet a new one, Garm bel Iblis. By no means a bit-player, the senator is a really great addition to the lineup, not least because of the sense of history he brings to the series. One of the original leaders of the Alliance, we see a more nuanced history of the early years, adding increasing depth to an already well-filled-out story.

It all adds together to form a really believably story, where you get a real sense that these characters are alive in this universe. Whereas a lot of Star Wars books tend towards telling a grand story that is often really good, but ultimately not very far-reaching, Zahn’s work here has so much scope, it reaches back into the past, giving it a richness that has really been unrivaled since – even by my other favourite SW author, James Luceno.

Something that’s worth mentioning, though, is the whole Clone Wars business. I’ll most likely give this a full discussion when I get to The Last Command, but as it first raises the question here, let’s get it out in the open. Prior to Attack of the Clones being released in 2002, it seemed that nobody really knew what the Clone Wars were about, or when they really took place. Dark Force Rising puts the date roughly around 35 years before the Battle of Yavin, so before the events of The Phantom Menace, and while it is never overtly expressed, the general feel is that the war was about a group of clones that went bad and wreaked havoc in the galaxy. The fact that Lucasfilm signed off on this trilogy as being a legitimate sequel to the films suggests, to me, that Lucas didn’t really know what he wanted to do with the prequels back in 1991. But the whole point’s kinda moot now, I suppose. Anyway, a proper discussion of clones and stuff will be coming soon!

So, go get yourself a copy. And get lost in the galaxy far, far away…

Previous: Heir to the Empire
Next: The Last Command

Tarkin, and other thoughts

Time for another blog – where would your Saturday be without it, right? It’s been a fairly uneventful week, partially because I’ve already been posting about other stuff I’ve been getting up to. I went to Beeston Castle, I finished reading Heir to the Empire, and I had a very exciting delivery in the mail! Things are kinda slowing down right now, though, as I’m preparing to make a short trip that will no doubt make it to this platform soon enough!

Something that really needs to be mentioned, though, is Yoo Ninja. I discovered this game the other day in the Play Store while looking for interesting free stuff, and I’ve been playing it a lot since! Maybe not as much as Flying Squirrel, which is still my go-to android game for wasting time with, but still – there’s something about Ninja platform games that appeals to me, and while I’m not particularly good at it (I can’t begin to tell you how many groans of anger and dismay have come from me this past week), I find it difficult to stop!

https://plus.google.com/u/0/105905796756477877617/posts/g1n5XvG1rep

I’ve seen some interesting stuff this week on twitter and G+ about the upcoming new Star Wars books, particularly Tarkin, and I’ve gotta say, I’m kinda mixed about this. It’s got James Luceno writing it, so it’s doubtful that it’ll be bad, but at the same time…I dunno…

I guess I just feel uneasy about it all because of what’s happened to the EU. Whereas before there would have been a certain security in being able to perhaps imagine particular familiar faces cropping up (Daala, anyone?), now we’re a bit at sea. I suppose we’ll see what November brings, anyway.

 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I’ve also been playing some board games. But that’ll be for another time…

More horror!

Today, I had a small avalanche of games delivered, and while they were all exciting in their own way, I brushed everything aside in order to get my hands on Forsaken Lore, the newly-released expansion to Eldritch Horror.

Eldritch Horror Forsaken Lore
Forsaken Lore – along with some other stuff…

I’ve been excited for a while now, but to finally have it was particularly awesome. There are a lot of cards in this box – in fact, the expansion is pretty much entirely cards that expand the game, along with some cardboard tokens and a rules sheet:

Eldritch Horror Forsaken Lore

But, oh my! What exciting new content there is!

To start with, there is the new Ancient One, the Serpent-God Yig. You may remember him from the HP Lovecraft / Zealia Bishop story ‘The Curse of Yig‘,  set in Oklahoma and featuring the adventures of an ophidiophobe and his wife. Or you may know all about him from the classic board game Arkham Horror, where he appears as one of the original line-up of Ancient Ones to battle. In that game, Yig is commonly accepted as the easiest of the AOs to defeat, however in his new incarnation here, he is a little tougher…

Eldritch Horror Forsaken Lore

None of the base mechanics are changed by the expansion, we just get more of the same. There are still three mysteries to solve, research encounters to have, and monsters keep spawning all over the board to thwart your progress. When the expansion was first announced, there was some murmuring as to whether it would provide the blueprint for future expansions, or whether there would be a two-tier process much like Arkham Horror before it, where we get small boxes and big ones. The fact that Forsaken Lore does nothing to significantly alter the gameplay makes me believe that we will, in fact, be seeing big-box expansions that have something more significant within them, notably new heroes.

However, I have to say that I am so impressed with this box, I wouldn’t actually mind if Forsaken Lore does in fact end up being the sole business model by which this game is expanded. In the box, we have:

  • 6 all-new Yig Mysteries
  • 24 Yig Research Encounters
  • 8 Yig Special Encounters “K’n-Yan Unearthed”
  • 8 new ‘American’ (green) encounters
  • 8 new ‘European’ (orange) encounters
  • 8 new ‘Asian’ (purple) encounters
  • 4 new general (black) encounters
  • 6 new Expedition encounters (one for each expedition space)
  • 6 new Other World encounters
  • 6 new Mythos cards (two in each colour)
  • 28 new Spell cards (including two brand new spells)
  • 24 new Condition cards (including two brand new conditions)
  • 16 new Asset cards
  • 8 new Artifact cards

And in addition to all of that, there are also:

  • 8 new Mystery cards (two for each of the base game’s four Ancient Ones)
  • 64 new Research Encounter cards (16 for each of the base game’s four Ancient Ones)
  • 2 new Cthulhu Special Encounters
  • 10 new Yog-Sothoth Special Encounters (including 8 for a new “Void Between Worlds” deck)

On top of these 250 cards, we have seven new epic monsters, including Yig himself!

So much new content!

People were clamouring for new cards to bulk-out the base game’s Ancient Ones, as there were surprisingly few cards for each one to allow for significant replayability. Perhaps one reason why the expansion has come out so soon (barely six months) after the base game itself. While I have only used Yig so far, so have yet to experience the full glory of this expansion by using the new cards for the old Gods, it does look like a whole ton of good stuff waiting right there – in case you hadn’t picked up on it, my first impression of this expansion is AWESOME!

Something that I particularly appreciate is the fact that, while there are spells and conditions that are in common with the base game, the effects on these double-sided cards are different. So while a Dark Pact could get you devoured in the base game, here the same card has a different effect if you’re forced to flip it over. Same with spells – I think all of the base game’s spells are reproduced here, but their effects on the reverse are different each time. The work that has gone into this is amazing!

I’m also really impressed with how cohesive the snake theme is. The new location encounter cards have all got some reference to it, meaning for a theme player like myself, you’ll want to keep this content separate from the base game, and while it’s entirely possible to mix everything together before play, personally I think I’m going to play against Yig using only the new encounter decks, to get the full serpent experience!


 

I’m sure you’re all wondering by now how my first game went. I said earlier that the Yig of EH is a little tougher than his AH appearance… by which I mean, I was owned. There is a subtle difference when playing against each of the AOs, of course, and with Yig the first thing that got me was having to go on expeditions a lot more than usual. The three mysteries I had to solve were relatively straightforward: the first, K’n-yan Unearthed, involved having a special encounter, most of which I kept failing, but I got there in the end. Then I had to defeat the Children of Yig epic monster, which was straightforward enough, except that in order to even have a combat encounter you have to pass an observation test, and if you fail, the Children move to another space – which they did for me.

Eldritch Horror Forsaken Lore

I finally defeated them, however at that point the doom track reached 0 and Yig woke up! His Final Mystery involves defeating the epic monster Yig, however I didn’t make it that far. There are 8 eldritch tokens placed on him when he wakes up, and when doom would ordinarily advance, instead one token is removed, until all eight have been taken off and the world ends. To my credit, I came so ridiculously close I couldn’t actually believe it – the final mythos card forced the removal of the last eldritch token just as my heroes were poised to take the big ol’ snake on!

Eldritch Horror Forsaken Lore

I was gutted like a fish.

I’d started the game with Trish Scarborough and Lily Chen, but first Trish succombed to insanity (to be replaced by the hardy Akachi Onyele), then Lily was killed, with Mark Harrigan taking up her place. Yig woke up, and shortly thereafter Mark was also driven insane, and Diana Stanley stepped into the breach. However, the shaman and the redeemed cultist were no match for the Father of Serpents, who promptly devoured the world. Urgh!

So yeah, I can thoroughly recommend you pick this expansion up! It’s well worth the money, bringing so much more to the game! I can hardly wait to see what’s next…

Heir to the Empire

Heir to the Empire

So here we begin! This morning I finished reading Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn, arguably the best book ever written to carry the Star Wars logo, and certainly in my top five favourite books of all time. Without a trace of hyperbole, this book quite dramatically changed my life. I have already talked about how I discovered it in the school library all those years ago, of course, but having now re-read it again I feel that I need to devote one blog to each of the three installments. I realise these blogs might begin to sound a bit weird, but I don’t really care. This book is just awesome, I cannot emphasize that enough. But let me tell you why.

In the late 1980s, Star Wars was, to be blunt, pretty much dead. The film series had ended in 1983, and aside from West End Games publishing RPG material, there was precious little reason to think anything other than Star Wars was finished. I mean, role-playing games were confined to spotty kids playing in basements, if the stereotype is to be believed. But then, the unthinkable happened. A novel was published that continued the story of Han, Luke and Leia post-Return of the Jedi, and it went straight to the top of the New York Times Bestsellers. With a demonstrable desire for further stories set in the galaxy far, far away, the 90s were launched with a whole new purpose!

Sounds good, doesn’t it? Well, it pretty much happened like that, anyway.

Zahn wrote the trilogy at one of the lowest ebbs of the saga, when the small group of fans who had been subsisting on VHS copies of the films were desperate for more. So while you might be tempted to think the Thrawn trilogy was just a case of right place, right time, to do so would be a massive underestimation.

For me, the reason why the trilogy is so awesome is that is is just so believable. I mean, as much as sci-fi/fantasy ever is. The characters that we saw on the screen are so believably written, from the big three down to the bit players like Mon Mothma and Wedge Antilles, according to Zahn because he used to have audiotapes of the films on in the car when on long journeys to distract his son, which gave him an innate feel for the speech patterns of the characters. But where his skill lies most obviously, for me, is the effortless way he weaves his own characters into the mix, to make you feel like you know them as well as anyone who actually had screen time. Mara Jade, Talon Karrde, and Grand Admiral Thrawn are all written so absolutely convincingly that they are names that loom large in Star Wars mythology, no matter what Disney is going to try to convince us is the ‘official’ history.

Grand Admiral Thrawn

Heir to the Empire is set five years after the Battle of Endor, where the Empire’s territory has been shrinking in the face of the Rebel Alliance, now installed as the New Republic with Mon Mothma as the first chancellor. Leia and Han are married, and Leia is pregnant. Luke is still a bit uneasy with the idea of being the last of the Jedi, though as Ben’s ghost tells him as the book opens, he is the first of the new order of Jedi knights. The weight of having to train both his sister and eventually her children is heavy upon him as he worries about failing them as Ben admitted he had failed Anakin Skywalker. All of this leads to a Luke who is pretty depressed for most of the book, something that bugged me when I first read it. But then, on reflection, I feel now that it is perfectly reasonable. Luke is always somewhat a part of and apart from the ensemble cast in the films. At the end of RotJ, where did we all think the heroes were going next? Han and Leia were pretty obviously going to have a wonderful life together making babies, but Luke has done his job by redeeming Vader and bringing about the end of the Empire. Being such a massive part of galactic history is bound to weigh heavily on you, if all you’d been brought up to do was moisture farming.

Into this happy world, though, the Empire is once again making waves. There is a sense, right from the beginning, that Zahn is very conscious of the history of the universe he is writing in, and we get a real feeling that this is a real place, where the characters don’t exist in a vacuum but know about stuff that happened years ago. But while there is perhaps an over-reliance on characters remembering their movie lives only, there is nevertheless a scope here, a depth that the movies themselves had. That bounty hunter on Ord Mantell? That manoeuvre at the Battle of Taanab? There are similar references all over the place here, and it continues throughout the trilogy. I also really like the fact that the rebellion years are referred to as “the war” throughout the novel. It’s something that we would do in real life, after all. The best example, however, has got to be the Clone Wars. What was essentially a throwaway line by Luke in A New Hope that served little other than to fill in some expositional back story, the Clone Wars are obviously a very real galactic event, with their repercussions being felt still. Remember, though, that this was all written before the prequels, so Zahn’s interpretation is technically incorrect in light of subsequent media. As a Star Wars fan, though, I find myself increasingly wanting to separate the timeline in two, so that we have stuff like the Bantam era novels, all of which only have the original three films (and, as time goes on, each other) to rely on, and everything that has been released since 1999. At least this way I don’t need to worry about irregularities like this. I’ll probably talk more about this when I get to The Last Command, anyway. Suffice it to say, there is a real scope here that I like a lot.

Mara Jade

The new characters that Zahn created for the trilogy are the best points of the books for me, though. I’ll start with the trilogy’s eponymous villain, Grand Admiral Thrawn, the mysterious alien commander of the Empire’s forces. West End Games are responsible for a lot of the ‘facts’ about Star Wars, some of them a bit bizarre, but nevertheless they worked hard to explain pretty much everything we see in the films. A case in point is the fact that all of the Imperials are exclusively human men – well, this is because the Emperor had a well-known anti-alien bias, naturally, giving him the dimensions of a Hitler. However, Thrawn, with his pale blue skin and his glowing red eyes, is a curious exception – that he achieved the rank of Grand Admiral is nothing short of amazing. What was it that prompted the Emperor to make such an exception? Well, throughout Zahn’s work in the Star Wars universe, we learn all sorts of things about Thrawn, culminating in his novel Vision of the Future, where we learn almost all of his backstory.

Zahn has got a way with portraying the criminal underworld of the Star Wars universe, as seen in his most recent novel for the saga, Scoundrels. Throughout the trilogy, we’re introduced to some really excellent, diverse smuggler groups, the most important of which is Talon Karrde’s organisation. Said to have taken over as the biggest group following Jabba the Hutt’s demise, Karrde’s smugglers are an eclectic bunch, most of whom are convincingly portrayed so as to be as believable as any of the main group.

Mara Jade & Talon Karrde

Karrde’s lieutenant is Mara Jade, who is quite literally the most important non-movie character in the entire Star Wars saga. From the off, she’s an interesting character, and throughout the book we get increasing hints as to her backstory, culminating in her explanation to Luke in the depths of the Myrkr forest. The Emperor’s private assassin is perhaps too good an opportunity to pass up on, and so she has been peppered into books throughout the 1990s, until eventually she and Luke get married in the pages of the comic Union. However, that’s all a long way in the future. For the bulk of the trilogy, Mara hates the big three for ruining her privileged position in the Imperial court, but she hates Luke most of all, as she believes he killed the Emperor. Her final command from her master was to kill Luke at Jabba’s palace, but she failed when Jabba sentenced Luke to die at the sarlacc pit. Having pieced her life together following the Emperor’s death at Endor, she has made it to Karrde’s right-hand-woman, when once again Luke Skywalker falls into her life and threatens to turn it upside-down.

The secondary characters he has added to the pantheon, such as Winter, Borsk Fey’lya, Joruus C’baoth and Captain Pellaeon, are all similarly handled excellently. Winter feels like she really is Leia’s childhood friend from Alderaan, and I was so convinced by Fey’lya that I had to rewatch the Alliance briefing scene in RotJ to see if the furry little Bothan was indeed there! It’s all just wonderful!


 

A synopsis can’t really do this awesome story justice, as the breadth of detail is just so rich, but I’ll give it a go. So, the Empire is making a renewed stab at the Rebellion under the leadership of Grand Admiral Thrawn. Part of his plan requires the use of some technology the Emperor squirreled away on a planet called Wayland, along with the services of the dark Jedi who has been guarding this storehouse. Thrawn recruits Joruus C’baoth, who we learn is the unstable clone of a long-dead Jedi Master, to co-ordinate his battles through the Force. In return, Thrawn promises C’baoth he will deliver Leia Organa Solo and her unborn Jedi twins. For this task, he recruits his Noghri assassins, an alien race personally loyal to the Grand Admiral. At a diplomatic meeting on the planet Bimmisaari, the Noghri make their first move but, due to quick thinking and luck, Luke, Han and Leia manage to escape. The next attempt, on the planet Bpfassh, nearly succeeds, but at the last minute the heroes manage to escape once more.

Luke, concerned with the responsibility of training the next generation of Jedi, heads back to Dagobah on a hunch, and while there has a haunting vision of failure at the Pit of Carkoon. He also discovers a battered piece of technology that Artoo allegedly saw Lando use on Cloud City, so determines to visit his old friend at Nkllon. Han, concerned about the commando attacks, decides to find somewhere to hole Leia up, but in order to keep in touch with galactic events they need a slicer to tap into the fledgling New Republic comm channels. He also heads to Nkllon and Lando, and in the brief reunion for the heroes, the Empire strikes, stealing fifty of Lando’s mole miners for purposes unknown. During the course of this incursion, Luke feels the presence of C’baoth, and the rumour that a Jedi has appeared on the backworld of Jomark prompts him to look into the matter.

Leia and Chewbacca decide to head to the Wookiee homeworld of Kashyyyk while Han and Lando look into getting a slicer from Talon Karrde’s smuggling organisation. Luke, on his way to Jomark, is ambushed by the Imperials, as Thrawn wants to prevent him distracting C’baoth at this time. Luke manages to escape, but his X-Wing is crippled in the effort. He’s picked up by Karrde and taken as something of a prisoner to the planet Myrkr, where he is cut off from the Force due to the indigenous creatures, ysalmiri, who create bubbles in the Force as a natural camouflage. Karrde expressly doesn’t want to be involved in the Imperial-Republic conflict, but Luke’s presence is the stumbling block that draws him in.

On Kashyyyk, Leia is attacked again, however, one of the Noghri commandos recognises her as the daughter of Darth Vader and refuses to kidnap her. During questioning later, it transpires that, following a space battle above the Noghri homeworld, a chemical contamination killed the world and would have doomed the species, had not Vader arrived and helped them rebuild. In return, the Noghri have served the Empire ever since. Leia arranges to go to the world with the commando Khabarakh, in an attempt to bring the Noghri out of the Empire’s pall.

Han and Lando manage to meet with Karrde on Myrkr, shortly before the Imperials arrive to collect more ysalmiri. During the confusion Luke tries to escape, but is pursued by Karrde’s lieutenant Mara Jade, who is openly hostile to him. Both ships crash in the forest and the two have to work together to make it back to civilization, during which time Mara explains her Imperial past and her last command from the Emperor. However, despite multiple opportunities, she doesn’t follow through. Han and Lando, learning that Luke had been held as a prisoner by Karrde, head off to rescue him from the Imperials left as a rearguard. They succeed, but their actions don’t go unnoticed by Thrawn.

However, the Grand Admiral doesn’t have time to exact retribution straightaway, as the wheels are in motion for the battle of Sluis Van! Han and Luke arrive at the Sluis Van shipyards to get Luke’s X-Wing repaired, just as the Imperials launch their attack: using the captured mole miners, they intend to capture the New Republic’s warships that are currently docked there. Luckily, Lando is also on board, and uses his command codes to shut the mole miners down. The Empire withdraws, and in the middle of the mess Han receives an urgent call from Leia on Coruscant – the ambitious Bothan Borsk Fey’lya has accused Admiral Ackbar of treason…


 

The book – indeed, the entire trilogy – has so much to commend it, I can’t begin to tell you how much I love it! Though I’ve made something of an effort with this blog… Well, anyway, the only thing I can tell you is that it is awesome, and you should go ahead and buy it right now. Put all other commitments on hold, and read it. Once you’ve read it, read the second and third installments, and then sit back and bask in perhaps the most productive way you have ever spent your time!

This trilogy IS episodes VII, VIII and IX for me, and I’m sure it’s the same for many fans around the globe. I don’t mean to be down on Disney all the time, but faced with a novel trilogy of this magnitude, I would say they have no hope in producing anything that would be more compelling, more entertaining, and more fabulous than this.

So what are your thoughts? Do you also love Heir to the Empire, and all of Zahn’s greatness? Or do you prefer the Jedi Academy trilogy? Let me know in the comments!

Next:
1. Dark Force Rising
2. The Last Command

A blog for Tuesday!

The Out of Office is on, and I’m now off work for thirteen days! Yay for that! I hope you’re all braced for extra geekiness to come your way… I’m hoping the weather will hold, because I’ve got some exciting plans for these days!

I got home today to find this on my doorstep:

X-Wing Rebel Transport
(It was obviously not literally like this on my doorstep – there was packaging involved)

Kind of a nice segue from the last post really! For those of you who don’t know, Fantasy Flight Games has been churning out Star Wars games since the end of 2012, and along with the card game, there is a role-playing game, and this, the X-Wing miniatures game. And much like the card game, I haven’t got to play much of any of these others, either – much to my eternal upset! X-Wing is a tactical miniatures game that involves a LOT of scale models. I was going to do a bit of a display of them all for this shot, but frankly couldn’t face getting out my entire collection (for a game that I never play, I have got a TON of ships for it), so instead here’s a nice picture of the ships in this box, plus the Millennium Falcon:

X-Wing Rebel Transport

Nice, huh? In case you’re interested, Wil Wheaton did an episode of TableTop where they played X-Wing, it’s pretty fun and demonstrates most of the gameplay, and you can check it out here:

In other news, I finally had the correct issue of Star Wars Insider delivered today also, so I hope to get the Zahn short story read soon. However, I’m not sure when exactly I’ll get to it, as I started the massive event that is the Thrawn Trilogy this weekend! Have I mentioned this already? I can’t remember. Well, anyway, I’ve been reading Heir to the Empire again and it’s awesome, there will soon be a blog dedicated solely to this book – you just wait! I currently plan to do a write-up on each book, because they’re each one just super awesome, you don’t even know!

Aw, yeah!

So that’s it for now, anyway. I’m going to try and get some more interesting stuff written over the course of the next two weeks, so I hope you like it, and please leave comments, because I like them 🙂