Monday, November 28, 2022

First steps into...Lands of Galzyr

High tension...?

Crash, bang, crunch - slaves against the charge!
Warhammer Fantasy Battles

I realised the other day that lots of the games I like (boardgames, computer games, and tabletop) are (in one way or another) focused on tension, excitement and conflict - the picture of Warhammer Fantasy Battles above being a good example. Nothing wrong with that! Many a memorable moment has been had under those circumstances...

...acts of daring do, skin-of-the-teeth escapes, high-tension searches through warrens and dark tunnels, victory (and calamity!) against overwhelming odds, and more. 

However, sometimes, don't we all want a more relaxing game experience? 

...or a hot cup of tea?

Credit: Shreya13jain, CC BY-SA 4.0,
via Wikimedia Commons

Personally, I sometimes want a relaxing experience - a short experience - without conflict, to just enjoy over the course of an hour or so. Almost like a stress-free walk in the countryside.

Sound good? Then consider a stroll through the beautiful and engaging Lands of Galzyr, a new adventure board game from Sami Laakso and Seppo Kuukasjarvi at Snowdale Design.

Welcome to Galzyr

I recently managed to get my hands on a copy of Lands of Galzyr via a lucky catch on Mercari in Japan, but what is it? How do you play it? Let me share some first impressions after a few hours of gameplay.

Lands of Galzyr. Not quite so blurry in real life.

The creators explain:
'Lands of Galzyr is an adventure board game set in an open, story rich world. Acquire prestige as a cunning and ambitious adventurer by exploring the lands and by taking on challenging quests. Your actions have long-lasting consequences in the evolving and persistent game world. Your decisions affect not only the current game, but the following games as well.'

What you have then, is an overland adventure for one to four players across the countryside, towns, and cities of a beautifully-realised fantasy world. Almost best of all, this world is inhabited by anthropomorphic animals of every type, whose daily lives you will explore as a wandering animal yourself.

Speaking of adventurers, let's meet Keridai, the intellectual Northern Banded Newt whom I have chosen to explore as:

Keridai's player board.

Keridai's player board shows us he has 10 gold, which is adjusted via a wheel, three slots (bottom) for equipment, and 4 skills on his skill wheel (at right). These are indicated by these lovely solid semi-circular 'skill marks' which you slot into the board.

Keridai has skills in:
  • Knowledge (green x2)
  • Communication (light blue x1)
  • Perception (dark blue x1)
These skills allow you to adjust your standard dice pool (5 black dice) when you roll for skill checks. You simply swap in dice with higher-probabilities for success if you have a skill mark in the relevant skill.

You can see the custom dice that come with the game in the image below. If Keridai had to make a 'Knowledge' skill check with his two skill marks (green markers on the player board), he can swap in the two green dice (and actually an adjacent light blue dice) to replace the black standard dice. This increases your chance for success.

Lands of Galzyr custom dice

You might also notice just underneath Keridai's name two blue words - 'Scholar' and 'Swim'. These tags (and others on cards you accrue, including certain verbs) will influence your options as you adventure.

All of these variables come into play as you explore the world. Each player turn is divided into the Adventure and Calendar phases. In the former you move across the board, and then play out a 'scene'. The scene can come from a variety of situations - a quest you have in your hand, a location on the map, etc. You read and play through the scene by making choices in the 'Book of Adventures' web-app, which you can use on any internet connected device, or download to your home screen for offline use.

A land of appventure...

Uh-oh, I think I just heard some of you react (probably negatively) to the very mention of the words 'device' and 'app' (not to mention the terrible pun). However although the digital Book of Adventures is required to play don't let that put you off. It brings a lot to the (gaming) table.
  1. A huge amount of content that just couldn't fit into a 'storybook'. Over 600,000 words?
  2. The convenience of searching for any of the numbered scenes by just entering the number. NOT flipping backwards and forwards through a giant spiral-bound tome is a big plus IMHO.
  3. An immersive soundtrack (really thematic!) built in...
  4. ...and, once downloaded you don't need to be connected to the internet. You can add the web app to your homescreen. You don't need to install if from an app store.
As you can see below, the interface is clean and easy to follow:
The scenes are listed at left, and the game randomizes the day.

No spoilers here! This is from the included demo story.
Notice the variety of options at the bottom.

The app is integral to the storytelling experience, and you will spend time in the app. However the quality and feel of the physical components has so far meant that I still feel engaged with the game laid out before me. I think this is due to the tactile, card-based system the game uses to represent the changing and evolving world before you, and the high quality components.

...and libraries

Like some other narrative games (e.g. 7th Continent) you will manage a large 'library' of numbered cards. These include locations, events, quests, statuses, equipment, seasons etc. As you work through the game, you are often drawing cards from the library to read, add to your character or the board, or otherwise interact with. This is not onerous, as the system is well thought out. The illustrations themselves are delightful and make each card fun to discover.

Cards: Seasons, quests (public side), 
and the library.

The cards are stored in two sturdy boxes with numbered dividers, called 'The Library'. This makes it only a matter of moments to find the correct card. You'll also have cards before you on the table to be interacted with. These include public quests that form a 'notice board', an event deck that manages scenes you encounter as you travel, and of course equipment. Your character's status can also be impacted by your adventures, as 'status' cards may force you to be weakened for several days.

A piece of common equipment. Note the blue 'tag' words
and verbs (in brown) that can influence your skill checks.

Speaking of being weakened for several days, each game session plays out over the course of a week or more, depending on how many players you have. For solo, it is eight. At the end of each round you move the calendar one day forward in the app and on the board. This concept of advancing time is nicely interwoven into the game by having certain cards with timed effects. This can include the aforementioned statuses, but also companions (NPCs) who will show up in your adventures for a few days and then leave. 

Land of Galzyr's in-game calendar.
Used in the application and on the gameboard.

When receiving a timed effect, you simply put a counter on the card itself and a corresponding token further along the calendar track. When the day token advances and meets the token on the calendar, that effect comes to an end. You no longer feel weakened, or the travelling companion who joined you for a few days decides to leave (along with any bonuses they brought to you while travelling together.) It makes the world feel alive yet is simple to track (and also helps reduce the clutter that some games have as you accumulate a mass of cards.)

Time - specifically the month of the year - can also affect what is happening in the world before you. Each time you play you enter a new month. On once occasion, I was instructed to replace one of the city cards with a slightly different one, which included a scene for a festival held in that city only in that month. Naturally, I made a beeline for it to join in the fun. Added to that, the board is double-sided with summer and winter designs. 

The Lands of Galzyr in summer.

Keridai visits Arhin. (Not a spoiler - cities and towns are 
placed on the board at the start of the game.) Notice the locations
with scene numbers.

There is a lot more that could be said, including about the excellent component quality, the simple save system allowing you to carry the world forward seamlessly from game to game, or the beautiful and evocative soundtrack. As you can tell, far too much to include in my initial impressions here. 

In summary, I'm looking forward to exploring Lands of Galzyr further in a leisurely fashion and just enjoying the story and adventures that come before Keridai as he traverses the world. What will he find?

Congratulations to Sami Laakso and Seppo Kuukasjarvi at Snowdale Design, as well as everyone who has contributed to the game. A special shout out to the composer Joash Kari for the nearly 2 hours of accompanying music, which you can find in the game, on YouTube, and available for purchase via the composer

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, November 24, 2022

Iron Helm - Dipping a toe into Print and Play


Just one more job

Iron Helm, a solo game by Grey Gnome games, has garnered a very good reputation among solo gamers as an enjoyable adventure. It has lovely retro art, a choice of older adventurers looking to pull off 'one more job' (as an older adventurer myself, there is obvious appeal!), and difficult choices to make at every junction...

...but new copies are basically only available from The Game Crafter, a print-on-demand website for games. Unfortunately, this doesn't work for me right now. I say this not because I have anything against that website or business choice. Put simply, with the current exchange rates and shipping (at of Nov. 2022), the base game (and add in an expansion or two) becomes a bit out of my reach. 

A core set of components (base game and 4 add ons) on the Game Crafter would cost $86.95 before shipping of $21.15, for a total of $108.10. (Ebay is similar, often with more expensive shipping). Just to be clear, for that price you are getting an excellent game, with good production values, a very sturdy box, and a huge amount of replayability. 

So, what to do?

Enter 'Print and play'. The idea is simple: pay a small amount, unlock and download a PDF file, and print locally, even on your home printer. Then cut out the components, and away you go - theoretically at a huge saving over the full game, while getting the same core experience (even if not professionally-made components.)

Fortunately Iron Helm is available in a pnp format. The creator, Jason Glover, has made the game available on the 'PnP Arcade' website: There are 6 different PDF downloads available, each for a very reasonable price.
  • Iron Helm (base game.) $5
  • Loot & Lore Pack $2
  • Adventure Pack 1: Warren of Despair $2
  • Adventure Pack 2: Blackened Burrow $2
  • Adventure Pack 3: Crystal Caverns $2
  • Adventure Pack 4: Galnok's Labyrinth $2
Total: $15

Note that while this list does not equal the full amount of components on Gamecrafter (you'll find additional adventure packs there, although perhaps those will also be PnP in the future?). Mr. Glover has also posted some other free downloads on the Grey Gnome website (including the game mat files.)

Compare these two options (physical v. PnP), and that is a theoretical saving of about 93 USD, 'not including parts and labour' on to hear more about that.

Which door will you choose?

With this info in hand, I decided to take a first, hesitant step into the world of PnP. Was it really as easy as getting the files (saving a lot of money), busting out a pair of scissors, and enjoying a game?


However, that depends on how far you take the PnP experience. 
  • Keep it really simple? Cut out the paper, stick front to back, and play?
  • A middle-ground? Print in black/ white, cut out the paper, insert into sleeves, with a single loose playing card in the middle to stiffen?
  • Bling it up a bit to get closer to the printed game experience?  Print in colour, cut out, glue onto stiffeners, insert into sleeves.
I decided on the final option, and that meant a weekend of gathering materials, (struggling with) printing, cutting, and sticking!

After watching some videos to get some info (absolutely essential research!), I decided to avoid playing with just bits of paper, and shoot more for an actual playing card experience, with sleeved cards that have a bit of heft.

This involved:
  1. Printing:
    • A4 label paper. (Purchased 2 packs, total = 2,240 Yen/ 16 USD today.)
    • Home inkjet printer (owned)
  2. Cutting:
    • Craft knife, or roller-cutter (owned).
    • Metal ruler - to guide cuts (owned).
    • Cutting mat  - tape cardboard together if you don't have one (owned).
  3. Sticking:
    • 1~2 old decks of old playing cards - which your family won't miss! (owned). I stuck a single playing card to each PnP card, sandwiching that between the front and back. Steady hands and patience are a must here...(I have neither.)
    • Optional: Spray glue (aerosol glue.) If not using label paper this is a great way to evenly stick paper together (Purchased x1 = 110 yen)
  4. Sleeving:
    • I use 'penny sleeves'. You can get packs of 100 of these in most dollar stores ('100 Yen shops') in Japan. Larger stores will often have a wide range of sizes and style: loose fit/ tight fit, soft/ hard, matte on one side, etc. (owned)
Cost: (approx.)
  • PnP purchases: 980 JPY = 7 USD (Core game + Loot & Lore pack)
  • Colour copying: 750 JPY = 5.36 USD (x15 @ 50 yen each) 
  • Glue spray: 110 JPY = 0.78 USD (70 ml x1) 
  • A4 label paper: 2,240 JPY = 16 USD (x2 packs of 20, approx) 
Total: 4,080 JPY (approx. 29.14 USD)

Not included:
  • Printer ink: I didn't finish mine, but a new set for my printer is about 35.00 USD. I'll certainly means I'll have to buy more soon.
  • My time: Researching, buying, printing (and experimenting), cutting, sticking, tidying up, collating etc. took multiple hours over a weekend.

Hints for success

Here are some lessons from my first foray into PnP - learned the hard way:

1. Planning and gathering materials: 
    • Buy more paper than you think you need. You'll want to print a test page or two for a dry run, and if you are like me, you'll print on the wrong side of the label paper at least once. Also, working out printer settings can be a chore (resulting in more lost paper as you try to get the size right.)
    • Use a 'dry run' to work out your process. With a bit of thought you can streamline the process to do multiple cards at once, or learn the best order in which to make you cuts etc.
    • Don't buy pre-formatted sticky label paper. This has different sizes/ cuts (e.g. for business cards, labels etc.). Just get the full A4 size sheets without perforations etc.
    • Cutting mats can be home-made. If you don't have one you can tape layers of cardboard together to make a thick cutting surface. This should survive making one PnP game, and can then be recycled. Make sure you make it really flat though...
    • Playing card colours. If you are going to sandwich these into your home-made cards, think about the colours and design of the playing cards. Will they show through? Think about what you are comfortable with and plan accordingly. Your grimdark card game doesn't feel quite so serious with the Little Mermaid peeking through at you...
    • Spray glue is your friend. Depending on where you live, this can be expensive and you need to plan for using it in a well-ventilated space. You don't want to get this stuff in your kitchen or office.
    • Compromise for peace of mind. In some games, tokens are an essential part of gameplay for tracking various statuses. Iron Helm has lots of them. For a print and play they can be really fiddly - small, time-consuming to cut and glue. Do you need them? Can alternatives be used? A trip to the dollar store can provide beads, dice or other items that can be used to track health, gold, encumbrance etc. 
For 3 USD, these beads can be used for health, energy,
or anything where a cube is needed (use the letter cubes. e.g. 'G' for gold)

2. Printing:
    • Do a 'dry run' to check how things work before committing to a particular method.
    • Always print test pages and check the sizes. e.g. Many US PDFs are in 'Letter' size, and you may not have this kind of paper where you are. Don't print everything at once until you have this sorted out!
    • A home inkjet printer is fine but... don't expect perfectly deep blacks. Be realistic about the results. If you have a cheap inkjet printer, you might get 'banding' and not entirely uniform blacks. Are you OK with that? 
    • Do expect to use a lot of ink. Depending on the amount of content in the PnP (in Iron helm, this is at least 30 sheets of cards and tokens.) you could really burn through your ink cartridges. This is one of the main 'hidden' costs of PnP, depending on what level of professionalism you are looking for. 
    • Don't forget the convenience store. If you want a more professional look consider the excellent quality that industrial copy machines have. In Japan, almost every convenience store has one of these. The cost can be worth it for a more professional look, however x1 A4 colour page is 50 JPY. Not cheap! A compromise is to use this for some components or sheets only (e.g. that are mainly black, or that you will use a lot). 

3. Cutting:
    • A paper cutter with guide rails is ideal for doing high-quality cuts for large numbers of cards. However, if you aren't going to do a lot of PnP it can be a comparatively large additional investment (12 ~30 USD) for one game. But, it is much faster, more convenient, and accurate than a craft knife. (Especially if cutting multiple sheets at once.) You can get really cheap ones, but they often don't have large guide rails to ensure accurate cuts, or lack some other useful feature.

4. Sticking:
    • Playing cards really up the game. I stuck a single playing card to each PnP card, sandwiching that between the front and back. This acts as a stiffener and makes the cards feel much better in the hand and easy to use and play with. Watch out though - steady hands and patience are a must here...(I have neither!) As above, do a 'dry run' to check how things work before committing to a particular method.

The adventure begins...

After a weekend cutting and sticking, I ended up with a final result that I am really happy with and excited to use. The cards are more than good enough to play with, and with the playing cards as a stiffener and the penny sleeves these should last me a good long time. 

I hope you enjoy the photos below! Thanks for reading.

Tracking cards, mini, and components

Dungeon card pile and door options. Which to choose?

Character with trappings (equipment) and skills

Skills, trappings, and potions cards. Also card dividers (R)

Four characters, three of which (from left) from Loot & Lore pack

More characters, archer, wizard, fighter etc.

Lots of components

Tracking cards, maps, and morale.
The 'Comprehensive Resource tracking cards are from Boardgame Geek'

These lovely 'Comprehensive Resource Tracking Cards' are from 
Boardgame Geek, created by Karsha

Saturday, October 29, 2022

Machina Arcana - Descent into Madness (part 2)

Welcome to my continuing look at Machina Arcana. In Descent into Madness part 1 I commented on theme, art, atmosphere, variety and replayability, choices and smooth combat. If you want more information on those head over there - here we'll look at production quality, the standees, and publisher support, as well as some quibbles about the game.

Let's continue our descent...firstly with some more positives!

Production quality

One thing I really like in a game is that feeling that the money you invested has been well spent. For me (in part) that comes from the components. How do they feel in the hand? Are they durable and fit for purpose both in practical and game terms? Sometimes a first look at the game when you open the box fills you with wonder and excitement, but then, thin, warped player boards that spin around on the table (shedding meeples and cards!) really brings you down to earth.

No worries of that here! All of the key components are high-quality. That includes the card decks, custom dice, maps and player boards. And my goodness, those player boards and the chapter board are a fave of mine. Dual-layered, they hold your stat markers and character cards. Can those markers be knocked out? Sure, but the design stops things slipping around (as well as looking good too.) Take a look at the images below and also note the lovely theme and colours.

Two-layered player boards hold character cards and track stats

Two-layered chapter board tracks monster level and
the unfolding story as you make your way through each chapter.

The high quality of the components extends through the game. The artwork is fantastic too (as mentioned in part 1.) 

A special shout out to the designer of the component trays and the author/ publisher making this happen. They fit all of the components of the main game and the components from the two current expansion sets. This really helps with setup time and also reduces your overall financial investment in the game - you don't need to invest in a separate organiser or the time necessary to make your own foamboard solution. ALSO, it fits the cards even with sleeves on (although I'm not 100% sure if that is only for the official sleeve set and I don't know the sizes needed.) I haven't sleeved mine yet, but because I usually do, this is great to see.

For more information about how the trays work and the tray designer, visit Matt Healy and his page here at Mess AXP Game Inserts.

I do have a quibble about the trays, but I'll mention those below when we talk about some of the 'lows' of the game.


For me standees are big plus in a game, especially if the artwork is of good quality. I've painted lots of miniatures and I'm one of those people who prefers to start playing a game with the minis painted (no grey plastic!). That is a personal (weird?) choice, but it means that standees are a great option for getting a game to the table quickly with minimal effort. If you have limited painting time, experience, or confidence standees are a great option. When playing the game, I don't notice that I'm using standees and not miniatures - my imagination is in full swing.

Hank has left the map, and Kim is forced into a fighting retreat!

Publisher support

A lot of credit must go to the author, Juraj Bilich for not only bringing his vision to the table, but also being active in supporting it. I've seen other author provide great support to their user base of course (Andrew Parks of Dungeon Alliance is a good example), but being able to get authoritative answers is reassuring and positive. Mr. Bilich is active on Facebook (at the Machina Arcana group) and also on the Boardgame Geek Forums. This may be becoming more the norm, but it is appreciated none-the-less.

So between these positives and my first post, you can see that there is a whole lot to love for Machina Arcana. Of course, there are some quibbles too, so lets now talk about...

...the lows

Probably better to call these 'dips' rather than lows, as none of these are show stoppers or would prompt me to sell the game or not recommend it. However they are things to consider.

Limited content in the box

Firstly, there are 'only' three campaigns in the box, composed of a series of chapter cards that are lined up in order. You will come to know the story well as you reveal it. Each offers several hours of gameplay, and more if you decide to play with a reduced deck of chapter cards for a shorter game (as recommended by the rulebook). You will also have seen the final chapter of each story, including the story-ending map tile that is reserved for the ending.  

Now, there is a lot of replayability, because you never know what map tiles will emerge, and there are plenty of character combinations to try. No two games will feel identical. There are two expansions (To Eternity, and From Beyond) available that add extra mechanics, new characters, and new campaigns (purchased separately).

End game special tiles. Not to be revealed early...

Randomly-drawn double-sided map tiles provide replayability

I've replayed the opening campaign many times, and the turn-to-turn gameplay still feels fresh. With four different character classes to mix and match you'll also find new challenges to think about when dealing with less robust characters or interesting party compositions.

Story and map disconnect

When playing, you sometimes feel a story disconnect. In a more traditional dungeon-crawler, you might drop a plastic treasure chest or token on the map as you reveal it (usually at the direction of a story guide or scenario setup), but the tile here has all elements pre-printed on. Remember that the story is revealed by the chapter cards as you play through, and the map tiles are drawn randomly. It can be the case that what is being described in the story has nothing to do with the tiles and what you see before you. In a way, this is a side effect of how successful the game is in drawing you into analysing the map tiles as you consider what is printed on each and how you will make your way across it. 

The maps are gorgeous with lots to interact with,
but due to the gameplay design they don't match the chapter story.

Is this a deal-breaker? No. In my opinion this simply requires a mental reset for some players, who may be used to having a bookcase, an altar or a treasure chest in front of them as a mini or a map item. 

Turn-by-turn repetition

The game can feel repetitive. This is a side effect of the 4-step turn process. For me personally this stopped being an issue once I realised that mastering the process led to a nice, quick game - when playing solo at least. 
Spawn phase? Roll the dice, take the action based on that, move on. 
Horror phase? Draw the card, do as listed, etc.
I'm not sure why, but it felt more repetitive than something like 'Mansions of Madness 2e'.

Fiddly rules

The glossy rulebook is laid out logically, and the sample gameplay walk-through was nicely done, but I still found some of the rules difficult to parse and apply. This held true for some monsters, chapter cards, and events. This can happen in any game, but I found myself resorting to Boardgamegeek and the M.A. Facebook group for help. I was able to quickly find answers (often from the author), but I did get frustrated at times. Sometimes the issue may come down to an interpretation of a gameplay word used, or edge cases caused by the monster A.I. ("Will the Ghast destroy a chapter space and if so, will that flip the chapter?") Upon re-reading the manual closely, I wasn't sure...

Tactical...but not?

From everything I've described, you might expect Machina Arcana to be really "Tactical". It has a map, a party and enemies that move around, limited actions to manage, upgrades to consider, and difficult choices to make. However, this game doesn't have some of the standard or traditional "Tactical" elements you might expect. For example...
...facing doesn't play any part in combat (that I can see). So far I haven't had to think about outflanking enemies.
...the rules as written don't include melee bonuses (e.g. based on supporting characters.)

Remember though that the game bills itself as a "Co-operative horror adventure board game". It doesn't bill itself as tactical. Personally, I find that there are so many important decisions to be made on a turn-by-turn basis that I don't miss the elements mentioned above. These would slow the game down and I don't think they would offer anything to the experience that the game is striving for. 

Organiser issues

As stated earlier, the organiser is a big plus for the game, but one quibble is the flimsy plastic used. I'm not sure how this could have been avoided, but it looks as though it can split or crack really easily. Everything fits together really well, but very snugly. If you don't put the trays back in the right way, you can catch the edges of them, leading to cracks or splits. 
I have other games with trays and I haven't noticed this as much. Roll Player Adventures also has a really good tray system included, but it feels just a bit more durable (although no thin-walled plastic is ever going to stand up well to rough handling!)

Chit and monster trays. You can see them around the manual.
These have thin walls and the bottom lip can catch on other

The main tray - space for everything! (Try to ignore the 
horror that is my jumble of monster tokens...)

The trays work great to organise everything, but be aware that they are not very durable. I'd much rather have them included than not though!

In summary...

...Machina Arcana is an excellent game that standards apart from most 'Dungeon crawl' games because of its theme, attention to detail, and story/ campaign presentation. I'm looking forward to playing more and working my way through everything. If you are looking for a Cthulu-related game of exploration and escape (combining horror and steampunk no less!), then add this one to your list! It will be exciting to see what the author and colleagues have in store for the future.

Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Machina Arcana - Descent into Madness (Part 1)

A Thrall manages to get close to Kim. Horror is sure to follow!

Machina Arcana

After playing some horror-themed games recently in the form of Folklore; The Affliction, and Arkham Horror (Living card game) I've developed a taste for blood Cthulu. This has combined with an interest in tactical dungeon crawlers in the form of Machina Arcana, a steampunk exploration and tactical combat game set in a mysterious underground installation.

In this game for 1-4 players you will take control of a small party of explorers who head into this installation, exploring the mysteries it contains as you progress through a story in the form of chapters. Along the way you must tool-up with weapons and armour as quickly as possible to give yourself the best chance of surviving the horrors (both physical and mental) that the installation throws at you.

The challenges you will face include a variety of increasingly horrific monsters from the Cthulu mythos, and more importantly, decisions!
Should you stay and fight? or run? 
Should you head over to that chest for equipment or keep moving? 
When you DO find equipment, what should you keep?
Will you strategically try to stem the flow of monsters, or head on?
Your physical resources are limited, so how will you spend your stamina?

Sounds terrifying good?

Now on its third edition, information on Machina Arcana can be found around the web, including reviews and playthroughs, so in this (lengthy) first post I'll just overview some of the positives of the experience for me so far.

Kim faces a spider of Leng that has webbed her equipment.
Get it back? Or keep moving? (I'll let your arachnophobia decide...)

The highs...

Theme, art, and atmosphere

If you want a game that has a lot of 'theme' '...inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft' then this game is for you.
  • 'Cthulu' and a growing sense of unease everywhere, from the monster types and artwork to the thematic text.
  • The 'Steampunk' setting is different and fun. All of the equipment has a suitably 'clockwork' feel and a system of upgrades allowing you to mix and match bits and pieces. (You can learn more about Steampunk by visiting Steampunk Avenue.)
  • The art is gorgeous and visual appeal strong in every element of the components. I really enjoy exploring the chapter artwork (it is revealed as you advance). The characters, monsters, and equipment invite the eye to explore each image - congratulations to the artists on their work.
  • Thematic text is everywhere. Event cards, monster cards, chapter cards etc. all have some text that helps to create and support the theme. Horror and event cards in particular have prose, poems, and rhyme that help to create this dark and dangerous world. Not all players will want to spend the time reading it, but if you like that kind of attention to detail you will find it here. Another example is the monster cards - often you'll find a quote or sentence at the bottom that helps to flesh out the creature.
  • Official soundtrack provides background music by Mladen Konecky (listen to it on Melodice).
  • The atmosphere here is 'struggle' and the mechanics promote this. You don't have a lot health or stamina, and it isn't easy to come by healing, prompting some difficult choices.

The 'Barred' horror event text is one example of the writing.

Variety and replayability

When playing the game, is there variety within a game and replayability afterwards? If you get it to the table multiple times will you feel that the experience is 'different' enough to remain engaging?
I say 'yes', with some qualification.
  • 10 double-sided map tiles provide different layouts to explore as you play each scenario. However the event spaces are printed directly on (you don't randomly add a token in a different spot each mission), so they won't change.
  • Extensive monster variety, with individual A.I. driving their actions. There are 29 in the base game, divided into 4 levels. Will you start to learn what they do with multiple playthroughs? Yes, but in some dungeon crawlers you might find 10 or fewer enemy types.
  • Equipment is plentiful, with an upgrade/ augmentation system allowing you to combine different cards for some cool combinations. The base game has 51 weapons, 40 apparel, 35 artifacts, and 30 consumables.
  • Huge range of different 'events' that will help and hurt players. This is two decks of cards (a total of 120), so you never know what the next event will be. Flipping the horror cards is an exercise in tension. ('Let's dash for the exit - OH NO, paralysing fog!')
  • Explorer choice: Do you want to play as a male or female character? Which of the four classes do you want to be - Bruiser, Gunman, Crafter, or Mystic? Each class has different strengths and weaknesses (and variations in their starting abilities) and will need to be managed differently as you explore. Any class can equip any item, but how easily and quickly they can equip it is the challenge.
Hank, a 'Bruiser'

Lorrai, a 'Mystic'

Kim - 'Gunman' (I'd prefer 'Gunslinger')

Phillip, a 'Crafter'

Large, double-sided map tiles add replayability


This game is all about making choices, and that is a positive. It does this by having a very tight action economy, imposed by even the hardiest character having a maximum of 6 stamina on their turn. Those stamina are precious! Opening a chest costs 3 stamina, activating a trap costs 2, moving one space costs 1 etc. You can get more stamina by using 'recharge stations' (if you are lucky), but this is occasional. 
Examples of choices you constantly face are:
  • Fight or flight! Taking out monsters can be essential (killing them gives you 'Essence' - a key currency in the game) but just as often it can be better to keep moving.
  • What to equip? Finding useful equipment is really important. When you open a chest or use a workbench you get a choice of items. Which will you keep? This is made more interesting by being able to either destroy an item you don't want or put it back on top of the pile - allowing another explorer to pick it up later.
  • Prioritise exploration or survival? Every map offers opportunities to find new items, but should you split up to hoover up items on the map or stay together and dash towards whatever condition will move the story forward.
An example of choices. Each of these weapons and items
came with a difficult choice about what to keep.

Smooth gameplay & simple combat

Kim and Hank steel themselves. What lies ahead?

Once you have a grasp of the rules (not necessarily easy...a word on that in part 2) you'll find that getting the game setup and moving through a game can be very smooth.

Unusually, the game box comes with trays for all the bits and pieces. These are flimsy and easily damaged, but they do keep everything together. All card decks have their own area in the bottom of the box, divided by card level and space for all the game expansions is built in. All tokens are kept in a single token tray with a lid. this makes for fast setup. Great!

I mentioned earlier that the action spaces are printed onto the maps. These include chests, workbenches, traps etc. To get going you just set down a map tile - no fiddling around in token trays for bits and pieces to add. You can see at a glance where resources and action spaces are.

In game, combat itself is simple, at least in terms of damage. You'll roll two sets of custom dice and simply compare your total to the enemy's defense stats (remember that 'meets beats' - equal their defense and you'll do damage). You'll always do a single point of damage too, so no grasping around for tables and charts trying to work out modifiers. It is also easy to add up your defense bonuses when defending as they are all on your character and equipment cards.

Finally, the '4-step' round is easy to follow and you'll soon get into a fast rhythm (especially playing solo):
Explorer phase > Spawn phase > Horror phase > Monster phase.
Each phase has a clear process illustrated by the player aid, four of which are included in the box.

I'll stop there for now, but in part 2 I'll cover production quality, the standees, publisher support, and more. In this first post I've been very positive, but no game is perfect! In the next installment I'll cover some of the less positive elements to the experience and wrap up.

See you there!

Monday, September 19, 2022

Folklore: The Affliction. Problems and solutions (part 2.)


Folklore on the table

So what is Folklore like to play?
For me...
...fantastic, but with one or two caveats.

Overall though the game has definitely given me what I wanted:
  • A game with lots of 'theme'.
  • Opportunities for roleplaying.
  • Captures the feeling of an 'RPG', with a story you can move through with characters.
  • Dice chucking, combat, and character management (lots of stat management on character sheets!)
  • No model painting (a second printing comes complete with standees.)
I've also enjoyed:
  • Overland movement, transitioning to really nice maps for adventures.
  • Making decisions in the story, and not knowing how they will play out until later.
  • Interesting pre-prepared character types.
  • Standees - they really look better than I thought.
  • Skirmishes - an alternative combat mode for quick fights when you are on the road.
No game is perfect though, and the more I played the more some issues other players and reviewers noted did become apparent. However I did find some answers that work for me, giving me a balance between the level of challenge and enjoyment I want. None of the ideas below are mine!

Swingy D100 system

This game uses D100...a lot! That means that your rolls can be very swingy, and an emotional rollercoaster. I don't think there is an easy answer to this, but levelling up does help, as does having access to equipment bonuses (see 'Tiny market' below.) There are fans who have moved the whole system to D20, which probably would work better if D100 gets you down.

'Dicefest' combat 

If you play the game with the normal (base game) rules, combat doesn't feel tactical. You'll end up with a big cluster of standees in a one part of the adventure map, simply taking turns rolling D100. At the lower levels, that means you will miss - a lot, so combat can really drag on, and on...and on! Also, turn order can mean that an enemy can go first, rush in, and back you into a corner that you can't get out from. 

To deal with this, checkout the 'advanced rules' from the expansions, as well as 'Encounter Tactical variants' house rules that you can find on Board Game geek. This made the game much more fun for me. These add rules to allow you to expend power points to push an enemy back or force your way past an enemy. They also add bonuses based on facing, outnumbering the enemy, moving out of an enemy's threat area, and more. This not only gives you a better chance of hitting but brings combat to a much swifter conclusion after you have whittled down your enemies to a last one or two.

For additional options, the initiative track mechanism introduced in Fall of the Spire really helped make combat more interesting. It does make combat longer to setup, but for me the pay off was worth it. I liked never knowing who would end up with initiative at the start, and also the little element of tactics introduced by the 'Tactics cards' that provide bonuses. These don't usually make a huge difference, but they an give you (and your enemies) small bonuses that gives you something extra to think about.

You can see this system in the image below. The track is at left, with a mix of standees and tokens to represent where combatants are on the track, and tactics cards (the blue and red arrows) being available.

Folklore: The Affliction combat and initiative track.

Punishing overland travel

The very well-realised world you travel through is a big plus of the game for me. It is dark and dangerous, and so it can also be incredibly punishing. As you travel you will have road or off-road encounters. Many of these lead to 'Skirmishes'. Usually quick to resolve they don't involve any setup or standees - a lovely system. BUT, these can happen way too often, and if you have bad rolls they end up really stomping you. Especially if you play the core rules, you have limited options to rest, making these skirmishes particularly deadly.

On the road again. The white party marker is at Waylin Point.

The best way to mitigate this I found was including a 'cautious travel/ fast travel' mechanic. Full credit to William Shaffer, who outlined this and other ideas on this thread.

When traveling on road, the party can travel cautiously or hastily. When traveling cautiously, you only draw an event of a result of 1-5 on a d10. When traveling hastily, you always draw an event, but you add +2 to your movement (+3 with a carriage). This allows the party to better control the flow of travel depending on how prepared they feel. You always draw an event when traveling off-road, and cannot travel hastily. I like this house rule because I don't want to burn through all the road event cards too fast, and it avoids the tedium of getting too many skirmish battles.

A detailed world: Just add two drops of depth

As you travel the world presented, the theme here really shines through. One example is visiting one of the three towns on the map. Each is of a different size and when you arrive, the game provides you with different locations (market, stables, chapel, alchemist, gypsy encampment, tinker etc.) Depending on the character you have chosen, you may get different bonuses or access to different services or things to buy. This is really great, as it helps you feel that you character is different. One issue however is that in the core game, the marketplace is quite sterile - in fact barren! Very few items are available to purchase by default. William Shaffer (see link above) offers a variant marketplace that makes the market...feel like a market!

'When shopping at a marketplace, you can draw either 5/10/15 consumables to buy from and 3/5/9 weapons/armor/enhancements per visit to the city (the slashes denote the size of the city).'

With this simple change (provided you have the money) you have some difficult decisions to make and levelling up feels like a real opportunity to spend your newfound wealth. It may make the game a little easier, by having more items available in town, but if that worries you make the market 'dynamic': Every time you visit shuffle the marketplace cards, and remove 2-3 at random - dwindling supplies are an every day occurrence for the citizenry of Kremel...

The change above is easy to make, but the second is part of one of the expansions: the 'Rumor' system. This was introduced in the 'Dark Tales' expansion of 2017. In this, you always have the chance to visit one of the local pubs in town, and once there you can pick up a 'rumor' to follow. Essentially this is a side-quest. 

You can see an example rumor card here:

Each rumor offers you a chance to pick up lore and coins (or other rewards) by completing the side quest. I really have been enjoying these because they help you level up and pick up coin that you can spend at the marketplace. They are also a nice diversion from the main story that can be played separately.

Busy bookkeeping - Folklore; the Affliction Assistant

Depending on what you are looking for in a game, the amount of bookkeeping in F:TA can be a plus or a minus. On the positive side it really gives you an old-school RPG feeling. You have a character sheet (or several) with a range of stats that change as you adventure and also contribute to your dice rolls. That pen-and-paper RPG feel is a plus for me, but it can get REALLY busy, even when using a fan-made PDF (see BGG files for more info.) This can be particularly true when playing solo with more than a single character.

The answer to this issue for me was to use the fan-made app on my Android phone. 'Folklore Assistant' is on Google Play (I don't think it is available for Apple devices but please check.). Kudos to the developer for their work on this. They are responsive to issues and the updates have been really useful to me. 

Eryalana, the Druidess

All cards and tokens are included

Stats are easy to track

Combat can be done in app

The app allows you to do all the bookkeeping that you normally need, just as if you were using a printed character sheet. As you add equipment and level up, your stats automatically adjust. However it ALSO allows you to manage combat in the app, export your characters, and play background music!

So that is how I've been enjoying Folklore! The core experience is really solid, but to get the right blend of challenge and fun (for me) it needed a few easy house rules. Adventuring in this world has brought me lots of really enjoyable hours at the kitchen table - with many more to come.

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