[Tuesday Night Board Games] Betrayal at House on the Hill, Second Edition

Comes the Hero . . . way too late to save Munk and Nonny from John the traitor (left).

I rhapsodized about a couple times Betrayal at House on the Hill before the second edition was announced. So I don’t think it surprises anyone that as soon as I acquired a copy of my own — after having put the contents on display for the world to see; more about that later, too — it hit the table at Tuesday night board games at Quarterstaff Games.

An Invisible Traitor stalked her prey for an hour and a half.

This night, I only got one and a half games in, as I ducked out to see some friends perform up the street in a singer-songwriter competition. There’s really nothing spectacularly different about the second edition of Betrayal at House on the Hill. The graphic elements are mostly unchanged; the doors seem to be a brighter shade of yellow, probably to aid people picking them out from the backdrop of the rooms.

The gameplay is also very much like what I’m used to. Before this second edition hit, we played with Alex’s copy, for which he printed out the rather extensive errata document that Wizards of the Coast published after the game was initially released and sharp-minded players started finding the flaws and omissions in the published rules and haunt scenarios. We still found some points of uncertainty, which might have been cleared up in the glossary in the back of the book that I haven’t read thoroughly yet, like do Omens that are physical objects count as Items? Last night, we assumed that they did.

I can’t say much about the sessions of Betrayal themselves, as I’m kind of fanatical about not spoiling haunts before others have played them. The first ended a lot more quickly than the second, but I think that was as much the heroes of the first haunt having no luck at all finding any of the items required to win as the traitor of the second game starting off with cool gear in addition to a pretty significant advantage over the heroes.

In other news, Patrick from Asmodee Games visited us, which was pretty cool. As Andrew recounts, he taught three games: Intrigo, Gosu and Water Lilies. I didn’t get the chance to find out what brought Patrick down from Montreal, but getting a visitor like that is pretty cool.

[Tuesday Night Board Games] A Light Caress of Dubious Morality

Munk, Nonny and Cedar (left to right) exaggerate expressions of pensive pondering over A Touch of Evil.

It’s difficult learning a new game. I have more than a couple on my shelf right now I’ve never played because curling up with a rulebook is something I just don’t do — role-playing and board games, alike, mind, but I’m thinking in particular of 1960: The Making of the President. That was the source of the Read ‘Em ‘Cause You Got ‘Em and Play Everything Quest post series, after all.

So it’s rare that I’ll come into a game and immediately try to play it. But that’s what we did two Tuesdays ago at Quarterstaff Games, with a borrowed copy of A Touch of Evil. It had been my intent to at least read the rules before Tuesday evening, but that didn’t work out. So I flipped through, trying to figure out how the game goes while the other players sorted tokens and shuffled cards. Fortunately, not only is the game not overly complex, but it also has an introductory mode, where the monsters aren’t quite so tough. The one wrinkle we did introduce was going straight to cooperative mode, where the rulebook suggested starting with a competitive game.

Our heroes struggled against the evil vampire and his hordes of . . . bats. It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t great, either. We spent a lot of time wandering around the border, not having anything really terrible happen to anyone. I say that acknowledging nothing bad happened to my character. I think Cedar got KO’d more than once or twice.

A Touch of Evil is set up to be either competitive or cooperative, which leads to some elements not making a whole bunch of sense in one version or the other. For instance, there are town elders, who can be useful to the solitary monster hunter — provided they don’t secretly turn out to be evil, which may be the case, depending on the dark secrets they hide from the world. One of the things to do in game is investigate those secrets. In either mode, that makes sense, because elders can turn on the hero(es) at the worst possible moment, when they go to showdown with the villain. And that makes a lot of sense and is clearly an issue to deal with in competitive mode, when everyone’s on their own. But in coop, it never really seemed to be a problem. Partly because we played it wrong that first time at Quarterstaff, because apparently dead elders who were secretly evil did, in fact, only fake their deaths and return to help the villain in the showdown. Even then, though, it seems to be a matter of how long one waits to go to showdown. The more Mystery cards are drawn, the better the odds of the villain offing town elders, as there are a number of cards that do just that.

This was a very rough play for me, because I wasn’t very well prepared and spent what felt like a lot of time flipping through a rule book, trying to figure out the niceties as well as basic elements of play on the fly. I played A Touch of Evil again a week later, which I hope to write about in a bit, and it was nearly as rough, because we tried to leap to the advanced play rules, which introduced several more complications which none of us were sufficiently familiar with to remember every time they should have applied.

[Tuesday Night Board Games] Still Lurking at the Threshold

We played another round of Arkham Horror, Jon, Nonny and I, with the same melange of cards from most of the expansions that I used for the past two games trying out Lurker at the Threshold Partly because the mix seems to work, but also because I’ve been too lazy to do more than drop the tote full of boxes in an out of the way spot on returning home from game night.

The one thing we left  out this time are the personal story cards from Innsmouth Horror. They’re neat and all, sure, but they’re mostly about slowing the investigators down, something that isn’t really needed with what’s going on in Lurker at the Threshold. Plus, going back to my point of how many things there are to track in a game of Arkham Horror these days, it’s too easy to forget about the pass/fail conditions of a personal story, or focus on them to the exclusion of other conditions that need monitoring.

This time we fought against Ghatanathoa, a delightfully cheery fellow I’d run into before. His annihilating gaze is rough: draw a token from a pool of eight whenever collecting two or more clue tokens. If it happens to show his face, the investigator is devoured. Nonny got stung by that on her very first draw from the pool. It wasn’t until much later in the game, when she had started over with Patrice the Clue Giver, that she and Jon flirted with Ghatanathoa again, having recognized the need to speed up clue token collection.

After a slow start — and what game of Arkham doesn’t have a slow start? — we got into the rhythm of gate-diving and scrounging clue tokens. We weren’t moving fast enough, though. Even with a thirteen token doom track and a number of monster surges, Ghatanathoa’s filled up quite really. The game went to final combat, which we won by the skin of our collective teeth, maybe at the last or second to last attack on the Ancient One.

The interesting thing about this particular session is how we used the Lurker’s pacts. In the past two games, players got bound allies immediately, working on the assumption that it would never come to final combat, so they didn’t have to worry about the bound allies joining the Ancient One’s side. Jon and Nonny played a little more conservatively.

It was a good long time before anyone took a pact and honestly, I can’t really remember the motivation to do so. It may have been a reckoning card — which I tried to draw faithfully throughout, but it’s difficult to keep them in mind when the effects don’t target anyone at the table, since we were so scrupulously unpacted.

Where the pacts finally paid off was in final combat. Since Ghatanathoa doesn’t sap sanity or stamina, it didn’t matter what our investigators had in those areas. So we all took soul and blood pacts, converted “extra” — read: “all but one” — sanity and stamina into power tokens, which could then be used for some truly massive opening volleys of clue tokens.

It wasn’t a brilliant start, considering each of us individually rolled just shy of twenty dice in the first round of combat, but we did eventually pull victory out of the clutch. The key was recognizing when the pacts could really pay off, and using them appropriately.

As I wrote the above, I began to wonder if I’d missed a rule. It doesn’t make thematic or mechanic sense for the Lurker, a herald of the Ancient One, to continue bestowing goodies to the investigators when its master is on the verge of breaking through to Earth. It suddenly seemed that surely we’d missed the bit where all pacts are discarded at the start of final combat, not just the bound allies. But no, I just checked the rules PDF and the herald sheet itself, thanks to the Arkham Horror Wiki. I can’t see any mention of discarding pacts, except in the event of an investigator being devoured, so I guess it’s just one of those things, like Michael Glen’s Strong Body ability making him effectively immune to at least one Ancient One’s attack.

There’s one poster over on Boardgamegeek who often comments that all investigator abilities should stop working once final combat begins. I can’t entirely agree with that, because Mandy’s dice rerolling is way too big a lifesaver, but there are certain cases where some new wrinkle doesn’t seem to have been thought all the way through to final combat.

[Tuesday Night Board Games] Back to the Future

The DeLorean on display at the Back to the Fut...

Image via Wikipedia

This was a two-fer Tuesday for me at board game night. Not only did Quarterstaff Games have the new Back to the Future card game from Looney Labs on the shelf, which I snapped up and then out of its shrinkwrap to immediately get out on the table, but I also learned Zombie Dice, which is exactly what it says on the tin.

Back to the Future: The Card Game

This is something I’ve been looking forward to for a while. I’ve adored the films since watching the off-air VHS recording of the original film my mother made for me and my brothers back in the late 1980s. Similarly, I’ve been a fan of Chrononauts since picking the game up a couple years back. Bringing the two together I was a little nervous reading some of the pre-release reviews that have circulated around that mentioned changes from the Chrononauts parent mechanics, but I decided not to worry about that and play the game in its own right, doing my best not to think “Gee, this is different from Chrononauts.”

That, it turned out, was difficult. Trying to explain the game to Bill, Nonny, Nicole and Chris while unpacking it, I found myself on a couple occasions falling back on my knowledge of Chrononauts — even after announcing to the group that I wouldn’t — only to discover that element had changed in Back to the Future. The Timewarp card type, for instance, is now called Power Action, setting it up as a spiffier sort of Action. There are no Inverters anymore. Time travelers change past and future events by using an iteration of Doc Brown’s time machine or a Doubleback card.

But I’m getting things out of order. “Time travel,” as the Doctor once remarked. “You can’t keep it straight in your head.”

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[Tuesday Night Board Games] The Lurker at the Threshold

I’ve gotten two plays of the new Arkham Horror expansion now, both at Quarterstaff Games during board game night. And honestly, I find this one overwhelming in how much stuff there is to track.

Not only are the gates different, but they all have effects that trigger if the gate isn’t closed on the first attempt, or in one case, when a particular symbol comes up during the monster movement phase. So that’s two new questions to ask: “what is the symbol on this gate that an investigator just failed to close?” and then during every monster movement, “Is there a moving gate on the board whose dimensional symbol matches any of those on the card?”

Then there’s the herald, the titular Lurker. Like all the other published heralds to date, the Lurker at the Threshold adds some fairly fiddly new rules to up the difficulty of the game. In this case, it offers to make pacts with investigators in exchange for some quick help, that will probably bite them later. For spellcasters, the Lurker will cover the sanity cost of a spell in exchange for making a pact, which can be a handy deal, admittedly.

The pacts themselves, I can see the appeal of, but I’m not sure if it’s really worth the hassle — which, while in keeping with the theme of striking bargains with sinister entities, doesn’t make for a terrific adventure game, even one concerned with creating feeble struggles against titanic forces like Arkham Horror. In short, there are three pacts: soul, blood and bound ally. Soul and blood pacts work with sanity and stamina, respectively. Making the pact restores an investigator to full on their sanity or stamina, depending on which pact they take. It also allows the investigator to convert stamina or sanity, respectively, into power, which can be used in lieu of clue tokens or stamina or sanity costs, again depending on the pact made.

Additionally, bound ally pacts compel a randomly drawn ally to aid your investigator, where before allies were gained through encounters or recruiting at Ma’s Boarding House. Unlike the soul and blood pacts, bound ally pacts don’t include a way to generate power tokens, just the ability to spend them as clue tokens or money.

These are fairly neat abilities. They haven’t seen a lot of use in the two games I’ve played, but I think that was much the experienced players getting used to having the option as making a tactical decision to take advantage of them. I can particularly see the temptation of generating power tokens to cover the clue token scarcity that occurs mid-game.

On the other hand, there’s the stick the Lurker wields: reckoning cards. Whenever a gate opens, a reckoning card is drawn. Each card has an effect, usually deleterious that targets a player or group of players based on certain criteria. Sometimes it’s the player with the most or fewest power tokens, sometimes someone with a certain number of pacts, criteria like that. I appreciate that one never knows just who’s going to be targeted, but in the two games I played, it seemed less than half the reckoning cards actually affected an investigator at the table.

I want to like The Lurker at the Threshold. I also want to play it more to get a better feel for the pacts and herald. But something’s gotta be done to pare things down, because there are just way too many moving parts for me to track and play shepherd, since I’m the one who understands the turn order best. I’m not sure what to pare down, though. These last two games used bits from different expansions, mostly to change up the encounters had at Arkham locations and make the item decks more varied. I think personal stories can be ditched, at least. They’re typically an onus that’s completely unnecessary in making the game more difficult, particularly considering what Lurker at the Threshold brings to the table.

In short, more play time is necessary for me to form a strong opinion about this new expansion to Arkham Horror, but my initial impression isn’t favorable. I’d like to get that play in before November, too, as that’s when I’m running Arkham with the Lurker expansion on Saturday night at Carnage.

[Tuesday Night Board Games] Vanilla Ichor with Genuine Sugar Flavoring

I made it to Tuesday night board games for the first time in a while this week. I thought I’d get in a round or two of Dominion, basic and Intrigue varieties, then head off home for chores. But game night just isn’t predictable like that.

Instead, Munk proposed, nay, demanded Arkham Horror. So I acquiesced. It was ordinary, vanilla Arkham using Quarterstaff’s copy — unforgivably, I haven’t touched mine in months now, not even integrating The Lurker at the Threshold — but it was pretty fun all the same. For one, it’s easier to get the fun weapons: tommy guns, enchanted blades and elder signs abounded.

One player, Sasha, went through an entire arc of understanding as we played. Having only played Arkham Horror with a pile of expansions included, he started off thinking the base set was easier and more fun. Then, as the game wound up, he decided it was easier and less interesting, because it wasn’t as difficult. It was interesting to watch him work through the implications of basic Arkham versus the wrinkles the expansions introduce.

Really, though, the highlight of the night was the pleasant surprise that the game space’s soda machine had Mountain Dew Throwback in it. No one was expecting that, certainly not Munk, who was expecting a simple can of Mountain Dew. It inspired a staggered rush on the machine, selling three more cans, including one to myself when previously I’d cut myself off at two for the evening. This was my first nose to nose encounter with this version, so I decided not to pass it up.

Munk didn’t like it, preferring the modern corn syrup version. I liked it, having never been a fan of modern Mountain Dew. Sasha and Nicole didn’t comment much, just drinking theirs in relative equanimity. Sarah detected a hint of orange juice, which Wikipedia reveals to have been a recent addition to the Throwback recipe.

Oh yeah, we won against Azathoth with no open gates. We lucked out with several monster surges giving us breathing room to place seals, which generated still more breathing room. It also helped that I opted to skip the “two monsters emerge from gates with five or more players” rule. Most of the time, it’s just not worth the hassle of remembering.

Good Things Come to Those Who Wait

Sarah really likes her prize.

Way back in February, we had a Dominion tournament at Quarterstaff Games. Rio Grande Games very kindly donated a prize that, unfortunately, didn’t make its way into our hands in time to be awarded on the night of the event.

This past Tuesday, though, we did receive it. Conveniently, the winner of the tournament was on hand to accept her prize and express her happiness on doing so.

[Tuesday Night Board Games] The Dominion of Space Alert in a Small World

Alex (right) points out an element of the Small World map.

This week, board games at Quarterstaff were entertaining, albeit non-momentous. Some newcomers came by. I helped teach them Small World, which I somehow contrived to win. I eked it out by one point. If I hadn’t taken the Spirit Elves and thus gotten one extra point a couple turns because of one little hold-out in decline that the Hill Giants and Something-something Skeletons ignored, I would have come in third. The top three scorers were right on top of each other, like 88, 89 and 90, something close like that.

After that, we ran through a couple tutorial sessions of Space Alert. One day I will play this game in normal mode, with all the elements and threat decks and such. It’s just that every time I play, we’ve got a new player. Space Alert just isn’t a game it seems fair to throw a newcomer into full bore, so we run through a couple tutorial missions and by then, everyone’s ready to move on to a different game. I still haven’t played with internal threats and the security droids, for crying out loud — nor actually read the rulebook that far, so shame on me for being unprepared to push the level of play upward.

Then came two rounds of Dominion. With two new players, one of whom had a single play under her belt and the other had never heard of the game before, I took a different tactic than I normally do. In addition to explaining cards, verbally narrating my turns to show how things work and making some suggestions on what might be useful choices for the other two players to make, I also played as well as I could. In the past, I’ve taken a more easy-going approach in teaching a game, sometimes not making optimal choices so as not to outpace someone who’s just learning the game.

This time, I played exactly as I would have in a game with experienced players. My rationale was to show by example, explaining why I did what I did, in addition to the usual elements I put into teaching a game. The results were lopsided, but I think it worked out well for the players.

The first game I ran away with by some silly number of victory points. The second game they walloped me hard in return. I think my score was somewhere in the teens and they were both in the high twenties. For whatever reason, I just couldn’t get my buying power together in one hand that game. I choose to think that means I’m a damn fine teacher of the game, at least when it comes to that introductory setup.

[Tuesday Night Board Games] Forbidden Island

Bob from Montpelier stopped by Quarterstaff Games last Tuesday for board game night. He brought something I’d seen at the Game ‘n Grill last weekend, but hadn’t gotten the chance to try: Forbidden Island. I’d heard about the game well before this past week, but I have to admit I mentally wrote it off without doing my due diligence. The initial descriptions I read made it sound like “Pandemic lite”: players work together to retrieve archaeological treasures from a rapidly sinking island. My first thought was a less complicated, more family-friendly version of Pandemic, which other comments around the web seemed to bear out.

As Bob explained the game, the similarities between Forbidden Island and Pandemic became even more obvious. Each player has a specific role in the expedition: explorer, diver, navigator and so on, just as everyone in Pandemic has a different job with the CDC. These roles have different abilities that aid the players as they move from location to location on the island, represented by a grid of tiles, and try to retrieve the artifacts.

See, the island is sinking. At the end of every turn, bad stuff happens. Cards are flipped over, revealing which locations, like the Temple of the Moon or Breakers Bridge, submerge this turn. If a submerged location is drawn again, it sinks beneath the waves completely. This not only makes traveling around the island increasingly difficult, but can cause everyone to lose the game if that location was the final resting place of a particular piece of treasure that hadn’t been recovered yet. Fortunately, sinking locations can be shored up. A player can spend an action to flip an adjacent tile, or the one on which their pawn stands, from submerged to dry. That location will begin to sink again, sooner or later, but it buys breathing room and keeps lines of movement around the island open. In fact, the rate at which the island sinks increases as well, not unlike, say, the infection rate of worldwide diseases increases over time. The number of location cards drawn increases as Waters Rise cards are pulled, so the number of tiles flipping each turn increases, until there are locations that the players just can’t save from sinking.

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[Tuesday Night Board Games] Rough Dominion Lessons

Despite the raucous performances in the street below Quarterstaff this Tuesday as part of Burlington’s annual Discover Jazz festival, it was full steam ahead for board games. There was a long game of Le Havre that occupied four players for much of the night. I started out on Red November and switched over to Dominion when my able sea-gnome roasted alive while unconscious.

I wasn’t particularly happy with any of my three Dominion games. I can’t point to specifics, unfortunately, because I have a crap memory for that, but I got hit hard by not having a definite plan in the third game, when we used the Interaction setup suggested by the rulebook. With all the attack cards in play, Spy was the one that saw the most use. My spirit broke a little every time one of my Villages was burned off by the Spy — particularly in the aftermath of the times I realized I’d had a Moat in hand.

In retrospect, I should have been buying up Festivals whenever possible, instead of fiddling around with . . . whatever I was fiddling around with. I think I was trying to deny Munk Villages just because he always buys them out. This time, he and Andrew bought out the Festivals.

Every game I play teaches me something, right? Right?