Burgle Bros.: Get In. Get the Loot. Get Out.

A while back I backed some board games on Kickstarter, just for the hell of it. Some of those choices were good, many not so good. These days I don’t even look at KS anymore. But the final one came in this weekend, Burgle Bros. It’s a cooperative heist game where you’re infiltrating an office building looking for safes and avoiding guards. It’s cleverly done.

It turns out it’s a really fun game. It moves away from the direction of many co-ops, with a constant, tenacious threat (roaming guards) instead of making you play whack-a-mole with pop-up disasters. The guards are just brutal, and not learning guard management fast will knock you out in no time. It’s a tough game (a rule we messed up made it even tougher) but it’s a lot of fun to play, and we got a lot of great “story” moments out of it. Like the other game I’ve seen from Time Fowers, Paperback, it’s got a great look to it. The art by Ryan Goldsberry is top-notch.

Cracking the safe on the first floor and heading for the stairs.

However, all is not fantastic here. There is a deck of “Event” cards you can draw from by sacrificing actions. I can’t see ANY reason to do so. The events are sort of split between good and bad ones, but the good ones are only sort of okay and several bad ones that can be devastating. Considering you’re giving up actions to get them, they are simply not worth it. Furthermore, the events resolve immediately, so even a lot of the “good” ones can be useless if they happen at the wrong time. In our game I went first and decided to grab an event (we had not looked at them in advance) just to see what we got and it was a horrible one that smacked us down right out of the gate. After seeing a few more, and after looking through them after our game (which we lost), I would rather spend actions doing NOTHING than risk that deck. After discussing this with another person, he pointed out that you have to draw an event if you don’t use all your actions. I think it makes more sense to think of the event draw as a penalty, as incentive to use as many actions as possible. On the other hand, I’d still try to find janky ways to “use” my actions over drawing from this deck.

Second, when we opened our first safe, the loot we got was a Persian Cat, which had an “ability”. I looked in the rulebook to understand the ability and there was no mention of it. Heading to BGG, I see this from Fowers:

cat is attracted to the nearest room with an alarm icon at the start of the turn of the player holding him. it does not take an action to pick the cat back up once you are in his tile.

Sorry, the loot was a stretch goal and I didn’t clarify them in the rules more.

That is absolutely infuriating and one of my key problems with Kickstarter. You are producing a game, produce that game. I’m already not down with taking a supposedly finished and tested design and then throwing in a bunch of new additional stuff just because you got more cash, but when you don’t even include rules about the new additional stuff? Because they were a last-minute addition? That’s obnoxious, and does not add to my already shaky confidence in KS games to begin with.

(To be honest, the loot “abilities” can probably just be ignored, especially at first. They add unnecessary difficulty to an already tough task.)

A motion detector outside the bathroom? That’s harsh, boss.

All that aside, though, Burgle Bros. did pretty well for us. We got all the way to the third floor (of three) before I got caught by the guard. This ends the game for everyone because we are bad thieves who will rat each other out instantly. (We’re also bad thieves because we’re busting into a heavily-patrolled building with zero knowledge of its layout or even what it is we’ll be stealing, but that’s another story.) Unlike many other co-op games, there was no “alpha player” problem and we all worked together to figure out how best to outwit the guards and avoid alarms. Towards the end we were even purposely setting off alarms to draw a guard away from other players. It’s easy to learn and the task at hand is pretty straightforward without a lot of gamey nonsense bunging it up. There’s a lot to like here.

Hopefully more plays will smooth out the disappointment from the event deck. It should be a minor thing, but it really bugs me. I’ll also have to convince my usually co-op-averse group to give it more tries.

Burgle Bros: it’ll steal…your heart.

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The Movies-to-Watch List: All the President’s Men (1976)

Only one movie remained on my 2015 Movies-to-Watch list: 1984’s Buckaroo Banzai. It was a controversial choice when I first included it, but I thought I’d try and get through it this time. It was not to be. It’s not on Netflix Watch Instantly, and although we could have put the disk in our queue, when you’re faced with ordering Buckaroo Banzai or just about anything else, well…there’s a reason it was the last one remaining. I had a copy I downloaded ages ago, but it’s in a video format nothing except my computer likes, so it was either watch it on my laptop or download another. And nobody was telling me the effort was worth it. So I scrubbed it from the list and subbed in a disk Becky had ordered that was a contender for the list originally, All the President’s Men.

There have been several movies I’ve seen that make me think I just do not get movies, period. Wings of Desire I thought would absolutely never end, and I’m not sure I even made it through all the way. The Social Network was, I thought, a needless view of a character who starts out as an asshole and eventually becomes a richer asshole (I felt similarly about There Will Be Blood.) There’s another that springs to mind, and the experience I had with it was similar to that I had with All the President’s Men.

I know the story of Watergate. I know how the events behind it played out, from the burglary to Nixon’s resignation. I know the cast of horrible people, each more despicable than the last. And I know, of course, that it was a big deal. I know all that from things I’ve read (though not the book on which the movie was based.) But I didn’t get any of it from the movie. Sure, in 1976 this was completely fresh in everyone’s mind. But here in 2015, the story that Woodward and Bernstein are working on is utterly opaque. I don’t get the sense from anyone, including the reporters, that this is a huge deal. We’re told about people being threatened and spied on and bugged and such, but we don’t see any of this. It’s like a horror movie in which people are constantly talking about the Creepity Spookum but it never actually shows up. I just never got any feeling of genuine tension during the movie. Who are these people? What are we even accusing them of? What’s the danger here?

This goes for the characters as well, what there are. Woodward and Bernstein are absolute enigmas, coat racks with press cards. Hardly any of the scenes give them any kind of depth or insight. Their superiors show character, particularly Jack Warden and Jason Robards, but the material doesn’t really rise to it. Jason Robards is showing terrific concern over the quality of the story but nothing is playing off of him.

The movie I’m reminded of is 2007’s Zodiac, which trod similar ground. Again, this was a subject of which I already knew a fair amount, but I once more got no sense of it from within the movie. And, like those other movies I mentioned, it’s highly regarded. It didn’t do anything for me. I didn’t have any sense of the story or the people covering it, or why I was watching a movie instead of a documentary or reading a book. I didn’t see the point in this even being a movie.

I don’t know what I would have wanted out of All the President’s Men. Obviously I don’t need there to be a car chase and rocket launcher shootout between G. Gordon Liddy and Carl Bernstein, though now that I say it I most sincerely do want that. I realize that, for the most part, this is how it actually happened, but that doesn’t, for me, ensure it’s actually interesting. The part where they need a super secret document, so they ask the girl, “can you get this?” and she says no, but then the next day she gives it to them in full, that’s just not super gripping storytelling.

So yeah, I just didn’t appreciate All the President’s Men much at all. And I know it’s well-loved, but it bounced right off of me. I guess I’m just a bonehead when it comes to appreciating film.

Despite that, there will be a Movies-to-Watch list for 2016.

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I Played That! #36: Star Fleet I (PC)

Yes indeed, I paid retail price for a game that looked like the above. What’s more, although Wikipedia says this came out in 1984 (when such graphics on the PC wouldn’t have been too unexpected, I’m pretty sure I didn’t buy this until more like 1988 or 1989.

A was the case with Rogue, Star Fleet I: The War Begins was essentially a pay-for version of a popular, usually free mainframe game, Star Trek. You are in command of a space battleship and searching the galaxy for enemy Krellan (Klingon) and sneaky cloaked Zaldron (Zromulan) ships to destroy. You use phasers and missiles and so forth. What (I think) SFI brought to the Star Trek game was the fact that enemies could transport on to your ship and cause a ruckus, requiring you to dispatch security teams to kill or capture the intruders. That was always a hassle, especially if you had combat going on at the same time.

I played a lot of SFI, but I don’t think I ever really cracked the higher levels of it. One cool thing about it was that it tracked your “Captain” through various missions and ships, awarding you medals and promotions if you did well and busting you down if you, say, destroyed a starship.

When the shareware model took off, I bought another version of this game for Windows. It was called WinTrek, and I’m not sure why I opted for buying it instead of just playing Star Fleet I. I guess the nifty Windows graphics and interface called to me. It wasn’t nearly as detailed as SFI, but good for quick games.

This type of game is still greatly enjoyed. There are a number of current versions (including some with throwback text graphics) available for iPad and the like. I should grab one of those.

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I Played That! #35: Ultima Underworld I and II (PC)

As we’ve seen, the Ultima series always tried to be on the cutting edge of gaming. While never sacrificing story and mechanics, they always pushed the graphics to whatever the current limits were. It was tough being an Ultima fanboy on a budget.

People think of Doom and Wolfenstein 3D as the originators of the FPS, but Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss, predated both of them, unveiling a fully 3D world that was far ahead of other emerging 3D games. It was a true dungeon crawl, with the player searching dark caves and lava flows, hacking at monsters, and finding lost items of power.

Although it was developed around the same time as Ultima VII, it takes place before those events. The nemesis that would star in the Ultima games starting with VII was not in this one. Instead there is a more vague threat, a powerful demon that is about to be released into Britannia. The player’s character, the Avatar, must search the Abyss for the demon, a victim its minion has kidnapped, and the means for which to defeat it. It’s standard dungeon stuff, and less intricate than previous Ultima games, but there were still plenty of interesting moments in it.

The Guardian does show up in the sequel, Ultima Underworld 2: Labyrinth of Worlds. He imprisons Lord British’s castle under a large gem, with several inhabitants (including you, the Avatar) inside. The player discovers the source of the spell, which leads him to other worlds that the Guardian has previously conquered. By moving back and forth between them, the Avatar must weaken the Guardian’s hold on those worlds and thus free his friends.

Underworld 2 features one of the most interesting bits I ever encountered in an Ultima game. One of the worlds you visit is Talorus, an alien world that was truly alien. The Talorids have a society that doesn’t mirror human society, and the player never does get a sense of how it all works, but can suss out enough to complete his mission.

It also featured one of the most unintentionally hilarious moments I’ve ever encountered in a game. Uh, spoilers here, in case you’re thinking of working on a 22 year old video game. The final confrontation takes place in “the Ethereal Void”, which is reachable only in a dream state. In order to get there, the Avatar has to eat a certain plant before going to sleep. In these games, the character had to constantly find and eat food and rest, or else suffer hunger and fatigue. I was ready to finish the game, head into the final moment and free my friends and the world. I grabbed the magic plant and went to eat it…

…and the game told me I was full. I had recently eaten food in the game and my hunger was 100% sated. I simply couldn’t eat another bite, even a small plant that would open the gateway to eliminate a worldwide threat. I had to actually run around in circles until I worked up enough hunger that I could finally eat the damn plant.

The Underworld games were great fun and a nice side trip from the main Ultima storyline. Still, I was eager to get back to the “real” games and the showdown with the Guardian that awaited me in Ultima VIII.

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Dave Finally Watches: Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

While visiting in Champaign I looked through pal Dave T’s DVD collection. He had a bunch of things I haven’t seen and want to, and it was hard for me to make a decision. I finally settled on Edge of Tomorrow, which was probably the safest option.

I’d skipped this movie in theaters because honestly, I didn’t hear much about it. All I knew was that it had Tom Cruise in it, and I’m not much of a Tom Cruise fan. But afterwards I heard it was actually pretty good, and Cruise’s usual take on a role, especially and action role, worked in the movie’s favor here, since he was supposed to be smarmy and also improbably skilled.

The central conceit is pretty good. Aliens have invaded, and they’re really doing a number on us. After a particularly amazing victory made possible by Emily Blunt’s character, we stage a giant attack on the aliens that turns out to be a trap, and a slaughter. During the battle Tom Cruise’s character dies taking out one of the aliens…and then wakes up again, thrown back to a day earlier in time, with all of his memories intact.

It turns out the aliens can control time, and Cruise has accidentally stumbled into sharing this ability. When he dies, the action goes back to the previous day, with him still keeping all the knowledge. Inch by inch, death by death, he gets closer to being able to defeat the enemy once and for all.

It’s more than a little hinky if you think about it too much, but the action and Cruise’s affability (honestly, Emily Blunt didn’t really blow me away here, but she did well enough) do the heavy lifting. It’s not a genius action movie, but it’s still better than the usual fare. And it’s funny, something that I never got any indication of before. The fact that the day restarts when Cruise dies makes for a number of really funny bits that don’t take away from the existing threat.

It reaches a pretty satisfying conclusion, and then it’s clear that someone at the studio felt the ending needed to be happier, so it then goes on for a couple more minutes with a coda that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever within the rules of the movie. It’s jarring and dumb and best mentally deleted when reflecting on the movie as a whole.

It’s almost as dumb as the movies’s title. Edge of Tomorrow is a stupid name, but the name that they’re using now, Live. Die. Repeat. isn’t much better. (Both are worse than the name of the book it’s based on, All You Need Is Kill, but that’s really dumb as well.) It’s a wonder they dropped the ball three times on naming this thing when Groundhog Troopers is right there, not being used. (As an aside, the world in which this takes place is one very similar to our own, except there never was a Groundhog Day movie, because it’s what first springs to mind to any viewer but no one here mentions it at all.)

Despite the dumb name and tacked-on post-ending, Edge of Tomorrow is a fun movie that isn’t a ponderous, joyless grind, nor an insultingly stupid time-waster. I’m glad I picked it.

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On the Table: Games in Champaign

Last week I was at the home office in Champaign, Illinois, for the Wolfram Technology Conference. I got a lot of good work done at the office, but after hours I also got some gaming done with pal Dave T., with whom I was staying.

First, though, just before I left, I played a rousing game of Chaos in the Old World, which I tragically had not played since 2011. It’s a great game, and it deserves more love and more play. We had two new players and one was playing as Khorne and unfortunately we failed to emphasize just how much Khorne doesn’t care about domination and VPs. He just wants to kill, early and often. As a result, without Khorne making everyone’s day miserable, the game unfolded in a way that didn’t really reveal its strong points. Fortunately this did not dissuade the new players from wanting to play again some time. I mentioned this elsewhere and it was suggested that all copies of Chaos in the Old World come with this player aid for the Khorne player:

Now, on to my trip. I arrived in the late afternoon, and the very first thing we did was head out to the Armored Gopher for some gamage. We started out with Codenames, which we played a solid three times in a row. At one point Dave T. successfully gave us a clue worth five words, but despite that impressive turn, we did not win.

After that we played one of the games he’d asked me to bring with me, Nexus Ops. I controlled the monolith early on, and had a good initial burst, but just before I closed in for the win, Dave tore it all away from me. That’s another one I’m glad is hitting the table again.

I don’t have my Atlanteans expansion yet, but I brought along Imperial Settlers and we had a good four-player game. Everyone caught on to it pretty quickly, and the end scores were pretty tight. I played Barbarians, which I hadn’t played in a while.

Dave has been buying a lot of smaller “microgames” lately. I definitely understand the appeal in these games, but I’ve also seen that they never seem to get played. He was experiencing the same thing, so he brought out some of them to finally get some table time. The first was Eminent Domain: Microcosm, which I backed for about twenty minutes before remembering not only that microgames don’t get played often but that I also don’t care for its parent game, Eminent Domain. In one sense, this game is a little more interesting than actual Eminent Domain because it plays much faster and a little more interestingly. In another sense, I went with an all-out military strategy and steamrolled my opponent. The microcosmic apple has not fallen far from the Eminent Domain tree. It’s worth pointing out that this game doesn’t even pretend that trading is worth doing.

We also played Theseus: The Dark Orbit and it was a nail-biter. I was stomping over Dave’s Aliens with my Marines, and it really looked like it was going to be a slaughter, but then I got trapped in a terrible situation involving getting thrown into space twice on the same turn while also having the crap blown out of me. When the end game came, my final choice was to either kill us both or tie the game at 1 all. I opted for the tie, but Dave had a way to knock an additional point off of me.

I also brought with me RESISTOR_, an almost-microgame of my own. After an initial game in which, due to a weird shuffle, the game ended nearly immediately, we played again and really got to see it in action. This is a clever two-player game and hopefully I’ll get more plays out of it.

Next was Cthulhu Realms, a sort of alternate version of last year’s darling, Star Realms. I kind of fell off the Star Realms hype train soon after jumping on board, and I haven’t tried any of the expansions, but I liked Cthulhu Realms more than the original, even despite the tired “LOL Cthulhu” theme. That said, there are card games in a similar style that I prefer to both of them.

Our game of Omen: A Reign of War didn’t go so well. I warned Dave that this was a brutal, take-that-y game, and he proceeded to demonstrate his understanding of the concept. I couldn’t draw helpful cards to save my life and even if I did, he was making me discard them left and right. I spent much of the game whining. However, towards the end, he did a move which got him a feat, but allowed me to win two battles. That, along with a card allowing me to win a third battle and some lucky end-of-turn card drawing, squeaked me the victory, which was ridiculous. In no way had I earned a victory in that. I think we both came away from that unsatisfied, but didn’t do a rematch.

Next microgame up was Welcome to the Dungeon, which I was not familiar with. I wasn’t sure about this one as it was being explained to me, but it turns out it’s a really clever little game. A hero is going into the titular dungeon. Each turn you draw a card with a monster on it and either add it to the dungeon or remove one of the hero’s items with it. Alternatively, you can pass and you’re out, but the other person has to enter the dungeon and hope he can beat the monsters in there. So it becomes a game of chicken, trying to either hope you can ruin the dungeon for the other guy or make him *think* it’s ruined so he’ll let you go in and grab all the glory. It’s a neat dynamic, and I might grab myself a copy. I’m not sure how well it plays with more than two, though.

Then we played Tiny Epic Defenders. A frequent complaint about co-op games is that they’re little more than whack-a-mole, with the group having to run around dealing with a crisis that is always the same, just surging up in different places. Tiny Epic Defenders is that actual game. Literally there is a ring of locations and you have to run to different ones either to defend against vague threats or “succor” the place back to health. Eventually a big bad comes out and you kill him and save the day. We played on the easiest baby setting and won without too much problem. If you like this kind of game, Tiny Epic Defenders distills it into a small, streamlined package. It wasn’t bad, but again, I have other games of this type I’d rather play, despite them being neither tiny nor epic.

We replayed Imperial Settlers, this time as Rome (me) vs. Egypt (Dave). We both started strong, and were getting some nice card synergy going. Dave got out his Temple of Ra, which stole a building from me once per turn, and that really bogged me. as we neared the end, I thought Dave might have it, as he seemed to have an endless supply of VP generation. That finally ran out, and I did an action that essentially gave up two points to gain two points, which seemed like a pointless action. It did, however, also give me a card, which was more than likely going to be useless, as I only had like a stone left to build with. The card was the above Ruins, playable for free. It turned out I won the game by one point: the Ruins. That was the literal game-winning card.

On my last day we started out with Dave’s home-made re-skin of Lost Legacy: The Starship, themed to modern Doctor Who. I played the original version of a long while back but didn’t remember it well. The card art was really well done, and added to it, especially since the game itself isn’t that great with only two players.

Finally, our game of Zeppelin Attack, ended just as I had to rush to throw all my stuff into my suitcase and head out the door. I believe this was the only game of the entire trip that both of us were already pretty familiar with when we started it.

Man, that’s a lot of gaming. But I got a lot of work done too, I promise!

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I Played That! #34: RPG Potpourri (PC)

A bunch of RPGs I played that I don’t really have much to say about, but wanted to include:

MegaTraveller 1: The Zhodani Conspiracy: Science fiction RPGs were rare, and I tended to grab and want to love whichever ones I found. I remember this one being really unintuitive with its controls and pretty hard. Unsurprising, as it was based on the tabletop RPG most known for allowing your character to be killed as you were rolling it up.

Dragon Wars: A fantasy RPG with an anti-nukes theme. In it, cities have towers with dragons imprisoned in them so if the city is attacked, the dragon can provide Mutually Assured Destruction. It used the paragraph system where, to save space on disk, long bits of text were printed in the manual and you’d read them there. Let me know if you also need “the manual” explained to you.

The Summoning: More of an action game than an RPG, as I recall. I also recall it being hard as hell. I don’t think I ever completed it, in fact, despite multiple attempts.

Tunnels and Trolls: In my attempt to find a really good RPG, I bought this. Hoo-boy, it was not what I was looking for.

Sentinal Worlds: Future Wars: This sure looks a lot like Mega Traveller. I only barely remember this one.

Circuit’s Edge: This was a graphical adventure made by Infocom in its later days. It was adult, as it talked about prostitutes and sex and murder and such. The game was based on the book When Gravity Fails by George Alec Effinger, a cyberpunk story taking place in a Middle-Eastern community in a future with the Islamic world ascendant. It’s a novel and interesting setting, and I was intrigued enough to buy and read the book, which I liked.

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I Played That! #33: Eye of the Beholder Series (PC)

Were a lot of other people doing this series, there would be an entry for the various “gold box” Dungeons and Dragons games. For some reason, even though I played a lot of junk, I never played those. I didn’t like the look of them, for one thing. However, when I saw Eye of the Beholder, I grabbed it.

Eye of the Beholder’s 3D-ish graphics wowed me where the gold box games’ Spartan playing fields did not. I played through the first game and really enjoyed it, so I was completely stoked for the second one.

Eye of the Beholder 2 did not disappoint. It was much larger than the previous one and much more intricate. It was filled with tough fights, cool enemies, traps, and different environments. I played it over and over and it’s right up there on my list of all-time favorites.

Naturally, I was completely on board for Eye of the Beholder 3, but unfortunately Westwood Studios, who developed the first two, were not. The third game was kind of a mess, slow and clunky. None of the games had a fantastic plot, but in the third one I failed to follow it so well that I got to the final bad guy without even realizing it. I stumbled into a room, fought someone, and got killed. No problem. I reloaded, went back, fought again, and won. Roll end credits. I had no idea I was even close to the end of the game, and hadn’t picked up any indications that this was the person behind whatever had been happening all along.

The team behind the first two games went on to make Lands of Lore, a game that was very much in the same vein, though not set in the D&D universe. I got it and remember liking it, though I don’t think I ever played its sequels.

SSI also later released Dungeon Hack. The idea behind this game was that it could create random (sorry, procedural dungeons of the “Eye of the Beholder” type for you to run around in. You could customize the features and then go exploring. The “Hack” in its name was a reference to the well-known variant of Rogue. This was, in a sense, that type of game, but with an Eye of the Beholder flair, and it was fun to play with.

The Eye of the Beholder series still has its legacy out there. A recent indie game darling is The Legend of Grimrock, which is very much influenced by Eye of the Beholder.

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