Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Friday, 29 January 2010

The Chin Of A True Hero

If you happen to have wanted a fantasy RPG that does the Wuxia style of movie, best typified in recent years by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero, and House of the Flying Daggers, then I would very probably point you in the direction of QIN: The Warring States. Set in Ancient China, the core rules come all but complete with the rules, a setting, a meta plot, and a beginning scenario. Just about everything needed to start play. Originally published in France by Le 7eme Cercle, Cubicle Seven is responsible for publishing the English translation.

As much as I like QIN: The Warring States, it is not quite perfect. For example, there is something of divide between combative and non-combative characters such that when a game focuses on combat, the non-combative characters will be at a disadvantage, and vice versa. Further, whilst the mechanics fit the setting, they can be too deadly in combat, which does run counter to the game’s Wuxia feel. The bestiary in the core rules is also a little short, as is the number of options for long term play – the Taos that break the nature of the universe, the combat techniques, and the spells that give QIN: The Warring States much of its Wuxia flavour. Some of these issues are to be addressed in forthcoming supplements, for example, the QIN Bestiary will explore further the supernatural side of the setting. The lack of options for long term play though, is addressed in QIN Legends, the first supplement to be released for the game in English.

With the contents included in QIN Legends, a hero has the potential to become a true master, introducing new Taos, Combat Techniques, Combat Styles and Martial Techniques, spells and magic techniques all at the truly Legendary and Godlike levels of five and six – the core book only listed those up to level four. In addition, rules are given for creating Legendary and Celestial Objects, along with examples of each. Lastly, the supplement is rounded out with a short scenario, “The Treacherous Prince.”

Although Qin: The Warring States is a game of Wuxia action, it is not necessarily that of the high wire action seen in some movies. With the new Taos – command of a Tao enabling a character to act on the Laws of Creation and so impose his will upon the world – in QIN Legends, a character can jump even further, even higher, climb impossibly sheer surfaces, withstand any damage or poison, destroy whole structures with a single blow, move incredibly quickly in combat, throw objects not even to hand, instil emotions in others, and give orders that cannot be disobeyed. There are no new Tao paths here, but rather the development of those already in the core rules such as Tao of the Six Directions, Tao of the Light Step, Tao of Ten Thousand Hands, and Tao of the Serene Presence.

Similarly, the additional Combat Techniques are the development of those already in the core rules, but to those are added several new ones for each of the weapon types in Qin: The Warring States. These new ones are Suicide Attack (a counterattack with no regard for your safety), Blinding (either by bedazzling an opponent with your weapon or throwing dirt in his face), Mounted Combat (a character can now fight on horseback without his weapon skill being limited by his Horsemanship skill), Reducing the Distance (a hand-to-hand manoeuvre for getting inside an opponent’s guard), Mounted Ranged Attack, Disarming, and Trap (a ranged attack that a player can delay until specific event occurs). It should be noted that some of new combat techniques are available at skill levels much lower than is the main focus for QIN Legends. This means that the GM might want to pick up this supplement sooner than he had planned to if he wants to allow his players access to those options at skill levels one through four.

One new weapon type is introduced in QIN Legends. This is for flexible weapons, such as whips, flails, and the deadly Flying Guillotines, an edged disc on the end of a long chain. Of course, these weapons have their own Technique list too.

One aspect of the setting discussed in QIN: The Warring States was that of Wu Lin, the World of Marital Arts, which lies on the margins of civilised society. It did not though, come with any rules for the Combat Styles and the Martial Techniques that the schools found in this region could teach. QIN Legends addresses this also, providing details of a school for several of the weapon types in the game, including a Combat Style for the shield! Each of these schools has high entry requirements, and even finding someone who will take a hero on as an apprentice should be difficult enough. Only three Martial Techniques are given per Combat Style, but all are quite powerful. So for example, in mastering “The Style of the Mace which Shakes the Ground” a hero will learn Fong Po’s Earthquake (crash the mace down on the ground to cause a shockwave), The Hammer and the Anvil (block a blow with such force that the attack is knocked out), and Fong Po’s Comet (throw the mace with incredible force).

Each Combat Style is accompanied by history and background enough that a GM can not only work them into his game, but also create his own. This will probably be required if a character has specialised in archery or flexible weaponry as Combat Styles are given for either.

The section devoted to new spells and magic techniques is shorter than that devoted to the new Taos and combat manoeuvres, covering all Four Ways of the Tao – Internal Alchemy (mastering Chi to achieve immortality), External Alchemy (mastering elixirs, ointments and pills to achieve immortality), Divination (the practice of Geomancy and communing with spirits), and Exorcism (protecting the mortal world from the world of spirits) – that a Fangshi (or “wizard”) can practice. With QIN Legends the External Alchemist can at last learn to brew the Golden Lotus Elixir that will grant him immortality; the Internal Alchemist can also achieve immortality by merging himself with Tao itself with “Rejoining the Kunlun Mountains;” the Diviner can descend into Hell itself and commune with a particular spirit by casting “Exploring the Yellow Springs;” or with “Invoking the Celestial Creatures” ask for the aid of a divine being; and with "Judgment of Heaven", the Exorcist can petition the Celestial Court to pass sentence on a supernatural creature.

Rounding out the rules section in QIN Legends are guidelines for the creation of both Legendary and Celestial Objects, each accompanied by examples. Much like finding someone to apprentice yourself to in order to learn the Martial Techniques of a Combat Style, the acquisition of the material needed to make such items could form the basis of adventures in their own right, as all are either of the highest or more pure quality, or very particular in nature. The accompanying examples are pleasingly diverse, from Legendary Objects such as The Coat of Jun Cheng (which not only grants a bonus to the wearer’s armour and all social tests, but also imposes a Code of Honour that directs the wearer to help those in need) and The Bow of the Wise Hunter (reduces range penalties and increases damage) to Celestial Objects like Blazing Fire (a sabre that can strike invulnerable supernatural creatures, and grants the user several Taos and a bonus in all social relations with the Xiongnu barbarians). Sadly, only two Celestial Objects are given, but all of the come with their own history and all should serve as examples that should inspire both the GM to create more for the his game, and for the player character craftsman to create those for himself, his fellow player characters, or for NPCs within the campaign.

Written to be played sometime after the events of “Towards a world of forests and lakes,” the scenario included in the core rule book, “The Treacherous Prince” begins the start of a campaign called “Tiàn Xia.” It takes the player characters to the borders of the Kingdom of the Horse where they are asked to escort a “barbarian” princess to a nearby town where she will marry the son of the local magistrate and so help cement a peace between the Kingdom and the local Xiongnu clans. It feels reminiscent of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in places and on the whole is a fairly linear affair. Given that the only scenario to date appears in the core rule book, the GM will doubtless find the addition of another useful, but I think that the lack of maps and the drab look of the book will hinder him running it for his players.

Physically, QIN Legends is a slim book with a rather nice cover. Inside the book’s look is disappointing, with everything being printed on grey pages only serving to give it a drab look. This look does not help the book’s art either, some of it having been originally in sepia tones and is now rendered somewhat murky. Given that the book is only fifty pages in length, it is pleasing to see that it comes with a good index.

Overall, QIN Legends is a fairly crunchy book, adding as it does a plethora of new rules and elements to the core game. These do reflect the more combative nature of QIN: The Warring States, meaning that the book is definitely more useful for martial characters (and to a lesser extent to Fangshi characters) than it is for Scholar, Courtier, or Official type characters, but that is the fault of the game rather than this book. Pleasingly though, QIN Legends finds time to give a little colour around those rules, as with the backgrounds and histories of the Combat Styles and various Legendary and Celestial Objects. It is the rules though that stand out, and what they do is fill various aspects of the game – the Legendary and the Godlike Taos, the Combat Techniques and Combat Styles, and the high level spells – that were not covered in the core book. While they do not make the RPG complete, the material given in QIN Legends helps to make QIN: The Warring States a more rounded game and pushes its Wuxia quotient up to high action.

Friday, 22 January 2010

It's My Dungeon And I'll Cry If I Want To...

There is an art to designing a dungeon, a craft that requires a combination of planning and the imagination in order to help fashion a setting from which the DM and his players can play a game and create a story. Sadly, it is not at an art that I have managed to master, no matter how many books or magazine articles that I read on the subject, and the truth of the matter is that I am a better player than I am a DM just as I am a better reviewer and editor than I am a writer. Nevertheless, I have read, reviewed, and on the odd occasion, played enough adventures and modules for Dungeons & Dragons, Tunnels & Trolls, and even Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (yes, even that venerable game got its own dungeon in the form of Karak Azgal: Explore the Mountain Kingdoms of the Dwarfs), so I can at least recognise the good from the bad. That though, still does not deal with my own inability to create a good dungeon. Fortunately, there is something available that can help.

Planet-Thirteen’s How to Host a Dungeon: a solo game of dungeon creation is part tool and part game that enables the user to create not only the physical outline of a dungeon, but also its history and effect upon the surface world. It begins in the Primordial Age and follows the rise of an underground dwelling people during the Age of Civilisation through to their decline following the Great Disaster. Of course the Civilisation will leave behind barracks, breeding chambers, storerooms, great halls and palaces, and so on, and it is into these ruins that new races will move so beginning the Age of Monsters. At the same time, kingdoms will arise on the surface and eventually take an interest in the ruins below them, the infamy of the ruins growing until it attracts someone or some being bent on world domination. Thus begins the Age of Villainy and the history of the dungeon is done all ready to be explored by some plucky band of adventurers. Or rather a band of adventurers – known as the player characters – that is both pluckier and luckier than the adventuring parties that have gone before it.

It needs to be made clear though, the end product of the process that How to Host a Dungeon guides you through does not give you a fully mapped dungeon. Rather it provides a cutaway view of the dungeon side on. There is advice on how to map the dungeon, but it is far from comprehensive, and anyone wanting further advice will have to look elsewhere. Fortunately the publisher’s site provides several links that might prove helpful.

The “game” comes as a sheaf of twenty-four card sheets, all in black and white, and divided into the various ages explored by the game. The cards are self-contained and in playing through the game there is relatively little cross referencing between one card and another, although this becomes necessary in its later stages. The cards are engagingly illustrated in a heavy cartoonish style that gives How to Host a Dungeon a certain gonzo style. The game though, does not come complete and to get the most out of it, you will also need a pad of tracing paper (but light paper will also do), pens and pencils in different colours, beads in at least three colours, and the usual polyhedral dice. You will also need one thumb and one finger. These are used for measurement purposes and need not be your own, as are the beads, but they probably need to be your own.

You begin the dungeon in the Primordial Age with a blank sheet of tracing paper placed in front of you in landscape format. At the top is line indicating the surface and six numbers are placed down the side to indicate depth. You roll dice to determine what lay beneath the earth long ago – anything from natural caverns that might home to the plague, primeval creatures, or even an ancient wyrm, to an underground river or veins of gold or mithral ore. The location of each of these is determined by dropping a die onto the sheet of paper, the amount of ore determined a roll of a six-sided die. Beads of one colour represent the ore (and treasures) while another colour is used to indicate population levels.

All of these elements are drawn directly onto the tracing paper, but as soon as one age ends and another begins, another sheet of tracing paper is placed over the top of the previous sheet and it is onto this new sheet that the details and events of the new age will be drawn. Over the course of an Age, the current inhabitants of the dungeon expand and increase the area that they control or simply wander its existing halls and tunnels and so encounter other groups. Invariably conflict ensues and a story hook is created. For this purpose I would suggest having a notebook to hand so that the events that occur during a dungeon’s creation can be noted and used to help create the legends and rumours about it.

It is the gold and mithral ore placed in the Primordial Age that fuels the working of the dungeon. Dwarves or Dark Elves will be attracted to it and in mining the deposits will establish themselves below during the Age of Civilisation, constructing ever greater buildings and creating fabulous treasures for as long as there is still ore to mine. Alternatively, a banished demon prince and his horde might appear in the depths and spread out upwards in search of both this ore and slaves to sacrifice in the hope that he can lead his forces back from whence he came. Until you have some experience with How to Host to a Dungeon, it is suggested that only one civilisation establish itself in the realms below, but it is possible to run two or more in tandem, and if their halls or chambers intersect then war ensues.

How the Age of Civilisation ends depends upon the race in question. It might end in a Great Disaster, such as an earthquake or a volcanic eruption (my Dwarves were driven from their halls after the earth itself was cracked by a Fallen Star), or a race might dig too deep (and unleash the disaster) or too high and bring war down upon from the surface against the Dark Elves, or from Heaven against the Demons. In the wake of the Great Disaster, the abandoned halls below begin to be explored by monsters (from below and from the surface) and by parties from the surface kingdoms. This is the Age of Monsters and is where play increases in complexity as you switch back and forth between the cards for the monsters and the card for the Surface Kingdoms. The monsters are categorised by archetype – Delving Groups, Breeding Groups, Alpha Predators, and Wandering Monsters – and have a card each that describes their behaviour and activities during the Age of Monsters. Each card also suggests a monster type for each category, such as Druegar for Delving Groups and Ogre Magi for Alpha Predators. A last category lets adventurer parties explore the dungeon and steal its treasures and the undead to rise and guard this treasure. It is entirely possible for the undead to consist of dead adventurers!

The Age of Monsters will eventually lead into the Age of Villainy usually brought about because the monsters grew in number and either attracted the attention of a potential tyrant or because they boiled up from below ground and ransacked the Surface Kingdoms. It is also possible for another Great Disaster to occur and wipe out the dungeon’s monsters, only for it to be repopulated and a second Age of Monsters to take place. With the beginning of the Age of Villainy comes another escalation in term of the game’s complexity, as the user is not only swapping between the cards for the monsters and the Surface Kingdoms, but now also the card for the dungeon’s newly arrived arch-villain – or two if you really want to complicate matters – and you will be pushing around various coloured beads to represent the monsters, the villains, and delvers from the surface.

As with the Age of Monsters, the villains in the Age of Villainy come in various flavours – such as the Thought Lord Cult or Liche King – each with its own card and rules for the villain’s activities. During this time, the dungeon will be beset by curious and greedy adventuring parties and by monsters not under the control of the villain, the likelihood being that they will be the cause of the villain’s eventual downfall.

It is also here that a game of How to Host a Dungeon comes to an end. What the player has in his hand is a handful of layers of tracing paper upon which are drawn the rough markings and notations that chronicle the dungeon’s history. From this history and in particular the key points – for example, when one age ends and another begins or when one race or monster group encounters another – the player or DM can begin to create a story for his dungeon and even begin to map it out in readiness for play.

So far I have described How to Host a Dungeon as a game and given you some idea of how it is “played.” Yet it is not really game, more of a simulation with a limited set of variables comprised of the civilisations, monsters, and villains that ultimately have more influence upon the “play” and the end result than the user does, though said user has some say in where he places his dungeon’s features (and to a lesser extent what each looks like) and he is also free to ignore the rolls made, instead choosing something that he feels to be more appropriate. That said, the limited number of variables does mean that you are not necessarily going to create very many dungeons before you exhaust the possibilities built into How to Host a Dungeon. This still leaves room for extra cards, detailing other underground races or perhaps possible random events.

One real issue with How to Host a Dungeon is that it is underwritten in places and the user will have to decide on how things work at certain points. For example, right at the beginning it does not clearly say how much ore is available to mine from a vein of gold or a mithral deposit. It seems reasonable to assume that the six-sided die rolled for either at the dungeon’s start back in the Primordial Age not only indicates the location for the precious metal, but also the amount. Otherwise, the deposits are quickly mined and a civilisation has little time to get started. In general though, anyone familiar with the dungeon concept as seen in Dungeons & Dragons or Tunnels & Trolls should be able to work around such rules omissions.

As a simulation, How to Host a Dungeon is actually fun to play as you watch your dungeon grow and change and so create a story. The process is undeniably and heavily influenced by Dungeons & Dragons (and thus by Tolkien in the form of Middle Earth’s Moria) – which shows most obviously in the flavours of monster available during the Age of Monsters – and this means that that the created dungeon can easily be mapped back onto a Dungeons & Dragons game. As a tool for creating dungeons in the classic style How to Host a Dungeon: a solo game of dungeon creation is an entertainingly artful device that talks the same language as the Old School Renaissance as well as more modern reiterations of the game.

So now I can create a dungeon. Unfortunately my dungeon drawing skills probably do not match the scale of my ambitions, but the creator of How to Host a Dungeon, Tony Dowler, is creating his own with his website, Year of the Dungeon.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

A Bargain That Can Help

Right now OneBookShelf (RPGNow and DriveThruRPG) has put together an incredible bargain that if you purchase will mean that not only do you get over one hundred PDF titles, but you will be doing some good by donating towards the much relief for Haiti. For your $20 you receive RPGs and supplements that would cost you over $1400 were you to buy them at your local friendly gaming store.

Some of the highlights include Apocalypse Prevention, Inc. (and all of its supplements), BASH! Basic Action Super Heroes (New and Improved), Barbarians Versus, Chronica Feudalis, Cortex System Role Playing Game, Diana: Warrior Princess, MARS: Savage Worlds Edition, Summerland Revised and Expanded Edition, Thrilling Tales 2nd Edition (Savage Worlds), Three Sixteen, and eCollapse. I have reviewed at least a couple of these, and just these titles alone are worth the $20. I hate to think how long these are going to take to download, but that is not the issue here.

Personally, I do not think that I paid enough for these titles and plan to match what I paid for the $20 super-bundle. I do not suggest that you follow my lead as I hate to think that I was preaching at anyone, but please do match the generosity of the publishers who have donated their creations for our benefit.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Maliszewski's Mansion

One consequence of the publication of Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition in 2008 was a further splintering of the sector of the hobby that played the game. Many took up the new version of the game; some remained with the Third Edition or one of its variants; while others waited for the arrival of the next version of the Third Edition, Paizo Publishing’s Pathfinder RPG. Yet even when Third Edition arrived – and let us not kid ourselves, its arrival back in 2001 really was a breath of fresh air – some older gamers decided to stick with an even older version of the game, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Now all of these segments are still out there, but since the arrival of Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition, it has been joined by another made possible by the continuing existence of the Open Gaming License, the legal document that not only led to some great Third Party titles, but also to a glut of awful rubbish. This new segment looks back to the beginnings of the hobby and the Dungeons & Dragons of the 1970s. Not Basic Dungeons & Dragons or Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, but what Rob Conley on the front of his blog – Bat in the Attic – describes as “...(g)oing back to the roots of our hobby and see what we could do differently. What avenues were not explored because of the commercial and personal interests of the game designers of the time.” The segment has acquired a name for itself, the Old School Renaissance, and via his blog – Grognardia – one of its leading commentators is James Maliszewski.

In terms of the hobby at large, James is better known as one half of Rogue Games and the publisher of Colonial Gothic, a historical  horror RPG set in Revolutionary America, and the Imperial Science Fiction inspired RPG, Thousand Suns. Now, instead of just commentating on the Old School Renaissance, James has added to it with the publication of The Cursed Chateau. This is an adventure designed for a party of four to eight characters of levels four through six which the author previously submitted to the Fight On!/Otherworld Miniatures scenario contest back in 2008. (If you do not know of Fight On!, it is a quarterly journal devoted to the Old School Renaissance which you can find out about here. If you do not know about Otherworld Miniatures, they do 28mm miniature figures inspired by the art and monsters of old school Dungeons & Dragons). It did not win, but it did receive an Honourable Mention and now been expanded and tidied up for publication.

As with other releases that are parts of the Old School Renaissance, The Cursed Chateau is edition neutral. What that means is that it can be used with almost any version of Dungeons & Dragons up until Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition. So that is First, Second, and Third Editions, Paizo Publishing’s new Pathfinder RPG, Troll Lord’s Castles & Crusades, and even Basic Dungeons & Dragons, as well as OSRIC, Labyrinth Lord, Spellcraft & Swordplay, and so on. Similarly, it is also self-contained, enabling a DM to drop it into his campaign with little or no changes needed.

The Cursed Chateau concerns itself with the fate of Lord Jourdain Ayarai, a dissolute and jaded man who has not been seen at his small mansion in some time. The adventurers come across the dilapidated house on their travels, perhaps while on their way somewhere or after having heard rumours of the curse or of Lord Jourdain’s reputation. Alternatively, they might be in the employ of a relative of Lord Jourdain, tasked to confirm whether or not the nobleman is still alive in the hope of claiming an inheritance. Finding the chateau is easy, as is gaining entrance to the grounds and buildings, but the adventurers will find that getting back out again is a whole other matter.

Once trapped inside the chateau, the party will have to explore it all but fully if it is to free itself. Clues and mysteries abound as to the nature of Lord Jourdain’s life, and the player characters will need to take note of these to learn something of what is going on. Further, they will also encounter ghosts of the dissipated nobleman, his former and now undead servants, and various other inhabitants of the chateau, both old and new. As they explore the house, strange things occur – dogs bay, screams can be heard, and blood drips down walls and from the ceiling. These add to the atmosphere and help build a sense of unease that pervades the whole scenario.

In addition to promoting the unease, the DM should be instilling in his players the sense that they are being toyed with. Or if not toyed with, at least that someone is taking pleasure in the misfortunes that beset them, which is exactly the case. The truth is that Lord Jourdain is dead, having committed ritualised suicide in the hope that he will pass onto pastures and pleasures new. Yet he remains trapped in the house that was his home in life and sees his only escape as being to take pleasure in the torment of others in the hope that it will be enough to propel him onwards. This is perfectly modelled in the “Diversion Table,” which helps the DM track how much pleasure that Lord Jourdain is taking from the suffering of the adventurers, right down to the amount of Hit Points that they lose. Conversely, Hit Points can go up as well as down, and that is something Lord Jourdain will take no pleasure from...

Physically, The Cursed Chateau comes as a slim digest size book. Its writing is clear and the book is liberally illustrated in a variety of styles, some of which really do hark back to art styles of the 1970s, but most of the art points to the horrific nature of the chateau’s history. In fact, one piece of art is so good that I want to own it myself to put on the wall. Similarly, the maps are also clear and easy to read. The format though is slightly problematic and for two reasons. The first reason is more of a preference than a problem, but given that the adventure is part of the Old School Renaissance, it would have been nice if The Cursed Chateau had aped the modules that it in turn is inspired by. In other words, if it had been comprised of a module booklet and card cover map, it would have been even more Old School. Yet if it had been published in this format, it would have also solved the second problem, which is that the adventure requires a fair degree of flipping back and forth – from the text to the maps and back, and from the text to the tables and back. The Cursed Chateau does involve the referencing of a table or two...

Although The Cursed Chateau is very much aimed at the Old School Renaissance market, it does not entirely fit within that segment. The adventure lacks the superficiality of many of the early – and yes, American – modules, primarily because of its inspiration (the aforementioned Tegel Manor and X2 Castle Amber) and because the author’s attention to detail and sensibilities that have moved on in thirty years of gaming. There is a darker edge to the scenario too, one reminiscent of British writing, but that might be down to my having read too much Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. It is also a more flexible affair, which devoid of setting material beyond the confines of its walls, means that not only can The Cursed Chateau be dropped into most fantasy settings, but with a change in the details and some extra set dressing also be dropped into other horror RPGs, including the author’s own Colonial Gothic (though if you are really lazy and do not want to do the adaptation, run it with Atlas GamesNorthern Crown setting instead) or even Call of Cthulhu. In fact, The Cursed Chateau contains several nods towards the Cthulhu Mythos in its lower depths.

My feelings about and towards frogs are absolutely neutral, but any time that a new RPG title either uses or forces me to use the word “batrachian” in a review, I have to smile. And indeed, The Cursed Chateau does have frog-like or even rather, Deep One-like threats lurking in the caverns below the mansions and it does use the word, “batrachian.” Their presence though, is just an extra element that adds to the eerie and mouldering mood of a scenario which in essence combines the locked room and “get out of this” set up with a “Death Trap” style dungeon all inside a Haunted House. Fortunately, The Cursed Chateau is not a pure Death Trap Dungeon in the mode of Tomb of Horrors with its seemingly endless means of inflicting random murder upon the adventurers. This is not to say that James Maliszewski pulls any punches as there are plenty of traps, puzzles, and encounters that will kill the characters in his first adventure, but they are leavened with encounters and puzzles (though not traps, because after all, traps are meant to be deadly) that grant small benefits and boons as well as inflicting pain and inconvenience. Of course, which of these that a player suffers will all be down to whether or not he makes his Saving Throw.

Think of The Cursed Chateau as something akin to a “Misery Module” and you would be about right. Do not think of it as miserable though, as there is much entertainment to be had within its pages though, which should provide two sessions or so worth of play. It is not often that as a DM you get to be cruel to your players to be kind, but The Cursed Chateau (or rather its former owner) wants you to be.

Game Like It's 1981...

Imagine if you will that your favourite game was long out of print and only available from specialist dealers or on auction websites. Not too taxing I grant you, but let us take your imagination one step further and have you realise that whilst your favourite game is out of print, a more recent edition of said game has an open content license that allows you to derive a version of that edition that is actually akin to your favourite game. This is no mere flight of fancy because there are several games writers who have done exactly that – that being to take the Open Gaming License for the d20 System of Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 and derive from it a version of Dungeons & Dragons that has not been in print for some two decades, and some cases, three decades. These derived games are new “Edition Zero” versions of classic Dungeons & Dragons, each based either on the White Box edition of Dungeons & Dragons or the classic red box set of Basic Dungeons & Dragons. There are several different interpretations available, each part of what has become known as the Old School Renaissance, but the one I am going to review here is Labyrinth Lord.

Why choose Labyrinth Lord – published by Goblinoid Games – over any other? Well, because it was the game that I was recommended when asked what would be good “old school” Dungeons & Dragons type RPG to give Ed, the brother of my friend, Dave (whom you may have seen me mention in previous reviews). Now I do not know Ed that well, so I was surprised to receive from him a copy of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, and when I wanted to return the favour, I knew enough to know that he likes his Star Trek and that he likes his Dungeons & Dragons. Now I like Star Trek, but I do not know quite enough about what is available to buy Ed something interesting, whereas I know more than enough to select something interesting when it comes to gaming. So it old school it was to be, and along with a suitable scenario, Labyrinth Lord was the gift of choice. The other reason that I wanted to review Labyrinth Lord is that it was the first Old School Renaissance RPG to be available on the shelves at your local gaming shop.

The book that you can buy at your shop is the revised edition, a black and white paperback laid out in a clean fashion and illustrated with heavy, sometimes cartoonish ink art that very much apes the look of Dungeons & Dragons titles published in the late 1970s and early 1980s. A hardback edition is available via lulu.com, and that is the edition that I will be giving Ed as a present. Everything about this book should set off nostalgia pangs in the reader, from the choice of fount for the text throughout right up to the regional map of the Known Lands given at the back of the book with its very familiar map symbols and the name of its regional capital being anagrammatically a nod to Tom Moldvay and the map designed for the Dungeons & Dragons Expert Set and X1 The Isle of Dread.

The first question for anyone who came to gaming in the last twenty years is, “What is so different from this game and the Dungeons & Dragons Third/Fourth Edition that everyone seemed to rave about?” Well, as with other Edition Zero or Retro Clone titles, the most obvious difference is one of pared down simplicity and fewer options. It is still a game of exploring dangerous underground labyrinths, facing hideous monsters, slaying them, and taking their treasure, just as your preferred current version of Dungeons & Dragons is. The game is still one of class and level, but here the first case of fewer options occurs. As with Basic Dungeons & Dragons, the core classes remain the Cleric, the Fighter, the Magic-User, and the Thief, but all members of these classes are considered to be human, because the demi-human races are classes in their own right. Dwarves are hardy Fighters with an understanding of stonework underground; Elves are Fighter/Magic-Users, able to use all weapons and cast spells whereas the Magic-User is limited in his choice of weapons; and Halflings are also Fighters, though they are slightly quicker in combat and can sneak around a little. The main limitation on the demi-human classes are level caps, essentially how far one of these classes can progress when compared to the main four classes who are free to advance to twentieth level and beyond. Halflings can progress up to eighth level, Elves to tenth level, and Dwarves to twelfth level.

As much as I am enamoured of the Old School Renaissance, I have to be honest and say that the level caps built into early editions of Dungeons & Dragons are I feel now to be an unnecessary and artificial constraint. The benefits gained in playing a demi-human class are far outweighed – to varying degrees – by these constraints, such that while you would consider playing an Elf to be able to fight and cast magic, the Dwarf and Halfling are far from attractive options. In fact, I would go as far to say that the Halfling is so underwritten as to be well, rubbish. I am sure that if such limitations were necessary, then constraints other than level limitations could have been used instead. Now my issue here might be seen as one against early editions of Dungeons & Dragons and so also against the new titles being published under the Old School Renaissance banner, but it is not so much an attack as a query. Should an RPG published under the Old School Renaissance banner emulate both the good points and the bad points of the original Dungeons & Dragons?

The other notable features include spell casting classes that begin the game with just the one spell at First Level; a simplified Alignment system consisting of just Law, Neutrality, and Chaos; and an Armour Class system in which a lower number indicates a better Armour Class and so makes the target harder to hit. The Armour Class system runs from AC9 down to AC-6, and includes AC0, but does not include the dreaded THACO or “To Hit Armour Class Zero.” It also lacks the skills systems found in later editions of the game and that leads to another question, this time about the Thief, the only skilled class in the game. Surely his skills should be modified by his Dexterity? Equally, should the Cleric and Magic-User Classes benefit from high Wisdom and Intelligence scores too?

Differences between Labyrinth Lord and any other variant of Dungeons & Dragons are in general minor and cosmetic. For example, here characters start with more money – between 30 and 240gp (3d8x10) as opposed to the traditional 30 to 180gp (3d6x10) – and in an odd nod to modern sensibilities, the author suggests that the Labyrinth Lord (or Dungeon Master) allow his players to roll their characters’ attributes by methods other than the standard 3d6!

The rest of course, will be familiar to any who has played Dungeons & Dragons. The monsters are virtually the same as are the spells and the treasures and magical items, including rules for intelligent swords. More specifically for the Labyrinth Lord, there is advice on creating a labyrinth of his own, a little advice on running the game, and a small dungeon ready for play that can also be turned into the first level of a longer dungeon. While there is no example of character generation, there is at least an example of play, which is more than some recent modern editions of the game have provided.

In the process of writing this review I raised a question or three, all of them I admit, informed by the point at which I entered the hobby – back in 1980; by what I was playing in those first few years, which would have been Basic Dungeons & Dragons and not all that long after, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons; and of course, by some three decades worth of playing RPGs (with the last ten of those spent reviewing them). So my questions are coloured by that experience, but in asking them, and more importantly in answering them, I am taking advantage of the open nature of the rules in Labyrinth Lord to adjust them to how I want my Old School RPG to be. Just as any Labyrinth Lord is free to do, and equally, is also free to interpret the rules during play as he wants, and indeed, will probably have to because Labyrinth Lord is intentionally light on specific rules.

Labyrinth Lord is perfect for anyone who wants to explore the Old School Renaissance and wants to pick up and start playing some of the excellent adventures that are being released under the Old School banner, and while they could try and track down a copy of the classic Basic Dungeons & Dragons, having Labyrinth Lord available at your local friendly gaming store just makes it all so easy and accessible. Equally, Labyrinth Lord – as do other Retro Clones – grants access to any number of first and third party scenarios, campaigns, settings, and supplements available from specialist dealers or via eBay that are no longer compatible with more modern iterations of the game. Which is about twenty-five years’ worth of gaming material, with the titles appearing now under the Old School Banner just icing on the cake. Putting aside my more modern predilections with regard to gaming and the rules in early versions of the game, Labyrinth Lord is a nicely complete package with a simplicity and clarity of rules that feels incredibly refreshing after being away for a quarter of a century

Friday, 8 January 2010

Scandalous, but not Heretical

The Victorian period has proved a rich basis for numerous RPGs over the last twenty five years. “Basis” because whenever a new Victorian set RPG appears it always comes with an added theme, whether it be Science Fiction as in Space 1889, Horror as in Cthulhu by Gaslight, or magic, such as For Faerie, Queen, & Country. Some games even combine two of these genres, such as the Horror and Science Fiction of Unhallowed Metropolis or Victoriana, which not only combines Fantasy and Horror, but even has some Science Fiction elements. Originally published by Heresy Games in 2003, the second edition of Victoriana appeared in 2009, this time published by Cubicle Seven.

Now ahead of time, I should explain my slight involvement in the game. First, I was involved in a playtest of the First Edition, and while we liked the setting, to a man we were unimpressed by its choice of the Fuzion System for its mechanics. Second, I am credited as a playtester for the new edition, but I am surprised to be so listed, primarily because my involvement amounted to just playing in a demonstration game at DragonMeet in 2006. In fact, the extended combat example given in the rules is the one that we fought and the one that my character initiated.

This new edition of the game comes as a sturdy hardback with a tidier and better illustrated layout, a better explanation of the setting, more detail about Victorian society, and a completely new set of mechanics. Gone is the Fuzion system to be replaced by the Heresy Game Engine. This uses dice pools comprised of six-sided dice that are rolled to achieve successes. Any roll that comes up a one or a six counts as a success, while any roll of a six can be re-rolled to generate yet more successes. The primary method of setting difficulty is by adding black dice to the pool, three black dice for a difficult task, six for a very difficult task, and so on. Any roll that comes up a one or a six on a black die reduces the total number of successes rolled. Fortunately, rolls of six on a black die do not get rolled again. The other method of setting the difficulty of a task is by modifying the total number of dice in the pool. Anyway, a single success rolled counts as a partial success, two rolled successes as an adequate success, three rolled as a good success, and so. In general, the system is solid, workable, and an improvement.

The setting for Victoriana is an alternate 1867 in which the Crimean War is still being fought against a matriarchal Russia lead by a Czarina, and the American Civil War is yet to occur. Some technological breakthroughs have been made – Babbage is still perfecting his Difference Engine while travel by commercial airship remains the province of the very rich. Although the hierarchy of Victorian society is as strict as you would expect, it is further divided by race. While Humans remain the dominant race, they are joined by Eldren (Elf-like and predominately Upper or Middle Class); Dwarves and Gnomes (predominately Middle or Lower Class); and Beastmen, Halflings, and Ogres (all Lower Class). Of course, Humans can be found at levels of society, and everyone knows their place in Victorian society – except the player characters, because that would make for a somewhat restrictive game.

Most of the races in Victoriana are more or less those to be found in standard fantasy, but the Beastman is a little different. Essentially he is an anthropomorphic animal, whether that be a dog, a donkey, an ox, or a rat. It all depends upon your country of origin because the images in the rulebook do show Panda and Tiger Beastmen. Playing one is another matter because the core Beastman only comes with a single ability of the player’s choice, such as Claws or Enhanced Sense. Beyond that, the player will have to add abilities from the Talents list to get exactly what he wants. Other races exist, such as the Zulu Orcs in South Africa and the Steppegoblins of Russia, but neither of these is available as a player character race.

Its existence acknowledged by the Vatican following the Thirty Years War, magic is a recognised field of study that is regulated by the Guild. Technically it is illegal to practice Thaumaturgy without a license, usually acquired after earning a Thaumaturgical Doctorate, but it is rare for such unlicensed practitioners and Petty Magicians to be hunted down and prosecuted. Unlike demonologists and necromancers, who if caught, will themselves prosecuted and imprisoned at best, executed at worst. There are those of a stalwart moral character though, who are licensed to study and practise the Dark Arts so that they can protect society from demons and the undead. Such men are carefully watched.

The more acceptable forms of magic include Thaumaturgy or sorcery, basically traditional magic; Mediumship as practised by genuine psychic sensitives or the devout rather than by charlatans and fakes; Runelore, practised by Dwarves and Gnomes who imbue stones or pebbles with runes for various effects; and lastly, Petty Magic, which is seen by its practitioners as drawing from an older tradition and requires a focus to work through. Mediumship is categorised into three types: Channelling, Corporeal, and Sensate. Channelling Mediums can connect with the planes beyond while Sensate Mediums have enhanced senses and can see into those other planes. Corporeal Mediums can draw on power from the planes to enhance their physical abilities, but as with Bardic Petty Magic, it is not detailed in the core book. Once detailed, I suspect that this form of Mediumship will appeal to a lot of players.

All of these forms of magic come with their own ability or spell lists, including Demonology and Necromancy, but these Dark Arts spells are really there to help the GM create interesting villains rather than grant a player character infernal power. The only type of magic to differ from this is Runelore, which instead gives a number of runes such as “Messages” and “Wood” that the caster can enchant a stone with, the exact effect of the rune to be determined by the caster. This flexibility is only limited by a player’s imagination.

The setting’s various faiths are all slightly different, with the Aluminat faith – a version of Christianity – dominating Western Europe. Rather than revering a single deity, the Aluminat church reveres Order itself represented by an ascending order of angels. The Aluminat faith actually has Twelve Commandments rather than ten, the extra two concerned with the maintaining of the natural order, which includes not learning sorcery as its use breaks the laws of nature. What this means is that in the society of Victoriana there is a religious, but usually unspoken bias against the use of sorcery and against anyone trying to better himself or push at the limits of his place in society. Similarly, the Aluminat Church is tolerant of other religions to varying degrees, but is understandably intolerant of anyone found to be a member of a daemonic cult or of practicing demonology or necromancy.

Character creation is a mix of player choice, assigning points, and spending points. A player chooses his race, which determines his social class, and then assigns a handful of points to his characteristics. These can be negative as well as positive, but player characters all start with a score of one in each characteristic. A larger pool of points is available to spend on skills (divided between ordinary skills and speciality and magical skills), talents (or advantages), privileges (social advantages), and assets, while a few more points are available if a player decides to take some complications.

The only limiting factor is a character’s Rank, which caps the maximums for characteristics, skills, talents, and so on.  It is also a measure of a character’s reputation and potential, and should not be seen as totally constraining though, as players are free to design whatever character that they want within the limits of its confines. Thus a player could create a Beastman ex-East India man, a Dwarf doctor, an Eldren Medium, a Gnome detective, a Halfling rector, or a Human tosher with little difficulty. The book lists numerous childhood backgrounds and adult vocations, each with the appropriate skills, but these are suggestions rather than packages to select.

It is not a quick process, but overall, character generation is quite satisfying. Here is a sample that I designed, a Beastman Weasel who has the brains to get into trouble and the agility to get out of it. It is a character that I was never quite able to get right with the game’s First Edition, but am happier with the results here.

Name: “Derby” Ned Rank: 1
Nationality: British Social Class: Lower Race: Beastman
Age/Gender: 22/Male Vocation: Gambler Childhood: Chimney Sweep
Build: Slim Hair/Eyes: Black/Black
Personality: Optimistic Social Ethics: Take What You Can

Strength 1 Dexterity 4 Fortitude 2
Presence 1 Wits 1 Resolve 1

Common Skills
Athletics 3, Bull 1, Charm 1, Conceal 1, Dodge 2, Fisticuffs 2, General Knowledge 1, Hide & Sneak 3, Improvised Weapon 1, Perception 1, Streetwise 2, Swordplay 1

Specialities & Magical Skills
Appraisal 1, Boating 1, Conversation 1, Gambling 3, Pick Locks 3, Pick Pockets 1, Sewer Lore 1, Sleight of Hand 3, Tracking 1

Racial Special Abilities: Enhanced Senses (Smell)
Complications: Code of Honour, Enemy, Stubborn
Talents, Privileges, & Assets: Agility, Contortionist 2, Bolt Hole 2, Ear of the Street, Gambler 2, Glib 1, Local Expert (Rookeries) 1

One aspect that Victoriana wears on its sleeve is its politics. Its bias is anti-conformist, its authors deploring the rigid social structure, the misogyny, the hypocrisy, and the racism of the Victorian Era, all of which they pitch the player characters against. Thus there is a liberal bias inherent to the game, and while that might be deplorable to some players, it also gives the rationale for the player characters to go and adventure. Plus of course, what the game pitches the player characters against was – to be fair – deplorable itself. As “Gutter Runners,” the player characters are expected to buck against the restrictions of Victorian mores and society, their desire for change and their freedom forcing them to act. There are parallels in this with the ethos of the Cyberpunk genre, and the authors point this out themselves, but qualify it by saying that while the parallel is true for Middle or Lower Class characters, it does not work for Upper Class characters. After all, an Upper Class character already has his money, so what else does he want? Simply his freedom, because he is as equally bound by the restrictions of his society as anyone else.

The parallel with the Cyberpunk, combined with Victoriana’s mix of fantasy races and magic, has led to it being described as “ShadowRun 1867.” While there might be a game in such a concept, Victoriana is not that game, primarily because its focus is on conflict within and against society. Further, the origins of Victoriana do not lie in ShadowRun, but in a venerable British RPG of a similar age, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. That shows most obviously in the inclusion of the Beastman as a player character option, but also in the Moorcockian treatment of the setting’s various faiths with their Law versus Chaos underpinnings.

For the GM there is advice on styles of play accompanied by some campaign. It also addresses the problem of the Class Divide in play, suggesting that a party consist of characters from all classes or troupe play wherein a player controls three characters, one of each class. Various locations, ranging from a rooftop chase to aboard a train, are discussed as places to stage a fight, but no maps are given with them, which is a pity, though there is potential for a sourcebook that could do that job. Pleasingly, the advice includes some very matter of fact guidelines for running the game, and suggestions on how to deal with problem players.

Beyond the advice, the GM has a bestiary to play with that includes both monsters and ordinary members of society, and a starting scenario with which to get his game going. “Spiritual Matters” describes itself as a Penny Dreadful and has the characters engaged by Lord Highgate to locate an artefact for him. The scenario should last no longer than a session or two and just about serves to introduce the characters to setting, though the players might be disappointed at the lack of reward beyond simple Experience Points.

Penultimately, the first edition of the game is not ignored and an appendix tells you how to adapt a First Edition character to this new version. The book is rounded out with an excellent bibliography, which should provide fine further reading and viewing as well as actual inspiration.

Victoriana feels very complete as a game. If it has an inherent weakness, it is that it does not quite provide quite as strong a focus for what the player characters are meant to be doing as it should, but given the depth of background provided, a GM should be able to develop such a focus with some thought. In addition, that the game is set in 1867 could also be a problem, because the period that will not be quite as familiar to most gamers, who in terms of gaming will be more au fait with the later period of the 1890s through games such as Space 1889, Cthulhu by Gaslight, and Victorian Age: Vampire, and the Sherlock Holmes stories. Fortunately, Victoriana goes a long way to addressing this problem by presenting an excellent exploration of Victorian society and mores. It is this exploration of Victorian society that is the game’s primary strength and the foundation upon which its more outré elements – the magic, the fantasy races, and so forth have not only been added, but more importantly been integrated into.

What has been achieved in Victoriana Second Edition is a fine blend of history and society with more fantastic elements, so fine a blend that the outré aspects feel part of the setting rather than additions. That the game comes with its own new and better rules system is just a plus.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Thoughts Sent Afar

While I currently post the majority of the reviews that I write here at Reviews from R'lyeh, that does not stop me from writing reviews for elsewhere. Especially when I am asked to review a new title for Call of Cthulhu such as Snows of an Early Winter. This is a new scenario for Cthulhu Now -- but useful for Delta Green or Cthulhu by Gaslight too, and my full review can be found at GameCryer.com.

Friday, 1 January 2010

The Fur Don't Fly

Catalyst Games does not do card games.

The publisher is better known for BattleTech, its miniatures/boardgame of armoured combat in the 31st Century, and ShadowRun, its RPG of magic, mayhem, intrigue, and wireless technology in the late 21st Century. Incidentally, both of these Intellectual Properties reached their 25th and 20th anniversaries respectively in 2009. Well, as of 2009, Catalyst Games do do – and that “do do” was a clue about the subject matter for card game being reviewed here – card games and they are being designed by people behind CthulhuTech, the RPG that combines the works of H.P. Lovecraft with Japanese robot anime. They must be taking time off from the tentacles.  The card game in question is Poo the Card Game, in which you get to fling it and take it like a monkey.

Designed for two to eight players, aged eight and up, Poo the Card Game can be played in five to fifteen minutes, but does not come complete. Up to fifteen tokens are required per player to represent the amount of poo that sticks to their fur, because in this game, everyone plays a monkey who has had a very bad day, and the only thing to do at the end of a very bad day in the monkey cage, is chuck the ca-ca at each other. The players will take it in turn to toss stool samples at each other, defend themselves against incoming droppings, and to try and keep their fur from getting all matted and stinky. This is a knockout game. As soon as a monkey finds that too much has stuck to his fur, he retires in shame. The least shame faced monkey with the cleanest fur is the winner.

The game comes with a deck of full colour cards and a full colour rules sheet. It takes about two minutes to read and digest this rules sheet. As to what you do with the rules sheet once it has been digested, I can only say that you are on your own there, Monkey Boy.

The cards come in four types: Poo cards, Special Poo cards, Clean cards, and Event cards. The cards are all done on a heavy, glossy stock and each is illustrated with a brightly done cartoon that depicts a monkey in action and something else going on in the monkey cage. Rest assured that no poo is depicted upon any one of the cards. So the game can be played with children and it will remain good “clean” fun except for the fact that the kids will be sniggering throughout because they are playing a game about poo. Equally it can be played by adults and while they too can snigger away, there is nothing to stop them dishing out some turd talk around the table.

On his turn a player can play just the one card. Either a Poo or Special Poo card to spatter his fellow simians or a Clean card to remove Poo from his fur. Out of his turn, a player can play a Defense card to block or dodge incoming Poo, or a Mishap card to interrupt another player’s attempt to fling Poo. As soon as a player has played a card, he can immediately refresh his hand back up to a total of five.

A sample turn might go like this. There are five players, who have played and received a certain amount of Poo so far: Chris (seven), Jo (ten), Louise (four), Pookie (nine), and Tree (five). Pookie goes first, and plays “Sharing the Love” which cleans two Poo from his fur and gives it to Jo, so the soiled standings are Chris (seven), Jo (twelve), Louise (four), Pookie (seven), and Tree (five). On Tree’s turn she plays “Chim-Chim Poo” and targets Pookie with two Poo, but he uses a Block card to stop it landing on his fur. There are no changes in the amount of Poo on anyone’s fur. Chris uses “Bonzo Poo” to fling three Poo at Jo, but she responds with “Buddy’s Face” and pushes Pookie in the way, so he gets three Poo on his fur! The soiled standings change to Chris (seven), Jo (twelve), Louise (four), Pookie (ten), and Tree (five). Then Jo dishes out the “Devil Poo” and everyone has to take three Poo unless they can block it. No one has any Defence cards to, but Tree plays the “Cramp” Mishap card in response. It does not stop the Poo from flying, but it forces Jo to miss her next turn. The soiled standings change to Chris (ten), Jo (twelve), Louise (seven), Pookie (thirteen), and Tree (eight). Louise dishes out some “Bonzo Poo” on Pookie matting his fur with three more Poo, which takes his total to fifteen and more, so knocking him out of the game. Shame faced and angry, Pookie has one last chattering laugh and plays “Blaze of Glory,” which lets him play all of the Poo and Special Poo cards in his hand as revenge. With the first, “Mighty Joe Young Poo,” he throws four Poo at Louise and one Poo at Jo with “Pellet Poo.” The final soiled standings at the end of the round are Chris (ten), Jo (thirteen), Louise (eleven), Pookie (out of the game), and Tree (eight).

There is a fifth type of card, the “Golden Banana.” This remains out of play until the first player is knocked out of the game. He can grab the “Golden Banana” and use it return to the game with eight Poo. The second “Golden Banana” is used to bring the second player to be knocked out of the game back into play, but only if there are five or more players.

Poo the Card Game is best played at speed and with more players the better. It is a knock out and a “take that” style game, which some players will find not to their taste. This should not be seen as a downside though, as Poo the Card Game really is fun to play and both elements are integral to the game. If there is an actual downside to the game, it is that once you get down to just two players, attempting to hurl enough Poo at your opponent for it to stick and so shame face him out of the game, seems to take a lot longer than it should. Which can leave the other players waiting around for a while...

A lght and easy filler, Poo the Card Game is fast paced, clean fun, and all that despite the Poo, but it does have monkeys and everything is better with monkeys.

It ain't Scrabble

I begin with a confession. I do not enjoy playing Scrabble. Considering that I like to write, and I enjoy words and reading, some might find that surprising. I find it all a bit tedious and lacking in substance. Plus from the two recent television programs devoted to the game – the BBC has recently broadcast a small season devoted to the playing of games and games history, playing Scrabble seems to have come down to the sound of the word and learning by rote rather than in understanding and speaking the language. Nevertheless, my dislike of Scrabble does not mean that I will not look at the occasional word game. Thus I picked up a copy of LeCardo.

LeCardo is an English card game designed for two to four players, aged eight and up, published by Leo Marshall Designs. Where Scrabble has the players scoring points by constructing single words, points are scored in LeCardo by constructing one or more compound words or phrases such as “off side” or “wind power.” The constructed compounds can be whole words, be connected by a hyphen, or have spaces between.

The game comes as a deck of fifty-five cards. The cards themselves are done on a light and glossy card stock and are easy to handle. Three of fifty-five cards give the game’s rules while another lists all of the cards in the game along with their score values. The remaining fifty-two cards are all word cards, each marked with a single word, a score value, and an appropriate line art illustration. Each illustration is colour coded according to the card’s score value, so the blue cards (such as “over” or “under”) are all marked with a one; the red cards with a two (like “line” or “work); the orange cards with a three (“by” or “top”); the green cards with a four (“bed” or “word”); and the pink card with a five (“paper”). Note that there is only the one card that is worth five points.

At game’s start, the cards are shuffled and each player receives a hand of seven cards. On his turn a player lays his cards on the table attempting to form compound words. Cards are placed so that the new compounds read left to right or down, but not right to left or up. New cards can be played alongside existing cards so that much like Scrabble, a grid of words is formed. Once a player has played as many cards as he is able to, he adds up the total score from the new compounds that he formed during his turn, refreshes his hand, and play passes to the next player.

All new compound words have to be agreed upon by everyone around the table. Should a new compound be disputed its cards are returned to the player who attempted to place them down.

If a player cannot place any cards, he can instead discard three cards and replace them with new ones from the deck. He also loses his turn. The game ends once all of the cards have been played or when no one can play any cards. The winner is of course the player with the highest score.

The game is designed to last no more than fifteen minutes and with less than four players our games rarely last longer than ten. With four players we found that the game comes with enough cards to last about five or six rounds and no more. A good sized playing surface is required though, as the card grid can spread out a little.

LeCardo is quick and easy, and is what can be described as an intelligent filler game. For younger players it probably has an educational aspect, but even for adults it requires a little thought. I much preferred playing this to Scrabble and the group that I tried it not only liked it, but were happy to play it again. This is recommendation enough for LeCardo to remain on the games shelf downstairs where it can be found and be brought out to play with ease.