Episode 14 now up!

Happy New Year everyone!

Yes, I know that this episode was due up on New Years Day, but I had a few technical issues (and ended up playing a whole bunch of games instead) so please accept my apologies… I hope it’s worth the wait! This first show of 2011 is, as usual, a couple of interviews with some of the great and the good from gaming. First up, writer of the excellent Dice Hate Me blog Chris K and I discuss the stuff that’s really getting us excited about 2011 and what we’re really looking forward to getting our hands on. I also was honoured to have Dominic Crapuchettes – the hardest working man in gaming – from North Star Gamesjoin me to discuss his life in gaming and what North Star are up to now (and in the future). We also discuss how an independent publisher managed to take on the glamour of Hollywood… and won.

As always, thank you for listening. If you’d like to get in touch with the show, email me at littlemetaldog@gmail.com or grab me on Twitter (where you can find me under the ID of idlemichael). Cheers for your support in 2010 and here’s hoping that 2011 is even better!

Links:

Episode 14 – Direct download (mp3 format) – right click and save, or get it on iTunes!

Dice Hate Me – Chris’s excellent blog. Read it!

North Star Games – The home of Wits and WagersSay Anything and more!

And here’s all the games Chris and I mention we’re looking forward to…

Alien Frontiers from Clever Mojo Games

Wok Star from Gabob (don’t forget the interview with Tim from Episode 8!)

Mansions of Madness from Fantasy Flight

Eminent Domain from Tasty Minstrel Games (and if you don’t know Kickstarter,check it out!)

D&D: Wrath of Ashardalon from Wizards of the Coast

Confusion from Stronghold Games

Chicken Caesar from Nevermore Games

7 Wonders from Asmodee

And, as promised on the show, here’s the Chicken Caesar box art…

The most sinister, imposing box art you’ll see in 2011!

So there you go! What are you looking forward to in the New Year? Let me know in the comments!

The Gambler – Lords of Vegas review

I don’t get the fact that many gamers have an aversion to dice. To me, they’re the epitome of gaming, that element of chance that I crave when I play. I know that there are a huge amount of folks out there who have that Play To Win attitude (and I also know there’s a place for them in our hobby) but for me… well I don’t mind if I win or lose. Playing is important – the fun is in the journey, not finishing in first place (although on the rare occasions that happens, it’s obviously brilliant). To those who must win at all costs, the dice are a mortal enemy, a terrible and random beast that can foil their plans at any given moment. For me, any game that involves dice presents an ever-changing challenge that must be overcome and of course – through skilful play – anything can be mitigated. Perhaps.

Of course, one place where the dice truly rule are casinos, especially at their spiritual home – Las Vegas – and when Mayfair Games announced the release of Lords of Vegas last year I knew I wanted in. A game where you vie for control of fledgling gambling halls, where everything can turn on you on the roll of a dice? It demands that you embrace the ethos of the city and sometimes give everything up to chance… well, nearly everything. With a combination of skill and not a little luck you could end up a winner, even if poverty is a more likely option.

The premise is pretty basic – build a range of casinos in order to get as many points as possible through the game. The city of Las Vegas is divided up into blocks that you’ll get to develop your properties on – you’re randomly allocated two at the beginning of the game and claim a new site by placing a marker on the space stated on the card you flip at the start of your turn. This triggers the first of two phases – the payoff. Any site that is owned by a player nets them $1M, while any built casino the same colour as the card can provide those all important points as well as potentially getting them a lot more cash as well. Points are also allocated on this phase, with the casino’s boss getting one point for each tile that makes up the building.

OK, so if a brown card is pulled out, the red and yellow player both get $4M. Red is in control as they have the highest numbered dice in the casino, so they get three points.

After the money’s been paid out (and remember, everyone gets something as long as they own at least one empty lot), you move on to the Actions phase. This is only for the active player, and as long as you have the money to fund it you can do as much as you please. Building gets you a coloured tile of your choice and costs you the price marked on the space. Reorganizing lets you reroll all dice in a casino at the cost of $1M per pip (particularly useful if you’re not in control), and you could also Gamble at another player’s casino if you’re in the need of extra funds (or fancy giving them away)! There’s also extra options if you’re in control of a casino. You have the choice to Sprawl – aka: expanding into an unclaimed tile – but this is risky and expensive. It’ll cost you double the price stated on the board and the card for that site is pulled from the deck, you immediately forsake control to the current player. The final action choice is to Remodel, changing the colour of all tiles in a casino – very useful if a certain set of colour cards are appearing regularly and you want to switch stuff up a little.

So, enough of the how – why should you be playing Lords of Vegas? This is a criminally underrated game that seems to have slipped under the radar of many people in the gaming community. Put simply, it’s a game that reminds you of the joy that comes from play. The only way you’ll make your way to victory is by throwing yourself into the game wholeheartedly. Buy those casinos! Sprawl into unclaimed areas and hope to god that that you don’t end up having to hand over control because of an unlucky card draw! If you’re low on cash, gamble against an opponent, and if you’re desperate to control an area, pay up and roll those dice – you never know what may happen. The best moments I’ve had with this game have been those do or die dice rolls involving a huge casino where I maybe have a couple of low-value dice.

The view from above. Check out the score track – later jumps require you to run ever larger casinos to move further. This is NOT easy.

I remember handing over those millions to pay for the privilege of re-rolling. Picking up the dice one by one. Shaking them up in my cupped hands and dropping them to the table, they tumble and spin. A couple of fives, the only one still going is mine… and it lands on… a two. All that money down the pan. It could as easily have been a six, giving me full control of a lucrative casino but – in keeping with the theme – that’s Vegas, baby! In the last episode of the podcastwhere I spoke to Peter Olotka, something he said really resonated with me: “Fair isn’t fun”. Lords of Vegas could easily have been a deep strategy game where every single decision affected everything else, but would it have been fun? This game can kick you when you’re down, but there’s always something you can do that could possibly turn your fortunes around – and isn’t that what the fantasy of Vegas is all about?

James Ernest and Mike Selinker have come up with one of those rarities – an event game. These are the games that, more often that not, see your discussions begin with “Do you remember when…?” upon looking back at them. They’re the ones that saw the balance of power swing with the destruction of an alliance, the knife in a back of a friend or (in the case of Lords of Vegas) an incredible dice roll. You know the kind, the ones where someone has a fistful of dice in their hand, they get out of their seat and utter a silent prayer. Like the guy down to his last chip at the craps table who walks out an hour later with an immense pile of cash, it’s glorious when miracles actually happen. And in Vegas? Well, that happens every day, doesn’t it?

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Lords of Vegas was published in 2010 by Mayfair Games. Designed by Mike Selinker and James Ernest, between two and four Lords (or Ladies) can vie to crush their opponents into penury. All this fun for under £30? Who can say no?!

Cops and Vampires – Scotland Yard vs Fury of Dracula

Chris Swaffer isn’t just a mine of information who helps answer questions at the end of each episode of The Little Metal Dog Show – he’s also a splendid writer! I asked him to do a review of anything he fancied and a few days later, this arrived in my inbox. Enjoy!

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Hide and Seek has got to be one of the oldest games going. Since time immemorial, we have enjoyed the thrill of the hunt, the joy of the chase, and the excitement of evading capture. Sadly, it’s hard to fit a good game of Hide and Seek into the average front room on Games Night; it only takes so long to track down who is hiding behind the sofa, after all. Once again though, boardgames come to the rescue! For a quick, family-friendly hunt Ravensburger brought us Scotland Yard, and for a more epic experience, Fantasy Flight deliver Fury of Dracula.

First released back in the early 80s, Scotland Yard delivers a rare mix of delights. A family game, simple in concept, but one which provokes thought, strategy and teamwork from the players. The premise of the game is that “Mister X”, a master criminal, is at large in the streets of London. One player takes on the role of the elusive villain while all of the other players play detectives trying to track him down. At the start of the game, Mister X decides on his starting location, but importantly, the detectives do not know where this is. Each turn, Mister X and the detectives must move from one location to another, using the transport lines that link the locations together. The detectives can see HOW Mister X is moving thanks to the tokens he takes that are printed with the various potential modes of transport – but they cannot see WHERE he moves from or to. The detectives have a limited number of turns in which to track down Mister X; to help them out, at regular intervals through the game, Mister X is forced to reveal his current location, before vanishing into the shadows again. This periodic revealing, combined with the information about HOW Mister X has travelled, allows the detectives to slowly home in on his location.

20th Anniversary edition of Scotland Yard – tin box! Baseball cap! Very odd!

To balance the game, Mister X also has a small number of Blank movement tiles, which allow him to hide his choices from the detectives… This all adds up to a very tense game of deduction and bluff, with lots of options for both sides. It’s fair to say that the role of Mister X is rather more stressful than playing as the detectives, and a certain amount of trust is required that the player controlling him is being honest with their movements. It’s also important that the solo player takes care not to give their location away by looking hard at one part of the map while planning their next move (!), which has led to the amusing use of sunglasses, baseball caps, and even the Mister X-branded eyeshield ™ which has been packaged with some recent editions of the game!

Now we fast-forward a few years, from the early 1980s to the mid-2000s. Fantasy Flight’s Fury of Dracula has a similar theme to Scotland Yard – instead of Mister X, the players are hunting Count Dracula himself. Rather than detectives we have Van Helsing and friends and instead of central London, our playground covers all of Europe. In true Fantasy Flight style, of course, complexity is layered on top of this basic setup to make a much more detailed game. Dracula moves around Europe in secret, leaving a trail of minions, encounters, and general nastiness in every location he visits on his way. Whenever the Hunters stumble across the Count’s trail (which stretches back over the last six locations he visited) they gain insight into how close they have come to their quarry, but must also deal with the encounter the master Vampire has left behind him – something of a mixed blessing. Things get really interesting when the Hunters finally arrive in the same location as Dracula though… The Count doesn’t give up just because he has been found! In true vampire-hunting form, the players must fight it out, in a rock-paper-scissors style card-based confrontation that adds some more bluffing and doublethink opportunities.

Small picture. Big game.

The timing of the encounter also matters – the game starts at Dawn, and then alternates three turns of Day, with three turns of Night. During the daytime, Dracula is weak and cannot use his full repertoire of attacks, if encountered at night he is a far more formidable opponent, so much so that occasionally, the hunters can become the hunted! Fortunately for the good guys, they can obtain equipment and beneficial events from towns, leading to the need to balance finding Dracula with finding enough equipment to survive the encounter. True to form, Fantasy Flight have packed the game box full of cards and counters of good quality. Of course, as you may expect, you will need a LOT of space and a fair amount of time to play the game properly.

The thing that I like most about both of these games is the tension they provoke on both sides of the table. When playing as the Hunters, at the start of the game it seems impossible that you will ever track down your quarry. You have the whole board to cover, and there seem to be an infinite number of ways that your opponent could sneak past you to evade capture. When playing as the Hunted however, it feels as if you have an equally impossible task. There are just so MANY people looking for you, the routes past them are cut off so quickly, and you never know when one of them will chance a move towards you that will leave you trapped. Within a few turns though, it usually becomes clear that both outcomes are possible, with capture or escape often a couple of moves away. Of course, not every game will go down to the wire; a few false moves, particularly on the part of the person being hunted, can lead to ‘game over’ more quickly. Still, the series of near misses, close calls, and narrow escapes that a tight game creates, makes a very satisfying experience for me, win or lose.

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Scotland Yard was originally released by Ravensburger in 1983 and should set you back around £20. Alternate versions are also available – the USA gets New York Chase (issued in 1999), while mainland Europe can try out the 2009 release Mister X – Flucht durch Europa. They’re the exact same game, pretty much, just based on different boards. Meanwhile, Fury of Dracula was released by Fantasy Flight Games in 2006 (based on the 1987 original by Games Workshop) and weighs in at a more costly £40. Also, if you want to see Fury of Dracula in action, have a look over at Robert Florence’s Downtime Town – Episode 1 is all about this fantastic game and needs to be watched!

The Little Things – An Interview with Minion Games

I was lucky enough to recently speak (via the miracle of email) with James Mathe, the man behind Minion Games. Aside from starting up his new independent publisher based in Wisconsin, James may well be one of the busiest men in gaming. He’s had his fingers in more pies than your average baker, so I decided to ask him to start with a bit about himself… Here’s what he had to say for himself.

In a past life I was a contract programmer, but I’ve been in the gaming industry a long time now. I started one of the first multi-player LAN gaming centres in the world. I pioneered the digital download market for RPGs with the creation of RPGNow.com. I now own two Game Stores in the Milwaukee, Wisconsin area and an online game store at RPGShop.com. Recently I have begun publishing board games as Minion Games and I’m the designer of a game called Those Pesky Humans. I guess one could say that starting businesses is sort of my gaming hobby.

Well, it certainly seems that you like to keep yourself busy! Obviously your work takes a fair chunk of your time, but what kind of games do you like to play in your spare time? What’s big at Minion Towers?

I generally enjoy Euro games, some of the ones I enjoy are Pillars of the EarthEndeavourCyclades and Power Grid. Some other favourites of mine are SteamDominion, and Citadels. I attend a monthly meet-up group and we love our Werewolf too. Lately though, I find myself playing a lot more prototypes (through submissions) than actual published games.

That sounds like a good time to segue into what you guys are up to with Minion Games… I recently played NILE, a new card game you’ve just released. Would you like to tell us a bit about that and the other games you’ve got out at the moment?

NILE is a great little card with a Euro-game feel. It’s all about harvesting resources on the (you guessed it) Nile. You vie for control over fields and each round when the Nile floods you harvest a resource of the top of your matching field (which is how you score). The great thing about NILE is the scoring is based on sets, so there is strategy to getting a variety of resources in your score pile. It’s a great filler for any game night.

We also have 3 other games out right now:

Those Pesky Humans which is a humorous light dungeon crawl where one player sets up the dungeon and the other players try to ransack it. It’s designed not to end up being a miniatures battle game, so plays in 90 minutes with lots of replayability. Great for even kids just starting to get into gaming. Legitimacy is a game for younger crowd with a roll-and-move mechanic where players adventure around the land to complete quests to become the rightful heir of the realm. There’s a lot of humour and many beatdowns on the leader! Lastly, Sturgeon is a party card game of Big Fish Eat Little Fish. You must get two sturgeons on your side of the lake by playing minnow cards, then eating them with bass, then eating them with sturgeons. You can use swim cards to eat other people’s fish or weeds to protect your fish. There’s also a fisherman to watch out for!

All four games should be available through world-wide distribution, so ask your local game store to carry them!

Obviously, having experience in owning your own stores, you know what it’s like for more independent games production companies. It can be a hard life for them, especially when it comes to things like distribution and getting your games noticed. What approach have you taken with Minion Games to try and get them to stand out from the crowd?

There are two key elements we focus on. First we try to find games with interesting and creative themes. We don’t really need yet another farming game do we? We also try to keep them on the light and humorous side in fictional worlds (because who wants to play reality?).

Second we use a high quality artist and layout person for our covers. A game should be able to sell itself based on the cover and back cover. You can’t count on someone pitching your game to a new customer, so you need quality design. Being a store owner I have a feel for what can stand out and what are things to avoid with the design of the boxes. We try to find new and fun games to play and not just redo older games or themes, but some game themes seem to always be in demand (like the dungeon crawlers) and unlike some publishers, we’re willing to try these out.

Distribution is a tricky thing in our industry right now. Stores expect the distributors to be Just-In-Time inventory for them, but the distributors have been burned too many times so they order light much of the time – especially with new publishers – so game stores have a hard time getting things or just give up. We use a consolidator which is sort of a “distributor to distributors”. This gets us in with fifteen distributors around the world at a higher fill rate. We also offer store demo copies, so nag your local store to contact us!

We can find you guys at miniongames.com – do you think that the internet makes life easier for smaller publishers like yourself to get your brand out there, or do you think people will always be looking towards the big boys like FFG for their next purchase?

Of course the Internet helps a lot. In fact we usually release our products as Print & Play first to help build awareness and build a direct customer base. Reviews online also play a major role early on. Brand is very important and creates plenty of sales just based on name. That is our goal, but the Internet in that case is only a medium to spread the word good or bad. Quality and originality are more important for start ups making a brand.

You really seem to be looking to the future – where do you see Minion Games in five years?

Our goal is to release five to ten games a year with a goal of increasing print runs each time. Within 3-5 years we hope to sell enough games to allow us to make custom dice and miniatures for our games as well as expansion for top games. Then we can have real fun!

So do you see your future as having everything done in house or do you guys accept submissions from prospective designers?

Oh, we’re always taking submissions. In fact NILE was done by just some guy I found online. We have 7 games in the pipeline of which only one is of my own design; two are from previously published game designers – the rest are from first timers.

Nice! So if people want to get in touch, you won’t straight ignore them! How do readers get in contact with you?

I never ignore anyone and as a small company, we actually get back to you with input on your game within a week or two… not a year later as some have. Just write to us (the email is webmaster@miniongames.com) with a picture of your prototype, rules, and description. And no: we (nor anyone else in this industry!) will not steal your ideas!

Nice one! Cheers for taking time out to talk about what you’re up to with Minion Games, and good luck for the future.

If you’d like to check out titles like NILE, Those Pesky Humans and more, head over to the Minion Games website. There’ll also be reviews of both those games here on the site soon.

A special Little Metal Dog Show – Episode 17 – Peter Olotka

Grab this show (and others!) on iTunes – for direct download, click here…

For this episode I was honoured to speak with one of the fathers of designer gaming, Peter Olotka, one of the co-designers of the classic Cosmic Encounter. Peter has cemented his position in the history of games not only through his design of CE but also other classics, including the now hard-to-find Dune. We discuss everything from how Cosmic Encounter came into being (with a little help from Parker Brothers) through to why Sting is the kiss of death when you put him on a game box. This episode is packed out with anecdotes and tales from a long and storied history in the industry that is far from over as Peter reveals plans for the future, including a couple of exclusives. Talking with him was easily of my favourite experiences I’ve had while I’ve been doing The Little Metal Dog Show – I hope you enjoy it too.

A couple of pointers – the sound does go a little frizzy at a couple of points during the interview, but rectifies itself pretty quickly. You’ll also hear a few little ‘bing’ sounds as well – every time that happens, it means that Peter was holding up a box to the camera for me to grab a picture of, which you can see below (complete with captions):

Gloriously retro. This has got to be my favourite box.

The Japanese version of the game (with very little Kanji on it, really)

The legendary Brazilian pirate version of Cosmic Encounter!

The current version we all know and love. Good work, Fantasy Flight.

Sting! Bloody Sting! No wonder it bloody tanked!

If you’ve never played Cosmic Encounter before, do yourself a favour and at least check out the online version – you can find it over at http://www.cosmicencounter.com and, if you’re lucky, may even get to go up against Peter himself. He’s also – as mentioned in the show – on Twitter as @pgocosmic.

As a little extra, Peter spoke about the early prototype of CE that he left at the Parker Brothers’ office. I thought folks may enjoy checking them out too…

Can you imagine rocking up to a company these days with this…?

Where do you even begin?

The only copy of Parker Brothers’ “Encounter”. Truly unique.

(Mini edit: A couple of people have been in touch with me for referring to Dune as ‘ridiculous’ – I’d just like to clarify that I don’t mean it in the ‘…and stupid’ meaning, it’s more in the ‘towering, sprawling, mildly scary and certainly imposing’ fashion. I’ve read it! Promise!)

As usual, thank you for listening. The next show will be up soon (back to the normal two interview format!) and if you’d like to get in touch, do so! Email us via littlemetaldog@gmail.com or grab us on Twitter – I’m @idlemichael and Chris is @RallyIV. Of course, you can always check out the Facebook page (go on, it’s useful!).

Adventure Time! D&D Wrath of Ashardalon review

It used to be that to play Dungeons & Dragons was to bear the mark of the geek, the scarlet letters D&D were marked on your chest making you the prime target for mockery. Of course, as most of us have grown up, we have moved on and now see it more as a badge of honour, something to wear proudly. All of those evenings spent around kitchen tables, carrying a d20 in your pocket, lugging a stack of books around with you… we enjoy our games, we love to play. However, if you’re going to throw yourself into a decent D&D campaign, you need to make sure you’re there for the long run. You’re looking at hours of play, spread over the course of weeks or months. You’re looking at commitment. But what if you don’t have that time? We get older and our free time goes out the window, but we still want to play. How can we scratch that itch?

Last year Wizards of the Coast released something new in their D&D line – Castle Ravenloft. This was a new bite-sized approach that took elements from the 4th Edition books and turned adventuring into accessible chunks. With no Dungeon Master involved, this was stripped down dungeon crawling, the players versus the game. What WotC didn’t quite get was how ridiculously popular it would be – Ravenloft sold out within days of release as the followers from the Cult of the New fell for it in a big way. Copies of the game exchanged for well above RRP as Wizards scrambled to put together a second print run, which is now at least vaguely available. So what does the company do? Announce a second game in this new modular line and get the hype train rolling all over again – Wrath of Ashardalon!

So, it’s basically more of the same… but considering how highly I regarded Castle Ravenloft, I was incredibly excited about the follow-up. Wrath takes the original game and expands on it, enhancing the streamlined D&D experience a little more – not so much to make it scary and hard to understand, but there are a few differences. More on those soon, but first (if you’ve not tried this format before) how does it work? With no DM, the responsibility for running the game lies with the players themselves. Set characters are chosen with pre-rolled stats and (to begin with, anyway) an adventure is chosen with a set objective – the box comes complete with a book of scenarios to try out. Complete the mission and you win, fail to do so (and there are so many ways this can happen) and your days of glory come to a swift end. Each turn follows a set pattern, beginning with the Hero Phase – here you move around the board and attack any enemies unfortunate enough to encounter you. In traditional D&D style, everything is resolved using the ubiquitous d20 along with any modifiers. Rolling equal or more than the target number generally sees success, and recalling this single rule is probably the hardest part of the game.

The next phase is Exploration. The expansion of the board is controlled by players, as any players who have characters standing at an unexplored edge of a tile draw a new one from the stack. A small arrow shows the direction it should face (pointing towards the character who discovered the new area) and a scorch mark signifies where that tile’s monster should stand to begin with. This monster is decided by drawing a card from the Monster pile, placing it in front of the player and grabbing said monster from the box to be put on the tile’s starting spot. Something else to take note of is the colour of the arrow; white is fine, but a black arrow means another card must be drawn and resolved immediately from the Encounter Deck. This also happens automatically if no new dungeon tiles are drawn, thus encouraging exploration of a new area at least once per turn. Encounters could be anything from stacking the monster deck in a certain way, triggering a particularly nasty trap or (occasionally) spotting some treasure – but yes… most of the time it’s something pretty awful.

Midway through a solo adventure. This one ended in an ass-kicking. It *always* ends in an ass-kicking.

The final phase of each turn is the Villain Phase, where all monsters on the board spring to life. Working your way around each player in turn – remember, there’s no DM – any monster cards that are in front of them are activated. Again, the simplified rules come in to play – easily understood and followed explanations are given for each monster that cover every potential possibility, be they adjacent to a hero or on the other side of the board. All you need to know is that eventually they’ll hunt you down and attack, you’ll get poisoned or dazed and eventually get killed.

Death happens a lot in Wrath of Ashardalon, but thankfully you’re on the side of good so you have some Healing Surges. Rather than having individual surges there’s a collective pot, meaning that particularly inept and squishy wizards who enjoy throwing themselves into the thick of battle can use more than one if they need to, not that I speak from experience or anything. All the usual D&D tropes are there, Daily Powers, traps and treasures… but Wrath of Ashardalon expands on the previous experience by adding new tile types and cards. Boons can make your life easier, while the additional Adventure cards give you allies to control. Watch out for the new Chamber tiles though, because that’s where the really bad things happen.

If you ever managed to get your hands on a copy of Ravenloft (which is still quite the challenge, at least here in the UK) you’ll know that WotC really tried to push the boat out when it came to the components. I know that some of the design decisions made by the team rattled some cages – a few folks thought that the minimal approach just wasn’t D&D enough – but they’ve elected to stay with the look for Wrath of Ashardalon. Everything is of high quality, from cards to the thick cut tiles that will make the scene for your adventures. You can certainly tell that Wizards are going for a big franchise here, making a grab for the Descent market, with piles of beautifully sculpted minis that are aching to be painted – the main villain of the piece, the dragon Ashardalon, is particularly impressive. There’s no way I’m going anywhere near these with a brush though – I’d hate to ruin them due to ineptitude and thankfully they look great without the need for my childish attempts at ‘enhancement’.

Calling them miniatures doesn’t feel right when one of them is THAT BIG.

So, the game plays very well and looks great. There’s little downtime as players are always involved as they negotiate their way around the dungeons, and even those who may have deemed D&D as frivolous before will admit that this is very well put together. There is, however, something intangible that I think requires a mention. Wrath of Ashardlon really feels like something exciting. It’s taken what Ravenloft started and expanded, adding in new elements while keeping the game system fun. As mentioned earlier, the package ships with a book of 12 adventures, but those merely feel like a beginning. This big box feels like opportunity, it feels like potential. After a few hours of playing, my mind began to wander back to another dungeon crawler that had a major effect on my childhood as a gamer – Advanced HeroQuest. The hours I spent coming up with maps and adventures, writing awful scripts to read out as my friends dragged their way through fight after fight… all this came back to me.

So much is possible with this system that WotC have developed (and are still refining). The fact that you can crossover with Ravenloft (and the upcoming Legend of Drizzt) means that there’s a wealth of opportunity here. To those who complain that the twelve adventures in the included book aren’t enough – and there are a few dissenting voices – I urge you to go back to your youth, go back to the reason you picked up these games, and use your imagination. The route that Wizards of the Coast are taking looks to be one that will provide you with a stack of adventures later down the line (I reckon we’ll see a release along the lines of Descent’s Road to Legend before too long) but in the meantime focus on that one word: PLAY. This is the tabletop equivalent of a sandbox – set yourself a target, randomly generate a dungeon and see what happens. I guarantee you that there’s little else out there at the moment that can provide such depth and enjoyment in comparatively bite-sized chunks. And if anyone mocks you for playing D&D in 2011? Chuck your d20 at them. Wear your badge with pride. It’s the grown-up thing to do.

Wrath of Ashardalon was released in 2011 by Wizards of the Coast and was designed by Peter Lee, Mike Mearls and Bill Slavicsek. Between 1 and 5 people can play and it will cost you around £40-50 in the UK (if you can find it, as it’s currently quite tricky to find in your local game shop!). Persevere though – it’s well worth trying to track down a copy.

Complete Control – Dominant Species review

Sometimes you know from the moment you see a game that it will be your kind of thing, that it’ll be lodged in that list of games you want to play again and again for a long time. Other times it’ll come up behind you, working its way into your mind insidiously until you discover one day that you’ve actually got a new favourite game and you didn’t even realise it. GMT’s Dominant Species firmly sits in that second category as it was barely on my radar when it was released late last year, but now? Oh man. Top ten, easily, and going up. But why is it so good?

Let me take you back to the first time I played it, three of us sitting around working our way through the rulebook, desperately attempting to come up with strategies in order to pull out a win. None of us really knew what we were doing, the game ended up as over four hours of painful confusion… our brains were well and truly burnt. I somehow managed to sneak a victory but had little idea how I’d managed to do so, deemed Dominant Species as ‘alright, but not something I’d want to play all the time’. It’s a hardcore game (especially for someone who doesn’t normally get on with heavier ones) and honestly not something I thought I’d find myself sitting down to tackle again. I saw it less as fun and more of a task. But after a few days I couldn’t stop thinking about it, couldn’t stop looking back at where I thought I’d made mistakes and how I could improve next time.

Next time? I’d pretty much dismissed it, surely there wouldn’t be a next time? But it turns out there was a next time. Many next times, in fact, but why? Well… you’ll see shortly.

Dominant Species sees between two and six players each taking on the role of a species on an ancient Earth. There’s an ice age just around the corner so you need to spread yourself around as much as possible, making sure that you’re capable of surviving in a variety of environments. Of course, your opponents are attempting the same thing and there’s only room for one to come out on top but even the lowliest of insects have the power to defeat stronger species like the mammals. It just takes some good planning, a bit of foresight and some judicious destruction of your enemies! The playing area is built up as the game progresses, made from a variety of hexes that have element tokens placed on their corners – if an element showing on your playing board is touching the corner of a hex, you’re able to move pieces on to that space. There are seven different terrains which, when scored, provide varying amounts of points depending on how many players have a presence there. Bonus points are also available from performing certain actions in the game, which probably makes this a good point to talk about how Dominant Species actually works…

It’s all driven by choosing actions. Players have a set amount of Action Pawns (which can go up or down) which are placed one at a time, going round the table, on the Action Box. Once no more pawns remain, you work your way down the list performing the actions in order from left-to right. While it looks initially horrifying, once you know what each action requires it’s all rather straightforward and the detailed rulebook explains them all well (complete with graphic examples – have a look at the full rules here). Some actions will involve you putting new cubes down (making babies, essentially), moving others around or even destroying opposition pieces – and as each player has only a limited supply, this can make for quite a fraught endgame. Other times you’ll be expanding the board, placing element discs so you can move into new areas or removing them to make other players’ species endangered – quite the nasty move!

Mid game and everyone

One of the more interesting actions is Glaciation – in other words, you’re speeding the Ice Age along a bit. You take one of the smaller glaciation tiles and choose a hex to cover (netting you a few bonus points in the process). All players on that tile then have to remove all but one of their species cubes, including you. It’s a particularly efficient way to reel in a player who seems to have managed to race ahead in getting a lot of their cubes down, especially if they’re concentrating them on one location. The final action of each round is Domination where players choose a hex to score – as mentioned earlier – but that’s not all. As well as a stack of wooden cubes and Action Pawns, each player also has a pile of wooden cones in their colour which are used to signify that they have control, worked out by multiplying your cubes by the amount of matching elements. It’s every player’s responsibility to ensure that if they’re meant to be in control of a hex their cone is there to show it – there’s a near constant flurry of activity as people switch their cones for their opponents’ as each round goes on. This is important because having domination of a hex when it’s scored means you also get to choose one of the special cards that sit on the side of the board which can bestow huge benefits. Everything from wiping out large amounts of enemy species to resurrecting some of your own is possible and can often make or break your road to victory.

On that point, something important to consider. Dominant Species is almost two games in one, the first being all about manoeuvring about the board, almost helping each other out as you adapt to as many areas as you can. However, when the end of the game kicks in (which is triggered by taking the Ice Age card during the Domination step), every single inhabited hex is scored meaning that even if you’re lagging behind, you’re still in with a chance of winning. You WILL get the vast majority of your points in that final scoring session, so even if you’re last, you shouldn’t despair. If you’ve spread your species around intelligently, you are in with a chance. It makes for an incredibly strategic game that requires an awful lot of thought, hence it being branded a brain burner since it was released.

So, it’s a hard game that will require you to pay constant attention to everything that happens for at least three hours. When you finish a game of Dominant Species you will invariably feel like you’ve done a few rounds with a heavyweight boxer, so why is it so good? It’s hard to say, but I’d put it down to the huge range of options available to you. Do you go aggressive from the start or play a little sneakier? Will you attempt to grab points at every opportunity and hope to get a big enough lead to survive the final scoring round? There are so many approaches to winning this game that it will keep you coming back to see if your new strategies can actually work. I admit that it requires a substantial investment of your time and your first game will bemuse you somewhat, but it is totally worth it. If I had to say something negative about Dominant Species, it would be that the artwork is less than glamorous – ‘functional’ is probably the best description – but that detracts in no way at all from the quality of this game. One of the finest titles released in 2010 and one that will return to the table again and again. It’s great to see GMT doing something a bit different and I hope they continue to experiment in future.

Dominant Species was released in 2010 by GMT Games and was designed by Chad Jensen. It handles between two and six players, though I’ve found it works best with four. As it’s quite a complex affair, I really recommend Ryan Sturm’s excellent How To Play podcast episode on the game to help learn the rules. If you want a copy of your own, check your local game store or online, but expect to pay a fair bit! It’ll cost you around £50 here in the UK, though you can get it direct from the GMT site for $80. Well worth it!

Time Is Running Out – Doctor Who: The Time Wars review

Always, and I repeat this, ALWAYS be careful when you pull a game off the shelf that doesn’t have a person’s name on the cover.

This isn’t me being snooty, by the way. Sometimes you may be lucky and find something a bit special – a lot of quality early designer board games didn’t credit the person who came up with them, which is a bit of a shame. However, in recent times, the trend has been to actually let players know who came up with the game that sits before them so we can praise (or bemoan) them. A new game, let’s say anything released past 2000, that doesn’t say who’s responsible though? Caveat emptor – in other words… buyer beware.

If you’ve been reading The Little Metal Dog Show since the beginning, you may remember I outed myself as a Doctor Who fan from Day One after reviewing the rather splendid Adventures In Time and Space RPG. It was wonderful, steeped in the mythos of the Whoniverse, and really showed that the developers (the guys at Cubicle 7) cared about their subject matter. Recently though, I played another Doctor Who game that has had a little less care and attention paid to it. It was called Doctor Who: The Time Wars Family Board Game and… well, to be frank, it stinks. I’ve been told by a fair few readers that I’m perhaps a little too positive in my reviews. Looking back, I kind of agree, but I plead the following – I’ve only felt compelled to write about games I enjoy playing. Hopefully this one will balance out the positivity of the last year because this game really deserves a kicking. Let the beasting begin!

Bow ties are cool.

I was initially excited – after all, it’s a trivia game about Doctor Who! I know loads about Doctor Who! Well, actually, it’s only about the latest season of the show (which saw the introduction of Matt Smith as the Doctor and Karen Gillan as his assistant Amy Pond), so Mystery Designer X has limited themselves from the start there. At the start of the game, players are assigned a target amount of monsters to collect by taking a card – this will be a combination of Weeping Angels, Silurians and Daleks. Answering a question correctly will win you one, two or three monster cards which (hopefully) will have the monsters you’re looking for – collect the set and you’re a winner. The main selling point of the game is the ‘innovative’ board which flips over. It’s a bit tricky to describe, so I’d suggest checking out this picture.

The flippy board. Which flips. A lot.

It’s a little like a hardback book with a single page that turns back and forth. Spaces all over the board are linked by little bridges with a few special areas which are the only places you can answer the game’s questions. If you’re on the correct side of the board (with the flippy overlay), these spaces are separated by little walls, but the question spots are accessible – on the opposite side, they will have walls around them that are impenetrable. You’ll have to wait until the overlay comes to your side.

So far, so inoffensive. But then you start to play it and everything falls over, because this game is terrible. It’s packed with problems on many levels. Let’s start with the gameplay, because surely if that’s good, certain things can be forgiven? Well, no. The Time Wars is a dog – it’s slow and dull and… just poor. You move pieces around the board trying to get to the few spots that allow you to answer a question – even then you may not be allowed to because the board has flipped, locking you out of the space you wanted to head into. You can also be trapped in a question space if the board doesn’t play nicely – one person I was playing with was stuck for four turns in a row, an incredibly frustrating experience. Also, despite being billed as a Doctor Who trivia game, a fair few of the questions aren’t about the show. There’s many that just make no sense whatsoever and seem to have been thrown into the game to serve as filler. For a game that is aimed at families, much of the trivia is going to be far too hard for kids to play. Churchill’s middle name anyone?

Gratuitous pictures of Amy Pond will make everything better.

The production quality also falls flat. The board itself looks nice enough, but the flippy overlay refuses to lay flat no matter what side it’s laid on. Perhaps with extended plays it may be better, but it’s annoying. The various monster and question cards are printed up on some of the cheapest stock I’ve ever seen in a game, reminiscent of the football stickers I collected as a child. They’re possibly the flimsiest cards I’ve even seen in a board game, just showing how little care has been put into it. There’s this constant nagging feeling that it’s just been chucked together in a couple of hours. There are printing errors, spelling mistakes, stuff that’s incorrect – Starship UK (from the episode ‘The Beast Below’) is referred to as Spaceship UK throughout, for example – and (worst of all) it has absolutely nothing to do with The Time Wars. They’ve barely been covered in the show itself, so why this game is using the name I have no idea. This is a terrible game, a lazy cash-in that will be played once and passed to the nearest charity shop. Avoid like the Altarian Plague.

Doctor Who: The Time Wars Family Board Game was released in 2010 by Imagination Games – no designer has been credited, surprisingly. Between two and six can play, and it’ll cost you between £15 and £20 (which is much better spent on something like Doctor Who Uno, which is at least vaguely entertaining and comes in a Dalek shaped box).  There’s also the excellent Unofficial Collectible Card Game which I really recommend – it’s a labour of love and great fun to play.

Still Fighting It – Memoir ’44 review

It’s got to be said, I’ve always been a little wary of war gaming. The genre strikes me as pretty complicated and – despite the patience of friends who’ve attempted to teach me a couple of them – they have a tendency to fry my brain. Of course, regular readers of the site will know that occasionally the planets align, pigs fly and I somehow manage to understand how a game works. Admittedly, the game needs to be reasonably straightforward for this to happen, so thank heavens for Days of Wonder and their excellent Memoir ’44.

Based on Richard Borg’s Commands and Colours gaming system, Memoir ’44was actually simple enough to pick up despite the initial daunting feeling I got when I first opened the box. I’ve actually played another one of the games in this series before – Battlelore – but despite the fantasy theme (which I normally enjoy) I really didn’t get on with it. Admittedly I didn’t get the chance to get it to the table as much as I would have liked, but Memoir seems to have hit the spot – right place, right time, I suppose. Over the past few years I’ve become more interested in (relatively) recent world history and this game, of course, is steeped in the stories of World War II.

This is a two player effort (unless you’re taking part in an Overlord game, more of which later on) that sees one side taking the role of the Allied forces, the other Axis. The game’s rulebook contains a selection of scenarios based on actual events for you to play through, seeing if you can either keep history as it occurred or change the past. As well as the rulebook (as with most DoW products) the production values are ridiculously high and you get an awful lot packed in the box. The double-sided board is where your battles will take place, one side a beachfront , the other a countryside setting. You also get a stack of large hex tiles, printed up with all manner of rivers, towns, forests and hillsides – these will be placed on your board before the game starts as mapped out in the scenarios from the book.

An awful lot of stuff in a relatively small box!

Of course, the thing that makes a Days of Wonder game are the quality of the pieces included and Memoir doesn’t disappoint in the slightest. There are nearly 150 actual army units, split between infantry forces, tanks and artillery, along with a stack of wire bales, sandbags and hedgehogs (those spiky things made out of three planks of wood). Everything is remarkably detailed considering their size, and it’s all shared equally between the two colours. It really appeals to your inner 5-year-old, evoking memories of playing with your toy soldiers. Speaking of playing, Memoir is actually rather easy to pick up – the trick is to win through strategy.

Each scenario is explained in the rulebook, complete with a map of where both players’ forces begin. There are objectives to complete in order to claim victory, normally meaning that you have to collect a set amount of medals. These can be attained by occupying a certain area of the board or (more usually) by wiping out an opponent’s unit. The whole game is card driven, with each player manoeuvring around the board using one card per turn. The board itself is divided into three parts – general movement cards show a highlighted section and how many units can be selected, while special actions could mean anything from all armoured units attacking to a sole infantryman running riot.

Combat is resolved using dice and is dependent on a few factors – what you’re attacking, the unit you’re using, the distance between you… thankfully, after a couple of turns it all becomes quite straightforward. If you’re attacking infantry, you’re looking for as many soldiers to appear as possible. Rolling tanks will destroy armoured units, grenades take down anything, while green stars mean no effect. You may also be forced to retreat if a purple flag appears. Explanations in the rulebook are clear and I soon found myself working out rolls myself with no problem. However, if you’re not someone who enjoys a little randomness in their gaming, Memoir ’44 is probably a game you should pass on. You’re reliant on luck, and even the most strategic mind can be scuppered by poor dice. On the flip side of that, games are quick, with simpler scenarios often coming in under an hour – ideal for that quick gaming fix that’s a little meatier – and you can plot your revenge swiftly!

I mentioned the Overlord game earlier, which is a variant of the standard game that allows for more players. Of course, with more players comes more equipment, meaning you’ll need more than one set to use. Multiple people on each side are led by a General who secretly issues orders which are then performed on the now-oversided board. These battles are much longer but take an already excellent game and turn it into something truly special. If you get the opportunity to try out an Overlord game I really recommend you do so – the investment of time is more than outweighed by the experience.

However, two-player Memoir ’44 is how it will normally visit your gaming table, and you’ll be hard pressed to find a better introduction to war games. Sure, it’s a far cry from the deeper simulations like Advanced Squad Leader, but Richard Borg’s vision of WWII battles is in no way a throwaway affair. Going up against an experienced opponent will challenge even the most hardcore – after all, you never know what the enemy is thinking. If you still need convincing, Days of Wonder currently have an online version of Memoir available from their website. Download it from this page, register for the open beta test and away you go. See you on the battlefield!

Memoir ’44 is produced by Days of Wonder and was first released in 2004. Designed by Richard Borg, the base game is available for around £30 both online and at your local game shop. If you enjoy it, you may also like the huge range of expansions, from Air Support units to new boards depicting other battlefields from World War II, as well as a book detailing full campaigns. These expansions are in no way necessary though, and that base game will keep you entertained for a long time.

Episode 13 now up (complete with prize giveaway)!

Show number thirteen! And there’s a competition!! So many exclamation marks!!!

The final show of 2010 (right click that link for a direct download, also available on iTunes) has a trio of interviews and, as it’s the time of year that I most remember playing games with my family when I was young, I thought it would be good to look into the more mainstream side of the hobby. First up I got to speak to Leigh Anderson, the author of a new book called The Games Bible. We talk about social gaming (which is pretty much perfect for this time of year) and how the idea for it came about.  I got to speak to Holly Gramazio from Hide and Seek about her company’s newly released Boardgame Remix Kit as well: from new rulesets to mashups of classics, the BGR is entertaining as well as packed with brilliant ideas – check out their site here (as well as their App on your iPhone or iPad). There’s also discussion with Kevin Tostado, the writer and director of the brilliant new documentary Under The Boardwalk. The film tells the story of Monopoly as well as looking at the road to the 2009 World Championships, culminating in a very tense final… Even if you’re not a big fan of the game (and we all know how it divides the boardgaming community) the film is incredibly entertaining and beautifully put together. Here’s a trailer that explains a little more:

Now, how about a little extra? Fancy a copy of the film for yourself? Maybe one that’s been signed by Kevin himself? Well… it just so happens that Kevin sent a copy over to give away to a Little Metal Dog Show listener! If you’d like to get your hands on it, there’s a very simple question to answer (if you do a bit of digging). I just want to know the year that Monopoly first came out in the USA. Do some investigating and email your answer to littlemetaldog@gmail.com- the winner will then be chosen randomly from all correct answers on the morning of December 26, 2010 and announced here on the site (as well as on twitter). They’ll also be contacted directly so they don’t miss anything. It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, either – the DVD is region free – so get your entry in! You can also earn an extra entry by leaving a review of the show on iTunes and letting me know your ID there.

Thanks (as always) for listening. If you want to get in touch with the show, the email address is littlemetaldog@gmail.com (which isn’t just for competition entries – questions, feedback and anything else is gratefully appreciated). Chris and I are also on Twitter: I’m @idlemichael and he’s @RallyIV. Have a great festive season and a wonderful new year, wherever you are!