Great mechanics

Great Mechanics – Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective

So this year we have had a frenzy of excitement around a board game translation of the Dark Souls video game series, this isn’t that noteworthy as franchises and board games have got on hand in hand since someone first made an Egyptian chess set. It’s so pervasive I’m surprised we don’t yet have Game of Thrones monopoly (Oh wait). I can remember getting a copy of the Lost board game when that was at its peak of popularity and expecting the special rules for John Locke to read “you win”.


The thing that worried me about this franchise is that the Dark Souls video game is known for its hardness and that doesn’t really translate well into a board game for 2 or more players. If you get beaten down by a player over the course of 2 hours you are unlikely to ever want to play it again, many games have mechanics to stop players from taking too much of a lead, the thief or robber in Catan for example or the in-character alliances in Diplomacy. They also tend to shy away from player elimination unless the game is so quick it’s not much of a problem having players repeatedly “die”. The developers have promised that the hardness will make its way into the games design so it remains to be seen exactly how they will balance this out while keeping it fun for all players.


The awkward part about this is that some people are drawn to hard challenges, the game has been widely successful because like many retro games it punishes people relentlessly, there are many reports online about people taking hours to clear the first level and getting hooked on trying to get further and further into the game. Is there any way of taking that kind of difficulty and porting it into a board game? Maybe instead of causing death, you could be investigating it.


Yes, I know a transition from Dark Souls hack and slash fighting into Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective seems like a tenuous one but SHCD has also got a fearsome rep for difficulty, the difference is only that in Consulting Detective you are working cooperatively to solve a crime (the rulebook has a mode for working in individual groups but that would require working in silence for 3-4 hours at the time while players across from you silently read a book).


After you start your investigation and decide on where to visit on the giant map of London provided you are free to travel anywhere, just take the number of the house and the compass direction and search though the mission book to read out what you find. If you need to find a different person then try the games huge directory of everyone living in London, get their address and visit their house. Still stuck? Why not go through the days newspaper for clues, a double sided broadsheet sized page of news done in an appropriate 1888 style is included for ever case. There are even areas of interest like Scotland Yard and characters like Mycroft and Sherlock Holmes himself ready to lend a hand.


After you think you have got everything you need skip to the back and read out the conclusion to the case where Holmes himself tells you how he solved it in typical Holmesian style. The trouble is that murder investigations are really hard work, and the investigations are so well written to give you red herrings, uncooperative witnesses and even people who out slam the door in your face to avoid being questioned, thus ending certain lines of enquiry unless you take another path of course Sherlock has no problem and will happily point out how logical his solution was leaving you feeling so small if you got it wrong.


I have completed all 10 missions in the game, my success rate is around 60% but despite this I will be going back in once the original French expansions are translated to English. I hope they come with a pipe and deer stalker.

Great Mechanics – Netrunner

In my Great Mechanics posts I will be discussing some of the most creative and interesting rules that I have discovered while playing games, it’s really an attempt to review games in a way that isn’t done by traditional review sites. This week the mechanic of revealing of cards in Netrunner, Fantasy Flights LCG.


Why do people buy packs for a collectable card game like Magic the Gathering? Discounting the people who buy them not knowing what they are going to get or are buying then for nostalgia reasons (which a 20-year-old game is going to get) people pick them up because they like the little hit of endorphins when they look through a freshly opened pack of cards and see a powerful rare card staring back at them. Wizards of the Coast knows this and have made sure that even players who don’t know what the cards are extremely rare can see the foil holographic finish and / or the orange mythic rare symbol on the strongest cards in the set.


If you’ve ever played a collectable card game or know how addictions develop, you can see how the problem with this occurs. More product is brought and the rewards happen less and less often, the buyer’s excitement level lowers as they have experienced it all before but they continue to buy in to this minigame of random chance because they are still looking for the hit they get when they discover one.


Netrunner is a living card game which means all the cards you will ever need are in the packs and ready to be used in your games, there aren’t rare cards or mythic rare cards, there aren’t even random foil cards, every card in a certain pack is exactly the same. However, that addictive hit of discovering a rare card still exists except it’s been transferred to be part of the fabric of the game instead. This is because during a game every time a Runner makes a successful attack (called a run) they see a random card either from the top of their opponents (the Corporation) deck or from their hand. This gives out certain information on what the Corporation has ready to use, sometimes it lets the Runner force the Corporation to discard it but the main use of this is to discover the Agenda cards hidden in the Corporations deck, these cards have a number on and when the runner has a set of them that add up to 7 or more they win the game.


So the Runner makes runs steals the agendas and goes home happy with that endorphin rush, except, wait, that’s only one side of the game. The Corporation can seed their deck with ambushes that come into play when the Runner accesses them on their hunt for agendas, these things can damage the Runner directly, destroy programs or place nasty tokens on the Runner called tags that can be used to trigger even nastier effects like the removal of all the Runners money or the demolition of their house and surrounding houses in their neighbourhood.


So you have risk and reward working together in glorious concert, though be warned the total cost of all the Netrunner expansions released so far is over £400 so its hard for me to recommend anything over than sharing a copy of the basic game.


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Great Mechanics – City of Horror

Monopoly is a scourge against board games and in my opinion the reason why most people who don’t know anything about them would rather have their fingers cut off than play one. There are so many reasons to dislike it, long lengthy games with no end point, play and go mechanics, no twists or shifts in tempo and a slow endgame based on player elimination, but one of the worst aspects of it is the house rules system. This is the area where groups of players will substitute their own interpretations on how to play the game in certain situations, for instance rolling doubles, going to jail, getting out of jail and the process of mortgaging off properties. These rules are pretty much comprehensively covered in the rulebook, but that doesn’t stop house rules regarding these events to be ruthlessly enforced by the cabal of players who came up with them in the first place.
If you’ve ever experienced pressure to succumb to house rules why not get your own back by buying a copy of City of Horror and exposing everyone to a nice family game of feeding the smaller and weaker amongst your number to a hoard of brain eating zombies. The basic setup is simple, each player gets 4 characters and then these characters are assigned to one of 6 locations on the board. Over the course of 4 turns zombies build up outside these locations and once they meet a certain threshold the players with characters in that location have to vote amongst themselves to see who is thrown outside and eaten. Each player in a location gets a number of votes equal to however many of their characters are inside and ties are decided by the last player who had a character eaten. To add to this players are dealt a hand of cards at the start of the game that when used give one off effects like reducing the amount of zombies outside, moving zombies to another location or more sinister abilities that effect the voting process.
'One way to get through the ordeal of existence is to behave as if youíre no longer sentient':  Lond
The way this usually manifests is that during the start of the game when there are only a few zombies on the board, players are trying to pick them off with the cards in their hands to avoid their locations meeting the threshold required for a vote. As its quite hard to acquire new cards it transitions into a midgame where players are starting to run out of these cards and are instead faced with a hand of effects that allow them to manipulate the vote instead. If you think you are going to be outvoted you could force a player to vote for whoever you chose, if there are only two of you in a location, why not prevent the other players from naming anyone and if all else fails and you have made powerful enemies you could remove yourself from the voting and sacrificing process entirely by playing the “hide” card.
This game has several warnings from people by who have reviewed it who say that it ruins friendships and leads to people holding lengthy grudges against each other after having a character betrayed and eaten. But all that’s happening is that the game is exploiting a psychological quirk in human nature, namely that people will work harder to avoid losing something than they will to try and acquire something.
Each player starts the game with 4 characters where most games would only give them 1 and the moment it looks like they might lose one they panic and start trying to compensate. This loss aversion is demonstrated extremely well at the end of the game when the scoring begins as the characters can only be counted as surviving if they have picked up a vaccine token to immunise themselves against the virus. How much time do you think most players spend worrying about picking up the vaccine tokens? You guessed it. Not as much as they should have.