|Written by John Teehan|
I was thinking of starting off with saying something along the lines of “2015 was a great year for tabletop gaming.” The problem with a statement like that is that it has been a great year for tabletop gaming for quite a while now.
I won’t try tro delve into the reasons why, or the sociological implications laid therein, or how it may or may not be a backlash to isolated electronic gaming versus the more social interactive blah-blah-blah. Just accept that tabletop gaming continues to be a force reckoned with, and rightly so.
With that said, here are five tabletop games (both of the RPG and boardgame variety) that may have slipped under your radar in 2015.
There is quite a bit of history behind this game.
For one, it is the latest incarnation of one of the oldest tabletop RPGs in existence. Having originally come out barely a year or two after Dungeons & Dragons in 1975 from Flying Buffalo, it was considered a more pared down version of the then-upstart D&D system, easier to learn, and quicker to play. I more or less agreed with that assessment when I was playing the 5th edition of the ruleset around 1980. The system had its quirks, certainly. GMs (“gamemasters”, their version of DMs) had to make up a lot of stats on the fly for various adventuring events and monsters. There were only three classes for characters, and character races could include such odd choices as faeries and leprechauns.
There was also something a bit “low rent” about the T&T experience compared to the massive high adventure scenarios of D&D. To put it into terms of era-appropriate movies, D&D was Dragonslayer whereas T&T was more like Jabberwocky. Still, it was a fun system and a good choice for a pickup game. Likewise, T&T had a great catalog of solo adventures that were as deadly as they were entertaining. This was not a bad thing to have when you were growing up in a small town before the internet was a thing.
A few years ago, original game designer Ken St. Andre and others launched a Kickstarter project to help usher in a Deluxe 8th Edition volume. It quickly won many backers and received a decent amount of funding to get production underway. The project was fraught with delays with hardcopies only going out to contributors this past year. Still, many backers say the wait was worth it. The new rulebook, which is also available in PDF through Drivethru RPG, runs around 380 pages. The first half of the book consists of core rules–expanded and revised from previous editions. The second half consists of maps, monsters, locations, optional rules for more advanced play, world building, weapons glossary, and complete adventures for both group play and solo play. You get some pretty good bang for your buck.
The only real criticism I’ve heard involves the length of the book which, when playing with the deluxe hardcover edition, is a bit of a hassle to pass across the table to players for referencing weapons and supplies info, or for casual reading. Economics, I suppose. To produce the book in two or more volumes would have upped the cost dramatically.
Gameplay is relatively simple, even for a game that has seen 40 years for updating. Almost everything relies on the roll of three 6-sided die. In character creation there are the typical RPG stats like strength, dexterity, intelligence, etc that you build with dice rolls (getting to roll additional points when doubles show up leading to sometimes _very_ powerful individual stats). There are still just three major classes in the deluxe edition, but character races can now include such creatures as vampires, werewolves, and demons. Combat, saving throws, etc are based on dice rolls against your stats with added modifiers depending on stats, race, class, etc. Leveling is tied to your best stats which you can modify over time with Adventure Points. Compared to behemoth RPGs like D&D and Pathfinder, Tunnels & Trolls is more free-form and less reliant on massive amounts of tables to consult. Some might complain that there is not enough information to work with, but the deluxe rulebook has some great pointers for gamemasters in how to handle almost any kind of action or encounter.
Are there better systems around? Sure. Are there worse? Most definitely. Is Tunnels & Trolls worth your time? Why not? If you need a lighter bit of RPG fun, give this game a try. There’s a reason it still has its fans.
MACHI KORO: DELUXE EDITION from IDW and Pandasaurus Games
You may have seen this Japanese import come out a couple of years ago followed by Harbor and Millionaire’s Row expansion packs in subsequent years. In 2015 IDW and Pandasaurus put out a deluxe edition which included the original set, the two expansions, and some upgraded pieces and sculpted dice. The artwork is simple, colorful, and eye-catching. Charming is a good word, too.
Gameplay is pretty simple with basic games running about a little over half an hour depending on the number of players. You play the mayor of a village trying to build itself up to a successful city. Each turn, a couple of rolls of the dice determine your ability to pick up coins, spend coins on certain buildings and businesses, collect or pay more coins, all while trying to be the first to build landmarks and grow your little village. The expansions add more businesses to build, and more landmarks, thus increasing the game’s difficulty should you wish.
It can be an addictive little game. Easy to play, great for a casual night of gaming and many steps up from typical boring “game night” fare. Highly recommended as a gateway game when you’re trying to get newbies on board with games that aren’t Monopoly.
FANTASY AGE SYSTEM from Green Ronin Publishing
Fans of BioWare’s Dragon Age video game series may recall that back in 2010 they released, through Green Ronin Publishing, a tabletop RPG version that enjoyed some popularity. Set against the Dragon Age game backdrop, the game featured a simple and enjoyable gaming system based on three 6-sided die, a system for stunts, and a fairly open method for creating one’s own adventures in Ferelden. Jump to 2015 and Green Ronin has released the same game system, but this time for more generic fantasy RPG settings and with some refinements to the earlier system used in Dragon Age.
The new game, Fantasy AGE (Adventure Gaming systEm), gets quite involved in character creation–making character background a very specific sort of thing to be rolled up and developed–which pays off if the GM and player exercise some creativity and turn the game into a collaborative sort of narrative. Otherwise, Fantasy AGE is a pretty by the numbers when it comes to stats, class, and character race generation.
You roll for stats or, alternatively, distribute from a pool with modifiers for various races. There are focused abilities to specialize your character class in interesting ways, for instance, you could have many types fighters from a barbarian brawler from a mountain village to a close-fighting courtier recently banished from the capital. Likewise things like background specifics and ability focuses allow for some interesting options for character specialization–making the three character class options (fighter, mage, rogue) more flexible than you’d first expect. If you enjoy character creation, this will be a fun time for you. If you see character creation as a chore, well… the other fun comes soon enough.
Combat and other rolls use three dice plus modifiers and focuses to roll against enemies and other perilous situations. Get the higher number, you hit. Simple enough. A neat feature of Fantasy AGE‘s system involves using the dice to perform stunts. If when rolling the three dice–two of one color, and the third of a second color, any time a double is rolled, the odd colored die value displays your stunt points. With stunt points, you can perform special actions or flourishes to enhance your action, for instance, attack a goblin with a 4, 6, and , your stunt die gives you four stunt points. You could use all four points to attack a second target, or split them up and spend two each on, say, disarming and adding extra damage. There are a number of options available–and not just for combat. There are stunt point options for exploring, roleplaying, and more. It’s a fun system that lets for some swashbuckling moments.
The core rule set is all in one volume and includes a lot of background information for creating campaigns and adventures (as well as including a starter adventure for quick start playing). There will be plenty of supplemental materials coming down the line from Green Ronin, but you don’t need to wait on those before diving in and getting some enjoyable game play. Like with Tunnels & Trolls, Fantasy AGE is simpler and more streamlined than AD&D or Pathfinder, but I personally find the character creation and potential for collaborative storytelling greater in Fantasy AGE.
But speaking of supplemental material…
TITANSGRAVE: THE ASHES OF VALKANA from Green Ronin Publishing
Maybe you heard about this one if you follow the folks at Geek & Sundry. Although it lists several authors, Titansgrave: The Ashes of Valkana is often presented as a game by geek icon Wil Wheaton who hosted a very slick 10-episode web series featuring himself and four pretty voice actors playing through the main game (I recognized a couple from Geek & Sundry’s Critical Roll web series).
Wheaton’s Titansgrave series was not only notable for being probably the most entertaining presentation of a live role playing session (sorry, Acquisitions Incorporated!) but also for its use of artwork, music, and sound. Yes, the series came off as a bit scripted. That’s okay. It got my attention and the game’s playability has been reality-checked–even without pretty people being involved. (Sorry… sometimes I get annoyed at Geek & Sundry for forgetting what most gamers look like outside of LA. Quite a few of us are in our over 40, big, and hairy.)
One thing I liked in particular about the web series was that it skillfully demonstrated the idea of collaborative storytelling when it came to integrating character backgrounds with the adventure narrative itself. It made the game more personal. That’s a good thing. It gives players a greater stake in the game overall. I loved that.
As for the game itself. It uses Green Ronin’s Fantasy AGE rules–including the stunt point system–and expands upon them to include a very rich science-fiction/fantasy setting on a world that has seen more than its fair share of past cataclysms. Humans, elves, dwarves, orcs, half-orcs, and saurians (lizard folk) simultaneously strap on swords and blasters. Want a cybernetic arm with a built-in retractable short sword? Can do! Horses might be real or mechanical. Magic exists, as does super science. Is that a ghost or a hologram? I have to hand it to Wheaton and company, this is probably one of the richest, well thought out and fleshed out gaming worlds I’ve ever seen.
If there’s a problem, it might only be that because of the highly popular web series, much of the campaign’s main plot has been revealed. Still, any gamemaster worth their salt is going to be able to throw in some twists and turns, apply some scenarios which were not in the web series, or come up with their own adventures entirely. While the main campaign follows one set path, there are other cities, other factions, other shadowy forces with their own goals and agendas to explore. Titansgrave takes the Fantasy AGE system to a whole new level with the added science fiction elements and makes for a rich roleplaying experience.
ONWARD TO VENUS from Treefrog Games
Technically, this game came out in 2014, but I didn’t see it in stores until early 2015, so I’m counting this as a 2015 game. Sue me. The game came highly recommended to me as a fun strategy resource game with a strong steampunk element. I’m not a huge steampunk person, but given that it’s a game set against the colonialization of the solar system, I’m more apt to call it a deisel-punk game. Semantics, I suppose. I probably would have gotten the game even without the recommendation based solely on the artwork.
The game, and the game’s art, is based on a graphic novel series by Greg Broadmore. I’ve never heard of him or his series, but the artwork is lush and creative with wonderful alien landscapes in a re-imagined solar system and a not-too-distant future of exploration and exploitation.
Instead of a traditional rectangular board, the game is laid out in a series of large circular tiles representing planets and moons. Over the course of three periods, players move ships, troops, workers, and so forth across the solar system in a race to claim territory and resources while avoiding such pitfalls as rebellions, accidents, and attacks from other players. There are opportunities for big game hunting, ship building, factory building, and so forth, with extra cards with bonus actions and skills to keep things as interesting as possible. Each round of gameplay also includes risks for various crises from robot uprisings to full scale alien invasions. Don’t let Earth get conquered while you’re out plundering the other planets! Points are tallied up after the three periods to determine a winner.
It’s a fun game with dazzling artwork and beautiful game pieces. There is a lot of strategy and replay potential as planetary resources and challenges are laid out randomly each time. If I had any criticism of the game overall, it’s that I am slightly uncomfortable with the neo-colonialization feel of Onward To Venus. It reminds me a lot of a game we played back in the 80s called Race for Africa in which European countries all vied for resources and territory in Africa and to hell with the people who were already living there. It’s kind of like that, but in space.
If you can get past some of the anachronistic ideology of the game’s premise, then you’re in for an interesting ride. I will confess, however, that I sometimes secretly root for a robot uprising to take us down. It would serve us right.
And that is some of what 2015 had to offer for tabletop gaming. Sure, there was a lot more. Way much more from games big and small. I’ll try to review more as the year goes on. Feel free to contact me with recommendations of your own. If they’re in the budget (ha!) I’ll see if I can get my hands on them to review.