I’m going to warn you right now, this post contains a lot of me bragging about how I got to spend yesterday playing Cthulhu Wars and you didn’t. On the other hand, there will be a lot less bragging about my performance, as I was up against Sandy’s sons, Grant and Arthur, who proceeded to crush me under a mass of squirming tentacles and clever tactics. Repeatedly. Even so, I’d do it again in a heartbeat. It was an astonishly fun experience.
A quick bit of background: Unless this is your first visit here, you know that I kind of like playing board games. If you’ve read my books, you also know that I might be obsessed with Lovecraftian horror. So, when I saw Cthulhu Wars on Kickstarter with Sandy Petersen’s name on the box, you can imagine how badly I wanted to give it a try .
For those not in the tentacles-and-insanity crowd, Sandy created Call of Cthulhu, the groundbreaking pen and paper role playing game that introduced me and a generation of gamers to Lovecraft’s mythos. In all seriousness, if it weren’t for Sandy Petersen, I’d probably be writing about elves or vampires or god knows what. He also worked on a couple of video games that you may have heard of, like Doom and Age of Empires, so I guess it’s fair to say that he was instrumental in creating both the things that influenced my writing and the stuff that frequently prevented me from doing that writing. If it weren’t for Sandy, the entire horror video and board gaming genres that we take for granted today would be very different.
In any case, when I saw that the father of Lovecraftian gaming was launching something epic for the tabletop, I started
stalking reaching out to him. And because he’s a delightful and charming man, he had no problem ordering his security to let me up so I could take a look at his new game.
First of all, let me tell you two things about the figures. One: photos don’t do them justice. They’re huge, intricately detailed, and vividly imagined. Hastur is the size of a baby’s head. You can see the souls swirling in Nyarlathotep’s belly-maw. Cthulhu could easily serve as a standalone piece of decoration for your mantle (until your creeped-out significant other took it down and asked what was wrong with you). Just take a look at Shub-Niggurath and her kids to get an idea for the level of care and detail in these figures. Click for a close up view:
The second thing about the figures is that they aren’t built this way for the sake of looking cool on the Kickstarter page. Anything less would have been a disservice to the gameplay. The first time you see the abilities of the factions, all you can think is that they are completely, insanely overpowered.
Cthulhu is an engine of destruction who begins devouring his enemies before combat even starts, and worse, he can appear with his impossibly hard to kill and offensively overwhelming minions anywhere he wants at any time. Did I mention that the Shoggoths can become powerful enough to destroy even an elder god by themselves or that the Star Spawn are even worse?
Or that Shub-Niggurath can give birth to an entire army in a single turn? Get anywhere near her brood and you’re in for a bad day. Of course, staying away from her is no picnic, either. Her fungal Mi-Go can cause a planet-wide extinction event and even her cultists are rabid enough to kill enemy monsters.
Nyarlathotep has a cadre of flying engines of destruction that appear instantly whenever his faction is threatened, and if it looks like you might survive that, he can make you completely irrelevant by shifting you right out of reality. You’ll enjoy watching invisibly from the sidelines as the rest of your faction is ground up into giblets. And on the off chance that you do manage to fight back, he actually gains victory points when successfully attacked. Delightful.
And then there’s Hastur. His place in the pantheon is as the assassin of the other gods, if that gives you any idea what its like to face the King in Yellow. There’s literally no protection from his attacks, so be prepared to kiss your best beasties and even your Great Old One goodbye. And because he draws power from corrupting the land he moves across, you’ll get to watch him continue to tear reality a new one while everyone else is helplessly out of power at the end of the turn. He actually exists as two separate Great Old Ones, because I guess one god-eating bastard wasn’t good enough, which would seem totally unfair if the other groups weren’t so completely nuts themselves.
Each faction is a complete nightmare. The board represents the entire Earth and it can barely contain them. It’s gloriously epic and visceral in a way that you rarely see in any game, much less a sophisticated strategy game like this one. The factions all feel badass and super-charged, instead of just generic sets of actions and win conditions lumped under a common theme. The fact that they are balanced against each other, while at the same time being completely asymmetrical in abilities, is a testament to Sandy’s skill as a game designer, as well as an absolute truckload of playtesting.
One thing I want to mention is despite having lots of unique units on the board like this:
… each player’s turn is very fast and straightforward. In fact, often a player’s turn will only last a few seconds, keeping everyone involved and immersed in the action. If you’re worried about let-me-surf-on-my-phone-between-turns syndrome, rest assured that nobody is going to be wandering off as play moves around the table. The secret is how Cthulhu Wars manages to break down fairly complex gameplay into easily manageable chunks that are still effective and easy to knit into an overall strategy.
Which brings me to replayability and tactical depth. You might think that because every faction is a nuclear weapon, there’s not much need for strategic finesse, but you’d be wrong. All of the factions are just as tough as you are and none of their awful tactics can be directly countered. You really do have to think on your feet if you want to survive the kind of stuff the other three factions are capable of throwing at you, but the brilliant thing about the way the game works is that none of the strategies you’re empowered to use require lots of time to get running. You can improvise and adapt fairly quickly, alternating between attacking, building up your forces, and triggering your own widespread destruction as events unfold.
The truth is that as much as I like Sandy, Cthulhu Wars would blow me away no matter who made it. The gameplay is fast and addictive, the strategy is deep yet accessible, and the arresting quality of the components sets a new bar for board games. It’s not cheap, but frankly, you’re looking at an *eight pound* box full of awesome. Without a doubt, there’s more value here than you’d expect for the price, especially if you’re serious about tabletop gaming.
As of this posting, there’s still time to pledge at the official Kickstarter, and there’s a crazy amount of free stuff at certain pledge levels. Here’s Sandy:
Ghost Stories is both amazing and amazingly hard. Basically, you get a fancy robe and the mandate to save a village from Wu-Feng, who is not only a complete bastard, but is bringing an army of demons and monsters to his end of the world party. The bad guys are relentless, and they pretty much only need a toehold in the village to end life as we know it.
Fortunately, you are a complete badass. The Taoist monks can do things like slow down time to double their number of actions, pull resources out of thin air, fly to any place on the board at will, and yawn in the face of the most potent curses. But as powerful as they are, the forces arrayed against them can sweep them aside at the first misstep.
Which is, of course, the brilliant thing about it. It’s a co-op game that requires real thought and teamwork to win, which is frankly kind of a rarity. The theme is strong, the art gorgeous, and the replay value high. It’s much more of a strategic puzzle than what you would normally think of as a theme game, but that only strengthens the long term playability of it.
It’s not a new game, having been introduced in 2008, but this was my first chance to play it. I have to say, it lives up to its reputation. If you haven’t tried it, do so. Trust me on this one.
Now, on to serious business. Most game days we order pizza to go with our mountains of cookies and chips and what-have-you, but this time we were able to order from a new Vietnamese place down the road. I had high hopes, but what they delivered totally blew me away. The pho was as deeply flavored as anything I’ve ever had, with a complex blend of sweet/spicy/earthy notes that worked together in perfect harmony. The broth was otherworldly, the noodles perfectly balanced between tender and firm, and the veggies fresh and crisp. Every bite was a flawless composition of texture, taste, and heat.
Also, see that sammich in the background there, next to the Galaxy Trucker board? That’s a grilled pork bahn mi, and it was easily as good as the pho. I probably shouldn’t have eaten both of them at the same time, since one is pretty much a whole meal by itself, but I lacked the superhuman will necessary to stop.
I regret nothing.
As usual, I leave you with the soothing vocalizations of Tom Vasel as he raves about this very tough game:
I think it’s obvious by now that I really want to fly a spaceship. I mean, duh, I’m kind of a huge nerd. And by fly a spaceship, I don’t just mean dogfighting and banking turns in a vacuum as if I were flying a P51 Mustang in space (although, god help me, I love that, too). I mean being part of a bridge crew and working together to not die in an expanding ball of plasma and velour uniform scraps.
This is set up for four people, each running a couple of stations. It plays 3-6 people, and for this game, the more the merrier.
In a nutshell, each player has a job to do in a 30 second window. Before and after these timed windows you have plenty of time to discuss strategy, but when it comes down to getting your Spock on, you need to take care of business in short order. Each of the stations is essentially a mini-game, which the player can become more skilled at over time.
This is the secret sauce of this game and the reason why I love it. Unlike other games, *cough*Space Alert*cough*, your ship is actually not a piece of crap. In fact, with a skilled bridge crew, you can be really friggin’ powerful. The crew of the USS Hull Breach never managed any real level of badassery, but it was totally possible. In this game, player skill trumps all, which makes it incredibly addicting.
If you’re interested in how the stations work, the game designers put up some fantastic short tutorial videos for each. Here’s the one for operating the helm:
None of the stations are particularly complex, but each one presents just enough of a challenge that you’re going to see a wide range of success in your thirty second window. Hats off to the Engelstein brothers who designed this game, it’s pure genius. A novice weapons officer can get the basic job done, loading and firing a torpedo for a bit of damage, but a master can load a spread of three, maybe even four torpedoes and wipe out all the enemies in a sector. The same holds true with pretty much all of the stations. Moreover, since many of the stations have a direct impact on the others (sensor locks increase damage, helm and shields work together to present an effective defense, etc), a strong officer winds up helping the entire ship.
If you have any interest in this kind of thing, and you should, then I recommend you pick this one up. Especially if you can put together a regular crew. While fun at a party or occasional gaming session, this one strongly rewards continued play.
As usual, here’s the clever and handsome Tom Vasel with a video review where he totally agrees with me:
I actually had to search my own blog twice just to make sure I hadn’t already talked about King of Tokyo. I’m kind of stunned that I haven’t, but I guess it’s true what they say: when you get old, the first thing that goes is your memory of giant cybernetic rabbits tearing chunks out of downtown Tokyo.
This game was released way back in 2011, but there are two reasons that I’m bringing it up now:
First, it’s awesome. There are very few games that I would unreservedly recommend for parties, kids, and serious gamers alike. This is one of them. The rules are few and clearly stated, the game is fast and furious, and it plays a ton of people at once. Also, you get to be a giant monster that mutates like crazy while battling robots/sea monsters/giant cyborg apes for supremacy.
Second, the expansion just came out, King of Tokyo:Power Up!, which adds a mini-deck of cards unique to every monster that gives you badass new abilities. This adds a new dimension to the game without bogging the game down or making things complicated.
If your friends and family get together over the holidays to play games, you should seriously consider adding this to your shelf.
If you don’t believe me, listen to the soothing voice of Tom Vasel as he gives his opinion in this video:
You can grab a copy on Amazon, here.
Similar to my beloved Descent, SDE is all about a noble dungeon owner trying to spread love and peace via monster hugs, and being attacked by treasure-thieving home invaders that call themselves heroes. Luckily, monsters love tasty heroes, so it all works out.
Here’s the BGG summary:
Super Dungeon Explore (SDE) is a dungeon crawler, inspired by old japanese console-RPG’s. The miniatures are done in a cute / chibi / super-deformed style, that means the head is roughly the same size as the rest of the body.
One to five players take the role of classic fantasy heroes like the human paladin, a dwarf fighter or an elf ranger. One player is the “Dark Consul” who controls the monsters of the dungeon.
Every hero/monster has a character card which informs you about the stats for movement, attack, armor, willpower, dexterity, action points and hearts (= life points). Additional information may include special abilities / actions / attacks and potions.
The game is played on modular dungeon boards. In a round of play the game passes back and forth between single heroes and the monsters, but the exact order may change from round to round. The characters use the stats from their character card, special dice (with hearts, potions and stars) are only used for combat and checks. If the heroes wound the opponent they may draw loot cards to improve their stats. There is also the possibility to open treasure chests to find even more powerful things. The monsters have no possibility to “level up” but the Dark Consul has an unlimited number of them.
To win the game the Dark Consul must defeat all heroes in his dungeon. The heroes must defeat all monsters and destroy all spawning points (= entry points for new monsters) to be victorious.
One caveat, the miniatures are super detailed and high quality, but require assembly. That’s not really my strong suit, but luckily for me, I happen to have a friend who can be bribed to assemble and paint these bad boys for me. [THANKS, JASON!] It doesn’t hurt that he’s a genius at this stuff, and can do it in a fraction of the time and with way better results than a mere mortal. That said, even if you don’t have access to a miniature-painting demigod, you can glue and assemble the pieces without too much trouble.
Here’s a review from Tom Vasel at The Dice Tower (Hint: he loves it!)
Have a board game geek in your life? Wondering what kind of weird damn thing they want THIS time?
Hint, they want this:
Check out this very long, very thorough review from Undead Viking!
And if, by chance, they already have a copy of Quarriors clutched in their clammy paws, you can always buy them the expansion.
For the next several weeks, we’re going to be releasing an absolute metric ton of info about FTZ. To do that, we’ve started a blog over on Board Game Geek. I’ll occasionally drop something off here at Fugitive Prose, but with the volume of game posts we’re planning, I figured it was best to keep things separated.
Here’s what the latest post looks like, wherein we reveal the hero figures for the game and talk a little about the lore. If board games are your thing (and they totally should be), come by so you can catch all the updates as they happen!
In 1942, four soldiers vanished from the training program of the newly formed First Ranger Battalion, their names stricken from the roster. Chosen for their unique skills, they would fight in secret against terrifying supernatural enemies and overwhelming odds.
This is their story.
Before mankind ruled the planet, magic seeped from the Earth and created a world of wonder and horror that we have long since forgotten. As human numbers increased, the raw chaos of magic was pushed back, eliminated by our shared perception of an ordered world. Now, in the Age of Man, only two things are needed to allow a remnant of the past to rise again: a drastic reduction in the local human population and the power of blood spilled by violence. Welcome to WW2.
Artifacts long buried begin to surface and feed. In the midst of a global war comes a new threat to all of humanity. A threat for which we have no answer. Yet.
Two specialists are deployed by the mysterious Division Zero. One can somehow detect and track the presence of nearby supernatural forces. The other has dedicated his life to becoming a living encyclopedia of the arcane.
What one can find, the other knows how to destroy.
But neither Specialist is capable of getting through the army of lethal protectors that each Artifact creates. For that, they need men of war.
Meet Fireteam Zero
Four men were selected by Division Zero to protect the Specialists and cut a path through anything foolish enough to stand between them and their target.
They are Fireteam Zero. And they will not fail.
Stay tuned for a look at each hero and the skills they bring to the battlefield! Also, show your support for the amazing art team behind FTZ by giving us a thumb!
You know what the worst part of having a secret project is? The grueling work? Piece of cake. The agony of choosing between all the cool things you want to do and the things you actually have time to do? Harder, but still no. The hiding under a tarp in the hall closet until your wife threatens to turn off the wifi? Almost. For me, it’s keeping my big trap shut about the whole thing for nearly a year.
Fortunately, that’s no longer a problem. It’s announcement time, baby. Let’s do this.
What is it?
Fireteam Zero is a tactical miniatures board game that takes place in the Emergent Earth universe. Here’s what it says on the back of the box:
In 1942, four soldiers vanished from the training program of the newly formed First Ranger Battalion, their names stricken from the roster. Chosen for their unique skills, they would fight in secret against terrifying supernatural enemies and overwhelming odds. This is their story.
Fireteam Zero is a cooperative game for up to four players who must cut a path through an endless swarm of deadly monsters in order to discover and defeat the ultimate evil behind them. Each player possesses a set of brutal combat skills that are represented by a deck of cards unique to that character. Play cards to devastate the creatures in your way, help your teammates survive the onslaught, or even reshape the tactical landscape with the proper application of explosive ordinance.
The battle is fought across three maps of increasing difficulty, each one bringing more and tougher enemies than the last. Players must search for and complete mission objectives in order to progress and bring them one step closer to the final showdown.
Aiding them are two NPC Specialists, one with an uncanny ability to sense the location and nature of the supernatural energy in the area and another with an encyclopedic knowledge of the arcane. Use the Specialists wisely or risk failure no matter how many monsters you defeat.
Race against time as the creatures on the board become stronger and more cunning. The longer you take to complete your objectives, the more Monster Twist cards are revealed, each granting a new and terrible aspect to your enemy. In each set of missions you will face a different family of horrifying creatures, each with their own special abilities and twist cards.
Players must not only fight for their lives, but at the same time they must make smart tactical choices with their teammates in order to make the best use of a limited resource, the cards in their hands. Each card not only represents an action that they can take, but also their health. Spending too many cards can leave you vulnerable, while spending too few can result in being overwhelmed. Clever players will rely on each other to succeed.
Fireteam Zero is a story-rich board game of squad tactics and horror. Each map can be played separately in about 45 minutes or together to complete an entire Operation in about 3 hours.
That’s…a lot of words. What is it really?
Basically, you get to find out what Abe and his squad got up to during WW2. Each player will become a member of Fireteam Zero and commit acts of badassery against different families of monsters while trying to capture or destroy the arcane artifact that’s creating them.
Each player has a hand of cards that represent both the monster-stomping actions they can take and their current ability to deal with threats. Run out of cards in hand and you get to enjoy a quiet dirt nap. And the whole shebang takes place on a giant board filled with large, fantastically detailed miniatures.
Did you say miniatures?
I totally did. Here’s an example:
Monsters come in three types: minions, elites, and bosses. A minion is about human-sized, represented by a standard 40mm tall figure. Elites come in at 50mm, and bosses hit a whopping 60mm in height with a proportional increase in girth. The charming fellow pictured above is an elite: the Corrupted Human in the Children of Typhon family. Here’s a bit about him:
Division Zero Record Number 9364: Corrupted Human
A human being that has come into contact with liquid from the Cup of Typhon [see artifact record 9110]. Class 2 mental and physical aberration occurs immediately, with violently aggressive behavior and physical deformities characterized by razor sharp insectile legs, mouthparts, and even additional heads.
FTZ Field Notes: These bastards can tear an unprotected man in half with no particular effort and are as hard to kill as they are ugly. Engage at a distance. And with as many explosives as you can carry.
Our miniatures are being created by the amazing Chris Deavellar, whom you may know from his 3D work on the MMO, Fallen Earth.
Sounds like you got lucky. Who else is working on this?
As a matter of fact, everyone involved has some pretty serious gaming chops. The design of the game itself is by Christian Leonhard, who happens to have a couple of international game design awards under his belt. Pretty much the only reason he agreed to work on this project with me is that we’ve been friends for years and I totally know where he buried all those hobos.
The art, layout, and graphic design work is being done by renowned game artist Gary Simpson. If you’ve ever played Summoner Wars, then the artwork you were ogling was Gary’s. I have no idea why Gary agreed to join up with us, except that it was probably easier than getting a restraining order.
Together we formed Emergent Games and vowed to create kick ass tabletop experiences or die trying. Christian and Gary don’t actually know about that last bit yet, but I’m sure they’re cool with it.
Okay, this game thing checks out. As your loyal blog reader, how can I help?
Spread the word. If you’re a fan of board games, hop on over to Board Game Geek and give us a like. If not, point your gamer friends to this post. Anything that gets the word out before our upcoming Kickstarter campaign would be amazing.
In return, help yourself to some free books! The Emergent Earth novels that this game is based on are free through Wednesday the 6th! Get Bad Radio here and Liar’s Harvest here. Tell your friends and hook them up with some free books at the same time.
Stay tuned for more posts where I go into detail about the theme, combat system, monster families, and more in the weeks ahead.
This is the bookshelf in my office. When we moved in, this was a blank wall. The room had no shelves of any kind. Hell, no closet either. So we had this built across one entire wall, with deep cabinets underneath to hold my board games and zombie heads. As is proper.
It’s hard to see from this picture, but each shelf is double stacked, with a row of books behind the ones you can see. There are more books, naturally, stacked all over the place: next to the bed, in the bathroom, on the kitchen counter, but this is where the ones I want to keep track of generally are. It’s where people who visit eventually end up, eyes roving up and down and side to side, looking for something good to borrow.
To me, that’s the best part of having a bookshelf. I get to pluck stuff off the shelf and talk enthusiastically about the plot or a particular character or whatever. I get to practically re-live the book while talking about it. Usually it’s a book I haven’t seen in some time, and if the person doesn’t borrow it, I’m likely to pick it up myself.
Now for the dilemma. While I love books, I don’t really think of the physical object itself as a book. I’m only interested in the word parts. So, for the last year or so, I’ve been buying ebooks if they’re available. Sometimes they lag behind the release of something I’m dying to read, so I go ahead and get the paper one, but if I can read something in seconds instead of hours or days, then that’s what I’m going to do.
Which means that my bookshelf isn’t growing like it used to. There was a time when we had to fill up a trunk full of books to donate or sell at Half Price Books every couple of months, but that’s becoming a lot less common these days. I can see a time when my bookshelf just stops growing. It’ll still have my favorites on it, no doubt about that, but more and more the things I recommend to people will be books that I only have electronically. Either because that’s what I’m enthused about at the moment, or because they’ve already read all the stuff I have on the shelf that they’re interested in.
And that’ll be sad. I find that while I love to own books, I like sharing them just as much. It’s a fundamental part of reading culture, this sharing of the books we love, almost like trading bits of our lives with each other. It’s how I became a reader, and eventually a writer, same as nearly everyone else I know.
So, even as ebooks become more commonplace, don’t forget to share. If you have a Kindle, you can still lend your books to a friend. Same thing if you own a Nook. And check with your local library, you’ll be surprised at how many lend ebooks as well.
Speaking as both a reader and a guy who sells books for rent money, I encourage you to lend your books.
You might have missed it, but yesterday on Kickstarter a board game called Kingdom Death:Monster successfully funded at at 2 million dollars. On a pledge level of 35 thousand dollars. That’s flat out amazing. Very few games come close to that kind of response from the community, so why KD:M?
Part of it is the presentation and the art. No exaggeration, it’s some of the most imaginative and detailed stuff out there:
But it’s not universally loved. In fact, one of the biggest complaints about the artwork is that the female characters are highly sexualized and, um, clothing averse. The men are as well, but not at the same level. Think anime volleyball team.
Another part of it is the fantastic selection of goodies available when you pledge. Check out this chart to see what I mean. Not only is there a generous volume of rewards, but the variety is terrific for a game, as opposed to a collection of miniatures that doesn’t need to worry about mechanics. It’s not up to the insane levels of, say, Zombicide, but it’s very good. It is not, however, good enough to carry the project to two million dollars on its own.
There’s also the gameplay. This is a cooperative miniatures game, so right off the bat you have an idea of how it will play. There are a couple of nice twists, like the AI cards that not only drive a monster’s behavior, but also count as its hit points, which means the more wounded a beast becomes, the fewer tricks it may have up its sleeve. Of course, you may also whittle it down to only it’s most powerful attacks, which is also pretty cool. Here’s a peek at the gameplay:
Again, very well done, but not too much you haven’t seen elsewhere.
So what is it? What resonated with over five thousand backers at an average spend of $200 dollars each? It was the story. Go to the Kickstarter page and watch the video. It’s not about the mechanics or the cool figures or anything remotely board-game-like. It’s 100 percent about facing monsters in the dark with nothing but a shard of rock. There’s nothing but a tiny group people with no knowledge, culture, or industry to fall back on, standing back to back against the unknown. That immediacy and intimacy, coupled with the extreme vulnerability of the heroes, is where that two million dollars comes from.
It’s the pure essence of a great horror story. The trappings of art and rules and miniatures simply make it possible for us to see how we would be able to be part of the story ourselves.
That’s something I’d gladly pay for. And I did 🙂