Northern Crown: Defending the Trading Post

One of my bucket list role-playing games has been Northern Crown ever since the setting was first published in the mid-aughts. In a fantasy-infused version of North American in 1650, the Republic of Sophia has sent an expedition in support of a lonely trading post on the western shore of a long lake named after the French explorer de Champlain, charged with exploring and claiming the lands there for the republic.[1] And so the heroes arrived at Ira and Jerusha Allen’s trading post, just in time to fend off marauding bandits who have come to raid the storehouse.

The layout that our GM, Tom, came up with to represent the trading post was pretty damn impressive — especially because he had it hidden under the surface of his game table. We started thinking we were just going to be using a Lego canal ship, then Tom broke out the Heroscape terrain for the interlude where we freed the sasquatch from cruel portagers, and then he said, “We need to move all this,” and started pulling up the table surface to reveal the diorama pictured above.


[1] I’m told it’s loosely the plot of Pathfinder‘s Kingmaker adventure path, reconfigured for the lands and peoples of Northern Crown, using a loose renditiong of Pathfinder rules, with elements from Dungeon Crawl Classics and FATE.

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Top Plays of 2016

Making last year’s Top Plays of 2015 post a tradition, it’s time to count down my most played board games of 2015! You can see everything I played, tabletop-wise, over on BoardGameGeek. And stay until the end, because at the end of the list, I set myself some hobby-related goals for 2017.

While most of my tabletop time in 2016 was been spent on board and card games, I did manage to up my role-playing a little bit. There was the stop-and-start campaign of Skull & Shackles, sadly more stopped than started, and a biweekly playthrough of The Dracula Dossier for Night’s Black Agents. I continue to hope that next year will be the year that I get more regular role-playing opportunities, and I have some thoughts on how to achieve that.

That said, on with the countdown, from least plays of 2016 to the most.

5. Betrayal at House on the Hill

That perennial favorite of mine, the haunted house-building, cheesy horror movie tribute game Betrayal got a richly deserved expansion this year, called Widow’s Walk. The prospect of experiencing new haunts helped me get in six plays of the game in 2016, though maybe half of those came after the expansion’s release. Probably my most memorable session of the game remains playing through “The Manor of Your Demise” and teasing out just how deep down the rabbit hole one can go.

4. Codenames

Codenames is the second newest game to make this list. It’s a party-sized game, where two teams try to figure out what the hell the spymaster means by “Blue 2” and other clues meant to help them pick out specific words from a grid of options. It’s also one of those games where you can rack up a lot of plays in one or two sittings as teams shuffle around, or someone tries to reclaim their dignity after a poor turn as the spymaster. Of my seven plays of Codenames, I struggled as the spymaster every time I was in the hot seat.[1]

3. Arkham Horror: The Card Game

The most recently published entrant on the list, the Arkham LCG was my only — and thus most — anticipated game to play in 2016 since news first slipped out in April. The blend of cooperative play and the Cthulhu mythos really appealed to me. I’m reasonably certain I’m on record in at least a couple Decked! episodes or comments noting I played Arkham‘s predecessor primarily for the theme, rather than the thrill of competitive play.

I don’t know yet if Arkham has staying power for me, but experiencing the design of the Curse of the Rougarou standalone expansion did far more to convince me I would enjoy playing this game than the introductory scenarios in the core set did. It seems very likely I’ll get in more sessions in 2017 than the eight I managed in 2016.

2. Call of Cthulhu: The Card Game

It will surprise no regular reader of Held Action that I have played quite a few games of the Call of Cthulhu living card game, going so far as to make videos of them for the internet’s delight. The Cthulhu LCG is my all-time most played game on BoardGameGeek, with 189 matches logged. In 2016, however, Call of Cthulhu slipped to second place for plays of 2016. I “only” got in 10 matches, and that was probably thanks in large part to at least one “you people need to buy all the extra packs I ordered” draft event at Black Moon Games in Lebanon.

Since Fantasy Flight stopped publishing new cards — and yes, the game is still enjoyable without a constant stream of new material — that put a major damper on the local play group making the time to get together. I’d love to play more — and still have yet to make substantial use of anything from The Mark of Madness — but I anticipate this game being in direct competition with the Arkham LCG for time and attention. The local play rosters for the two games are almost identical and we are all working stiffs with a limited amount of time on our hands. So it goes.

1. Sentinels of the Multiverse

And as the Call of Cthulhu LCG slips from first, so does Sentinels of the Multiverse rise to take the crown. This is the title that people at area game nights have come to expect to see me toting. I introduced my friend Margot to the game this year, and she took to quite readily, so the list of people who are almost always up for a game of Sentinels is slowly growing.

While I got in 11 plays of the ink and cardboard version of Sentinels this year, I logged far, far more time playing the digital version. I took advantage of free time over the holidays this year to knock out the achievements a solo player can attain, including all the story challenge achievements for unlocking variant character cards.[2] All that remains is the achievement to play with Handelabra or Greater Than Games, or someone who’s played with them.

Sentinels has been the game that occupied most of my attention in 2016. Handelabra Games launched a phone-friendly version of the game, giving me something to do during downtime out and about — I knocked out a quick game waiting for Rogue One to begin last week, for instance. The weekly one-shot challenges became the feature of Decked! episodes. Greater Than Games raised funds for the game’s final expansion and host of bonus content, which also helped reinvigorate my interest in the game.

Tabletop Goals for 2017

I’d like to start a new part of this end of year post tradition: setting some play goals for the year to come. In no particular order, I would like to:

  • Get in more plays of the games I own and enjoy. Eldritch Horror has yet another big box expansion on the way and I have barely scratched the surfaces of the Strange RemnantsUnder the Pyramids and Signs of Carcosa expansions. Likewise, there is so much more of Widow’s Walk to play.
  • Play more role-playing games. Dracula Dossier is my regular game at the moment and as one that’s played on the weekend, there are often things that get in the way of everyone making it. I’d like to find or start a regular game on a week night that isn’t already crammed on everyone’s calendar. By some twist of synchronicity, everyone in Chittenden County thinks Tuesday is the optimal night to play games, which means there’s a plethora of choice, but not a lot of crossover as people commit to one place and set of players.
  • Find and create my next big game-related project. I’ve produced a podcast. I’ve made YouTube play videos through Decked! I like to produce game-adjacent content, it seems, and I would like to find a new endeavor or area of interest to focus on, like I have with Cthulhu commentary and Sentinels one-shots in the past. I don’t know what shape that might take yet, but I’ve been giving it thought and hope to come up with a fun project for 2017.

[1] Almost as much as playing the ghost in Mysterium.

[2] In fact, Steam’s telling me I spent almost 70 hours on the game in the last two weeks, though I’m not sure if that’s total time the game application was open, or time where I was moving the mouse and clicking things.

Send in the Clones

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Regrettably, this is no tie-in to the derided Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Up the Long Ladder.” Rather, the first weekly one-shot of Sentinels of the Multiverse post Vengeance release features the team villain mode, in which Baron Blades brings some allies, Proletariat and Fright Train, to help take down America’s Youngest Legacy, the Southwest Sentinels and Setback.

All three hero decks in this one-shot feature HP recovery, often as a rider on dealing some damage or some other useful feature, which is often helpful, especially for the Sentinels, since they’re a team of lower HP heroes.

The advice going into this one was to focus on hitting Fright Train first. Proletariat injures himself depending on the number of clones in play, so he did more to remove himself from the game than anyone else, though the Idealist lent some psychic damage to speed things along. Destroying Genetically Fused Physique with Setback’s “Whoops! Sorry!” means Blade starts injuring himself as well, and no one’s doing very large instances of damage, so Superhuman Durability seemed like a decent candidate to sacrifice.

Unlocking Dark Watch: Setback

The variant identity Dark Watch Setback has been unlocked!

The Dark Watch: Setback variant identity in Sentinels of the Multiverse has one of the more challenging unlock conditions: defeat the Chairman in Rook City with Setback and the rest of the Dark Watch team as their variant selves: Nightmist, Mister Fixer and Expatriette. This is a challenging setup, top to bottom.[1][2] Thus, I turned to cheese.

This is a challenging setup, top to bottom. Thus, I turned to cheese.

Now in fairness, I slogged through a lot of total failures before turning to cheese. Most of the initial batch of games, both the Chairman and his flunky, the Operative, stayed at or had been restored to full health. I think I now hate the Fence more than I do any other of the Chairman’s underbosses. But after the unmitigated suffering of a team line-up where the heavy hitter keeps destroying the equipment and ongoings that makes the other heroes effective, I turned to the internet and came upon the Friendly Fire/Dual Crowbars combo.

In short, Friendly Fire allows Setback to be dealt 2 damage anytime a hero target would deal damage. Mister Fixer’s Dual Crowbars allow him to damage a second target any time he would deal damage. So Mister Fixer hits a target, Friendly Fire allows him to hit Setback, Dual Crowbars allows a new instance of damage to split off Fixer hitting Setback, then Friendly Fire allows Fixer to hit Setback again because he just dealt damage to a target, and so on and so on until Setback is incapacitated from getting whacked on the head with a crowbar.

In the context of this particular match-up, you are essentially sacrificing Setback to take the Operative out of the game in the first turn. And that is an excellent trade. Taking out the Operative means that underbosses enter play more slowly and destroying villain targets doesn’t incur retributive damage. And incapacitated Setback gives you half a regular hero turn with a card play or power use by someone who is, frankly, probably going to be more useful than he was, so . . .

So I shifted gears from “let’s fail fast repeatedly and figure out what worked at all” to restarting the game repeatedly until Setback and Fixer had the two key cards in hand. Aside from the amount of clicking between viable setups, I made more progress than before, but it still needed tweaking. Setback should lead the team, for instance, to allow Fixer to destroy the Operative on the first round. Others have suggested Fixer should go last, to increase the chances of playing a piece of fodder for his Bitter Strike from Nightmist or Expatriette.

It can all still come down to the flop, though. The final run through led off with the Contract coming out and an unbelievable string of Falling Statuary. Once the Operative was removed, there were, amazingly, some do-nothing turns waiting for the Chairman to flip as underbosses trickled into play and were sent to the trash. Several Perfect Human Specimen plays while the Chairman was at full HP didn’t bother me at all.

Once the Chairman flipped, his retaliatory damage took out Mister Fixer in a couple hits. I lucked out with Nightmist[3] and got an Amulet of the Elder Gods out just in time for the Chairman to hit her, which she redirected to him with the amulet, causing the Chairman to hit himself in response to hitting himself. That was pretty gratifying. Expatriette did the final bit of damage on Setback’s turn, so everyone got to get their licks in by the end.


[1] Note that the weekly one-shot Ridiculous Challenge Time, which wrecked a number of mint streaks, pitted Dark Watch Fixer, Nightmist and Expatriette against the Chairman.

[2] And why I put this one off, much like Price of Freedom of Wraith and Ra, Horus of Two Horizons. The second being one achievement I still have to earn.

[3] I lucked out twice, in fact, because an early Mists of Time/Mist-Fueled Recovery one-two put Nightmist back at full health and ready to take the “highest HP” punches while everyone else hovered at the brink of single digits.

Arkham Horror LCG: The Devourer Below

Wendy finds herself confronted by two Deep Ones, by way of Monsterpocalypse figures.

For the third and final scenario of the Night of the Zealot introductory campaign for Arkham Horror: The Card Game, we found ourselves short one plucky librarian, owing to the whims of the weather. So Ray, Tom and I decided we’d call this a practice run and see what happened before playing “for real” when Carlo could join us.

In short and without getting spoilery, we got housed. We had one decent shot at achieving anything resembling a victory, but the path to that pyrrhic, ethically ambiguous victory was clogged with extraneous monsters and there was no way to clear it.

The general consensus seems to be the introductory scenarios are highly variable. Some people report walking through them without breaking a sweat. Others, like I and my friends, get walloped every time and seemingly without any ability to fight back. I imagine we’re just not playing very efficiently and that people who are more used to this style of cooperative card game — Arkham reportedly shares as much DNA with Lord of the Rings: The Card Game as it does with Netrunner, if not more — are more used to the deck design and play style that gets stuff done in spite of the endless series of obstacles the game throws up.

Umordhorth, the Devourer Below, as rendered in a Monsterpocalypse figure, is unimpressed by investigators who futilely scrabble to throw tasty morsels in its maw.

Also, Tom wanted me to talk more about what he did during the game, so I guess I’ll mention that Skids got trapped in the woods and spent the remainder of the game, which was four or more turns, completely unable to get out of that location or contribute to the nonsense happening just one space over.

Furthermore, during setup for the game Tom couldn’t find his tokens — they were hidden under a Terry Pratchett novel — so after tearing his basement apart, we mocked up a chaos deck with a stack of playing cards.

BPRD: The Celestial Legion

Printouts of the character sheet and biography for Sparky, Nikola Tesla's electrical golem.

Sifting through more stuff in the wake of purging empty boxes, I came across a trove of materials from convention games I’ve run over the years: several Ghostbusters scenarios from Carnages past, Unknown Armies‘ archetypal Jailbreak, and this particular gem, The Celestial Legion. It’s a Hellboy/B.P.R.D. adventure I wrote back when I was getting around to more conventions in New England than Carnage. Forgive me, purists, because it was written using mainly Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy film as inspiration, because that was my first real experience with the character. Only in the case of my conception of the B.P.R.D, most of the team members are weirdos like Sparky here — the Russian werebear assassin, the psychic supermodel — plus the much put-upon token normal agent, whose most-used piece of gear was the clicker gadget on his belt to track the collateral damage tally.

The sharp-eyed may note that the player materials I make are heavily patterned after the sample characters in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel role-playing games: short bio, some notes to guide how the character might act and look at things, and a full character sheet on another page. In this case, it was because I ran the game using Cinematic Unisystem and may have borrowed more than a few pieces of art from the sample character spreads for character portraits. (Sparky’s particular portrait is a work called Creacion del golem by Gabos on DeviantArt.com.)

I still feel proud of The Celestial Legion for being one of the more robustly documented adventures I’ve written, but I think the second and third acts need work. As is my bad habit, I came up with a great concept, detailed how it all kicks off and then the detailing and robustness of what might happen trails off as the narrative progresses. The more I think about it now, the more I realize I can’t tell you what the climax of the adventure is, or how it pays off the prior scenes.

Arkham Horror LCG: The Midnight Masks

Player markers for Skids, Wendy, Agnes and Daisy cluster on the starting location for a scenario of Arkham Horror: The Card Game, with clue tokens scattered before them.

Playing with old school Arkham Horror standees and fancy tokens from Stonemaier Games, courtesy Carlo.

Picking up after playing through The Gathering, Ray joined to make the group a quartet. Ray played Wendy, while Carlo, Tom and I kept Daisy, Skids and Agnes, respectively.

This was not an easy scenario. Three players handled The Gathering really well — way better than my two player attempts previously — but we struggled to get any traction with Midnight Masks. Every other encounter card took away the resource we had to accumulate to advance to victory. Carlo thought it was just a rough draw, but I’m inclined to think it’s a deliberately tough scenario, with the intent that the players do the best they can and get out. Possibly it’s to teach players that knowing when to resign is important in campaign play like this. It’s certainly in keeping with the themes of Lovecraftian stories and role-playing. Most anecdotes about doing well in a Call of Cthulhu scenario — for relative values of well — end with “and then the survivors ran.”

Second time out with Agnes, I found her even more perplexing. She’s not a strong investigator, but that’s what I found myself doing. In retrospect, I should have looked more closely at her spells, as they’re more about dealing with enemies and interfering with the encounter deck.

Next time we play, I’ll keep that in mind as discover whether what we uncovered during “The Midnight Masks” will be enough to help us through the final chapter of this Arkham Horror mini-campaign.

Prime Wardens Are Go

A collage of the achievement screens for unlocking the five Prime Warden variants in Sentinels of the Multiverse.Thanks to the industrious players over on the Sentinels of the Multiverse video game forum, the unlock conditions for the Prime Warden identities were all figured out over the last couple weeks. After an extended hiatus from the digital version of Sentinels — Steam had me down as last playing in September — I decided to see how many of the Prime Wardens I could unlock over the weekend. I have a certain affection for this team, because they were the first set of promo cards that I got directly on my own, as part of preordering Wrath of the Cosmos. I’ve never known how to use them because I don’t get to play in reality as often as I might like, but I feel an attachment to the team as the promo cards that I didn’t proxy.

Argent Adept was, weirdly, the trickiest for me to unlock. I had a couple false starts as I bounced among devices and had to ensure multiple times that I had met both halves of the unlock. As the Adept is well-suited to making this happen on his own, the second half came down to remembering whether I had indeed played all the instruments. Captain Cosmic’s Dynamic Siphons are always helpful to the Adept using powers off-turn.

Captain Cosmic and Tempest unlocked in the same session in Dok’Thorath. Prime Warden Argent Adept and America’s Greatest Legacy put their powers towards helping Cosmic dig through his deck for Energy Bracers, and have the cards to pay for redirecting damage from Abject Refugees. The Visionary came along to sift the environment for the refugees themselves and ablate the less ignorable cards.

By the time Captain Cosmic’s variant was unlocked, we were well into the game and Tempest had inadvertently set up most of what he needed for his own unlock. Adept and Legacy assisted in fishing out the remainder of his unlock setup and the game ended with Tempest administering the coup de grace on Argent Adept’s turn.

Fanatic versus Apostate went quietly. Argent Adept and America’s Greatest Legacy led the team again, to help Fanatic dig for cards, since the Redeemer variant doesn’t start with a damaging ability. Dark Visionary minded the top of Apostate’s deck, getting the demons in play that Fanatic needed to clean up for her unlock condition.

For Haka, I played cautiously, because I don’t relish deliberately incapacitating heroes. Once Savage Mana was out, I made sure all of Ambuscade’s devices were stashed there before eliminating the other heroes. Captain Cosmic and the Wraith’s big finishing moves took out two heroes in one turn, and then Haka was able to polish off the rest, before restoring himself to full health and then closing out the game with his own big finisher to clean Ambuscade’s 1 HP clock.

We Have to Betray Deeper

If you care about spoilers for Betrayal at House on the Hill scenarios and its expansion, Widow’s Walk, gloss over the photo below and really the whole post.

Components of a successfully completed Betrayal at House on the Hill scenario and a smartphone timer reading 29:12.

Photo courtesy Chris Griffin.

In this particular scenario, “The Manor of Your Demise,” the haunt consists of resetting the house and playing a sub-game in which the explorers search for the original triggering omen, the Box, with a 30 minute time limit. If they trigger a haunt within the sub-game before finding the Box, they start a new game with a 15 minute time limit. And so on, and so on.

We lucked out and finished the scenario after 48 seconds, thanks to Box being on top of the omen deck. It was pure, unadulterated luck, as two separate people shuffled the omen deck, but it was a pretty cool coincidence — especially since one of the players had announced he had a hard out to go make a pizza.

One thing I’m curious about is the number of timers that may be at play if multiple sub-games are initiated during the course of the scenario. The text in the Survivor’s Guide refers to starting “a timer” (emphasis mine) and never refers to stopping a timer, which say to me that the 30 minute timer keeps running even when the 15 minute game begins, and both the 30 and 15 minute timers keep running if a 7.5 minute game is initiated, and so on, and so on.

If that’s the case — and one of my fellow players argued that multiple timers didn’t make a whole lot of sense, but I’m sticking with the distinction between a timer and the timer — then does the victory condition of finding the Box omen end the haunt the explorers are currently experiencing, or the entire series of nested haunts? The wording refers to “this new game,” which again suggests to me that for every new sub-game begun, it has be to resolved before the explorers get kicked out to try to resolve the prior sub-game.

But I may be overthinking things.

Carnage Munchkin

This past weekend, I spent some time weeding my game library. One of the treasures I stumbled across was this pair of cards from Munchkin Carnage, a fan-made version of Munchkin made by longtime friend of Carnage, Tom Mechler, which he ran at Carnage on the Mountain in 2013, the convention’s first year at the Killington ski resort. The hook was that players would encounter convention staff and other Carnage references as monsters, treasures and so forth in the course of the game. In my case, I got recognition as an role-playing game field marshal for Carnage — though I’m pretty sure that photo is of me running a Hellboy scenario at Northeast Wars — and as the producer of Carnagecast.

In retrospect, making Podcaster with a live mic a level one monster is rather poetic. Carnagecast never got the traction and audience engagement that I hoped for. It was a great learning experience, though, especially with learning to recognize your audience’s behaviors and interests.