Wednesday, January 11, 2006

He's Got The Whole World In His Box...

Since we've been playing "classics" at our recent Tuesday sessions (what that exactly meant seems to depend heavily upon who you are talking to), I didn't want to drag my new copy of World of Warcraft to the regular session. However, with this many bits, I really wanted to at least set it up and play through a few turns to get a sense of how it works for when our group does try to tackle it. The rules are about as complete and full of examples as I could hope for, although they were long. Really long (40 pages). While admittedly this is 40 pages wil lots of illustrations, examples, large type, and whitespace, it is a lot of pages. Fortunately, they seemed to convey the game pretty well, I had very few questions as I played the game.

WoW is your typical board-based RPG, where you play one or more characters (which are associated with one of two teams, Horde and The Good Guys). The basic gameplay is organized around "quests" that are determined through random card draws for each side. As quests are drawn, they place a particular critter in a particular space. If you beat said critter(s) in combat, you get gold, experience, and maybe goodies. Quest cards also often place "independent" critters in other spaces on the board. The cards are separated into four decks per side, each deck with progressively more difficult quests. When your side has enough experience and goodies, you can take on the "overlord" character, and if you beat him you win. If you don't, or time runs out, there's a big melee between the two teams and whoever survives wins.

Play is based on "actions" similar to many euros. Every turn, one team can take actions (divided up between characters, each of which gets two per turn) that allow you to develop your character, replenish your health, go to the "store", move, and fight. One character on a team might take one action, followed by another character using two, then back to the first character again. This, to my mind, is where the game will shine in that you plan out your team's turn to best accomplish character growth to be ready to take on one of the three overlords at game end.

There's been some complaint about the combat system, which can be a bit fussy. Characters have various capabilities built in, but can improve them through their own Power and Talent deck that allow quite a bit of customization, and this gives a lot of replay value. Various powers, talents, and items (as well as inherent abilities) lend various elements to combat. This seems a bit convoluted, but actually once you've got the drill down, you can move through a combat fairly quickly. Here's how it goes:

1) Figure out what dice you use, based on your abilities. Blue dice are ranged and can knock out an opponent before they can even take a swipe at you. Red dice inflict damage up close, and green dice protect from damage, but don't cause damage on their own. Some powers add dice only if "energy" is spent, which is based on the character you play. Note that as you get better armor, weapons, etc, the number of dice you get can increase or the mix change.

2) Next, your character may have the chance to reroll dice, again sometimes if energy is expended. Sometimes, you may also get to add dice if certain die rolls meet a criteria, such as begin at or above a certain value. Different characters will have a different number of dice you can reroll, and some critters will cause damage based on particularly poor rolls.

3) Once you've got your dice rolled and rerolled, you compare the dice to the "Threat" value of the critter in question. If you meet or exceed this value on a die, you put a hit in the "Damage" or "Defense" box if the die is blue or red, and armor tokens in the Defense box if you hit with the green dice. You also add hit markers to the "Attrition" box if your character has that ability.

4) If there are enough hits in the Damage box to meet or exceed the Health value of the critter, one is removed from the battle. If you've killed all of the critters in the group (based on whether the monster is independent or quest, and the same breed), you've won. If not, leave the hits that haven't killed critters in the Damage box and continue.

5) compare the Attack value of the critter, multiplied by the number of critters, to the number of armor and damage tokens in the Defense box. If the Attack value is higher, you have to assign hits to the characters equal to the difference. If you run out of Health yourself, you are defeated and lose the rest of your turn and resurrect in specific areas.

6) If you are still alive, you remove all armor markers from the defense box, then move all hits from the Defense and Attrition boxes to Damage and again compare them to the critter's health as in step four. If characters and critters are still around, you do it all again, leaving the unassigned hit markers in the Damage box.

Like I say, it sounds complex, but there are a lot of ways to make things go quickly. For example, if you know that you need four hits to kill off two critters, you can tell pretty quickly if you've got four hits on blue dice. The problem is that because you are constantly improving your abilities by upgrading items or abilities, the number of dice you'll have in a given combat is constantly changing. Also, you have to remember to pay for any "instant" abilities with energy, and it was pretty easy for me to forget this in my session the first couple of times. Still, it wasn't too bad. Player vs player is similar. Different colored critters have different values (green quest monsters are wimps, red are much tougher, blue independents can range in effectiveness. It's important for players to know what your character is capable of taking on, one character failed to defeat what appeared to be a pretty wimpy Scarlet Fighter twice, costing them four or five turns while other characters were gaining levels left and right.

That's essentially the game: improve your character, complete quests by fighting critters, and finally having enough cojones to take on the Big Bad Dude. I could see downtime being a problem with six players, as if you aren't fighting and everyone else is, it could take five or ten minutes until your turn comes back around. With only 30 actions per character in a given game, it seems like making every one count is critical. Fortunately, it is not too tough to get around the board, as there are special "transporter" spaces that make it easy to jet across the board from time to time.

There are also events that come up every so often, some of which give out goodies or replenish health, gold, or energy, and some that allow more events to tag along. In fact, I suppose it is possible to get four or five events if the right ones come up. These seem to be there just to make the game more unpredictable, which may be too much of a good thing since so much depends upon how the quests come up.

My solo session was played with four of the six recommended "first game" characters, and I did the recommended "Training" action for each of them first to add a few powers. After that, three of the four characters went through the standard "Train, move, fight, recharge, move, fight, recharge" cycle. The fourth kept losing, and was clearly going to be challenged as the game went on. The three successful characters got through roughly seven quests in the first eight turns, which I think would be pretty typical. I didn't do any player vs player combat, nor did I look too closely at the Overlord portion of the game.

While I own Warcraft: the Boardgame and the first edition of Runebound (bastards at FFG, if there was ever a game that should have had an upgrade kit, this was it), I really haven't had much chance to play any of these games. The one short solo of Runebound felt particularly constrained in what the characters could do, especially with so few movement options (the Flight Paths of WoW are a great addition to a board that is built to create constrictions), and by then the second ed came out and I refused to buy the game again. W:tB looks like fun, especially with the expansion, but this game really requires actual players to do more than push pieces around, and I really don't have a good feel for how any of these games will work.

WoW, on the other hand, feels like you have a lot of control over how you want your character to improve. Every time you increase in level, you have three choices as to which Talent to add, not to mention the various powers and items. Since each character has a set number of spells, powers, armor, weapons, etc (that use a very clever and transparent system that even limits how much stuff a character can even have with him), you constantly have to decide how you want to configure the character for maximum effect. However, you can only equip new stuff at the end of your turn, so just because you get the Sword of Instant Vasectomy doesn't mean you can or even want to use it right away, much less later on.

OK, now for a few nits. The box is big, roughly the size of two large Kosmos square boxes set side by side, and you need it. However, rather than a plastic inset to help sort the goodies, all there is is a useless piece of cardboard that separates out the bazillion cards but is useless after you've taken them out of the shrink, mine went into recycle immediately. I ended up using a lot of little plastic baggies, more than I use for some wargames. Setting up and taking down this game is not a trivial task.

As for the components, the critters are in the same red/blue/green colors as you see in Doom: the Boardgame, which is to say the colors are saturated and a bit on the radioactive side (although nowhere as bad as, say, Nexus Ops). You'll want to separate out the various critters, as they can look a bit samey samey if you shove them all in a big quart ziplock. I did separate out the various character cards, starting energy/gold/health and minis, which does improve setup time. The character minis are a bit hard to tell apart, as all are grey plastic, although I didn't have too much trouble on the board as there were only four of them. I'd have liked for Horde characters to be a different color than the Good Guy minis. There is even one Horde mini that only bears a passing resemblance to the illustration on the character card. Even the critters don't really have a good map of what figure matches what drawing. However, these are truly nits. I haven't played the computer game, so I don't know whether the mix is a good representation of the various characters in the game, but frankly I think these things are fairly generic as so many fantasy games and books use the exact same types and have become interchangable. However, just having the ability to choose from nine different characters, most of which can be played on either side and have a lot of improvement options is beyond anything I've seen outside of pencil and paper RPGs.

As for play, the game struck me as being an incremental improvement over other RPG boardgames. Even with the various options for improvement and the board's flight paths, the game still comes down to completing a series of quests that for all intensive purposes vary little in any parameter other than difficulty and location. With 30 actions, however, this would result in roughly seven or eight quests attempted per character (assuming one quest per four actions). Even random events and a choice of three different Overlords probably won't do much to change this essential truth. However, I do think that if any game was going to break out of the standard fantasy RPG mold, it would be WoW.

I hear that it is best to play with four or six players, and the game scales rather directly for those numbers. With others, you have some players that will be much more active than others. That might be good for learning situations, but not so cool when everyone is up on the rules. Two players would work well too, and could use either four or six characters, and I could see the game getting play this way (although probably not for me unless I had the right opponent who didn't like wargames).

I'm looking forward to a "real" playing of this title, probably not until April and our group's Sunriver retreat (unless Chris holds a Beach Bash between now and then). I'm certainly more interested in giving this a shot than the other fantasy titles I've got.

Note: Seeing as FFG's new Descent game is essentially a second edition of Doom, I have no intention of buying it. I do hear it's better in several ways, but I get very tired of FFG's policy of expecting me to pay for the same game over and over when what they've really done is fix some basic problems. With wargames, the rules and cards (and occasionally even counters or the map) are given errata, preserving the value of your investment, Avalanche excepted. With euros, the rules are simple enough and the games playtested well enough to avoid more than an occasional rule change. With the heavier American board games, we get to buy the game again. Even White Wolf did this regularly with their Vampire/Werewolf/Etc LARPs, releasing second edition rules and adventures, sometimes as soon as six or eight months after the initial release. I got fooled twice, then stopped buying their material. I certainly won't do it with FFG or any other company that makes this a regular strategy. I am not talking about euros that are republished in the US, that is an entirely different situation and one that I applaud.

Enough ranting. Next up, a second playing of Twilight Struggle, this time with the correct rules...

1 comment:

Matthew Gagan said...

Thanks for the writeup on the WoW boardgame, Doug. I am totally down to play this game, ideally before April, but that might not be realistic.

I did my part for the group (yeah, right...) and bought Descent: JitD. I wanted to own one of the games and it was a hard choice for me, but I'm glad I got Descent since you got the other MEGA-box game. Geez, this thing is packed... I don't own Doom, so... When my 7 person RPG group is missing two players, we cancel. I'm hoping to introduce Descent as a fun alternative to canceling...