I’m extraordinarily tired, so what follows may make painfully little sense. Before I collapse in to my bed however I would like to quickly record my impressions of a wonderful weekend spent at a games convention called Consequences F. Don’t stop reading just yet though — this is not just about my usual roleplaying games hobby.
This weekend I have been Lord Emsworth of Blandings Castle, a spiritualist medium in 1920′s Arkham attending a gallery opening, a troubled English aristocrat in 1938 England, a brave (but rash) young Viking warrior trying to prove himself, an industrialist on a backwater planet, an AI programmed to open a stargate, and … well the list goes on!
You may be familiar with the idea of murder mystery games, often played at dinner parties, where people dress up and play a character, trying to solve a mystery. They are a type of roleplaying game, but unlike “tabletop” games which are played with a group of frreinds, dice pencil and paper around (as the name implies) a table, these “freeforms” are a form of LARP (live action roleplaying). You walk around, talk to other players in character, and physically interact. Unlike the kind of LARP you occasionally see on Facebook or even the TV, these games are played without bashing one another with foam rubber weaponry. I think the Americans call this “theater style gaming”, but I’m not sure that is much more use, unless you realise all the actors in the game have freewill, and the script is determined by their actions and in character actions. No one knows whether the mystery will be solved, your chap will get the girl, your pig will win the contest, you starship will survive the battle; until it happens! A hard working teams of referees (GM’s) write the games, and cast characters, and you take your role and try and achieve your goals while everyone else tries to achieve theirs! The rules cover the outcome of inevitable conflict, but your ability to piece together information, understand clues, scheme and manipulate others or just convince folks your character is a nice person, that is what determines how you do.
Anyway Consequences (so called as it is held nine months after another games convention for tabletop games called “Conception”) is an annual freeform game convention held down in Naish, near Christchurch, Dorset. The site is a holiday camp, and all the players stay in chalets on site under bleak November skies, gathering in the main building to play whichever of the many games on offer have taken their fancy.
Now I can’t afford to go on holiday: I really, really can’t. However this year I went to another great gaming convention dedicated (mainly) to tabletop roleplaying games called Continuum up in Leicester, with my friends Lloyd and Hugh. There we met some lovely people (who shall remain nameless – I’m not going to name any other names, because people may not want their gaming hobby exposed ) who persuaded me that after five years of reading about Consequences this year we should all attend. So we saved up £78 each for a chalet for four nights (!!!) , Hugh agreed to drive, and we paid our £30 booking fees to attend the con. I had always thought Consequences sounded pricey – but that was because I mistook £312 or whatever a chalet costs as being the cost per person. Nope that is the cost per chalet, each of which has two twin and two double rooms — so in theory you could have 8 people stay for four nights for just £312 – less than a tenner per person per night. The trick is to go with a friend or two, and as the chalets are self catering this is possibly the cheapest holiday I have ever had, and i specialise in pretty cheap holidays when I taken them at all.
OK, so what happened? Well about a month ago, having paid up front in July, I suddenly realised I had best sign up for some games. I chose Starship Aries, a Star Trek style game, Dulce et decorum est (set in 1938 during the Munich Crisis), Midsummer Mischief based upon the characters of PG Wodehouse, Gallery of Shades a Cthulhu game set in the 1920′s and Come Hel or Hiawatha, a game set in Viking Vinland. There were many many more games, Tolkien inspired, Science Fiction – the space marines were very colourful to look at, and even some games set in Zelazny’s fantasy worlds of Amber. Hugh played a cyberpunk game Marlowe 2020, and a different one, Collision Imminent, set on a spaceship (he had a great time in both!)
OK my experience: after Continuum where the costuming had astonished me – people REALLY dress up – I was dreading having to costume for 5 games. However, I need not have worried as much – while my costumes were fairly cheap, as I borrowed, scrounged and improvised what I needed, anything from perfect historical dress to theatrical minimalism – a pair of mirror shades say for cyberpunk – was perfectly acceptable, and some folks who stepped in at the last moment for games did not costume at all. I could not costume for Gallery of Shades because I did not see my character till the day of the game, so I used the same outfit for the 1920′s as I had for 1938 — and that worked fine, but actually I found that dressing as a character and having a single prop (a book, a cabbage, whatever) helped me get in to character and probably enhanced my enjoyment of the game!
Getting down to Christchurch was a nightmare. Lloyd went ahead, and Mark a friend we met at Continuum who was sharing the chalet with us also drove down earlier. Hugh and I planned to set out quite early, but by mid afternoon gales and widespread flooding not to mention torrential rain had closed many roads, and we finally waited till 9.30pm before setting off, missing the first half day of the con. Luckily neither of us had signed up to any games till Friday. When we set off we agreed if conditions were too bad on Salisbury Plain we would just turn back, and the trip was to be honest pretty harrowing. The worst of the weather had passed over by the time we set out, but I honestly did not think we would be able to make it. Still by Marlborough I was more confident, and once we passed Salisbury things improved, and we arrived on site by half midnight.
Of course we were too late to sign in: luckily I knew the chalet number, and the others were there with keys, but if you have ever looked at the ranks of chalets in a holiday park in pouring rain in the teeth of a howling gale a hundred yards from the cliffs down to the English Channel on an icy November night, wondering just where ML65 might be, well you will appreciate our concern as we stood in the car park looking at a scene devoid of human activity, outside a locked reception!
Just then Lloyd hailed us. Quite by chance he had gone back to some folks chalet for drinks, and considerably the worse for wear had got lost wandering back, and had returned to Reception to get his bearings. We fell upon him like a guardian angel sent to deliver us – we might have kissed him had he not seemed so bewildered at our great joy in seeing him a few hours after we last had in Cheltenham. He directed us to the chalet, and we unloaded our many bags of costume, food, and necessities.
Wow! Chalets are far more luxurious than I recall. We had two toilets, a proper bath, a fully equipped kitchen, a TV, and it was all toasty warm. Despite the late hour we knocked up some food, greeted Mark with equal joy, and played a quick game of Dominion (a board game) before crashing out. I really recommend Naish as a holiday venue, though obviously it costs more in high season.
Friday morning saw me up at 8am, ready for the 9am start of Starship Aries, a game run by friends of mine. It was what is called a “horde” game; a very clever device by which some folks play one character for the whole game ( the starship bridge crew in this case) and others like me had up to 5 different roles to play, sequentially. I really enjoyed this — I was Ambassador Lexington, out to make contact with a frontier world, then I was … anyway I can’t really say. The wonderful thing about freeforms is you can run them many times with different players — and I can’t give spoilers, because I am sure this one will run again. Costuming required was also minimal – any black trousers and something red as a shirt , or blue if you were bridge crew. This worked just fine. The game lasted 3 or 4 hours, but I had no time to grow bored, as I had to keep changing roles and the fiendishly clever plot was worthy of (several) Star Trek episodes. I took part in a coup, failed to keep my secret relationship with my professor very secret, and almost destroyed the Starship Aries: but they are not spoilers, as if the game runs again whoever runs the characters I had will do things completely differently I’m sure.
After Starship Aries it was back to the chalet to dress in white tie, or some semblance thereof, for dinner at Markyate Manor, home to the Viscount Markyate. The Athertons in 1938 are a troubled family, and Geoffrey who I played was certainly troubled with reason. I am afraid I can say almost nothing about him or what transpired, but this was emotionally intense dramatic gaming about people more than plot, and was one of the best games I have ever played of any type, freeform, tabletop or whatever. It helps (if a chap at least) if you have some knowledge of the period, and the politics and issues of the time, but after the first half hour that need faded for me as Geoffrey’s own personal issues and goals became increasingly paramount. The character sheet was brief, and I had no clearly laid out goals; nor did it tell me how Geoffrey felt about things, leaving that for me to decide. I knew facts about what had happened in the past – my own response to them was however left to me as Geoffrey, and a few very simple events quickly spun me in to a web of intrigue, mystery, complicated romantic and familial relationships and an increasingly rising pace until I suddenly heard a referee call “5 minutes left” and realised I had spent three or more hours completely immersed in being Geoffrey, and that I needed to do something to try and resolve the desperate situation I found myself in. Geoffrey had a final scene talking with his father, a terribly fumbled pass at a French opera star as he stalked out, and a rather harrowing leave taking of his family. Even I don’t know exactly what he did after he shouted his final sardonic farewell to the assembled guests and walked out in to the night. Epic stuff! I’m no actor, and I hope my bumbling at times portrayal of Geoffrey did not spoil anyone else game, but I did really get in to this one, and liked the character a great deal, whatever his (many) flaws. Dulce et decorum est is certainly an apt title for this game: very highly recommended.
After a quick meal in the chalet I was back to gaming, this time in the 1920′s for Gallery of Shades. I had mixed feeling about this one. I have loved HP Lovecraft since boyhood, love the Cthulhu Mythos, and am particularly fond of Robert W Chambers King in Yellow cycle. I have written a book for Call of Cthulhu; I own almost everything for that game, and loved Cthulhu Live, running a very successful Cthulhoid larp with it over seven weekends in the year 2000. Yet recently Cthulhu has become a constant geek cliché, and is endlessly parodied, and HPL has become increasingly reinterpreted in more and more parodic and playful ways. There is even an episode of Supernatural I am told that references Lovecraft and the game Call of Cthulhu! Furthermore I know from experience of running my own games that doing scenarios about the king in Yellow and Hastur cycle are extremely hard, if the players are to have any meaningful input in to the outcome. I fear my reservations on this as least proved true.
I finally signed up for Gallery of Shades because the referee is known to be outstanding, and the level of game prep in terms of the game environment was very high. That however is no replacement for a pre-game issue at least the day before of a character sheet so one can dress for the part, and think about how to play the role. I actually liked the character, someone who had experienced an apparition with an enigmatic message and had become a medium — but I would have asked to play a very different role if I had the chance to fill in a casting questionnaire. The reason why was the fist few minutes of the game, when none of us were sure if we were “in character” or “out of character”. Some poor soul asked me “what can you tell me about the theories of ghosts?” I was really pleased someone was interested in my research and replied in character (just in case) limiting my response to the state of the topic in 1927. I fear I may have bored them to death — this essay of mine is pretty much what I related, though it brings the survey of the field up to date. At least I was not asked to play a parapsychologist (though Tischner does not coin that phrase I think until 1929 — So I mean psychical researcher I guess )
There was another moment once the game was in full swing a while later that shows the perils of trying to keep in character and out of character knowledge separate – my character had been intensely religious in youth, so when it came to the inevitable debate with a vicar suspicious of my spiritualism, I was ready to quote scripture and make theological arguments. The poor vicar’s player of course can not be expected to counter that, as they have probably not thought about the issues quite as much as an Anglican ghost hunter like the real life me — but they took it in good grace, and we laughed about it, and broke off the conversation when it was clear that I was going to go the full ten rounds. I still felt a bit of an arse about it, and thereafter limited myself strictly to what it said on my character sheet, however likely I thought it the character would know something about Spiritualism.
Anyway this started out as a great game: and it ended wonderfully, with some incredible effects. However… I am not one to critique others games. I have written what I am sure were lousy games, and some players probably avoid me after one bad experience. The set up here though became intensely frustrating – it was not that we could not do things – we did all kinds of things, and there were some wonderful pieces of characterisation, the suffragette was amazing, the decadent flapper Greta a perfect mix of boredom, indifference and sensual amorality, the utterly insane (literally) lady in the burgundy dress was magnificent, and Walters, Bream and others fine characters and great fun to play with – the PI and I had our moments too – nothing wrong with the characters, they were all great, or the players – nope, the problem was we felt we could not do anything to resolve the issue we faced. The game went on an hour to long, because the person who needed to act in a certain way to provoke the next scene did not realise it, and despite my best efforts to find the catalyst, it seemed a very long time till the resolution, while a few players appeared to me bored and not committed, as they felt there was no way to influence the outcome?
This is a game by one of the finest freeform authors there is: it has a magnificent climax, but in disempowering the characters, and driving them to madness frustration and a realisation of cosmic futility, it is important not to alienate the players. That is a very hard trick to pull off. For a few I don’t think it worked. This was a first run, and Gallery of Shades should certainly run again, but it needs a few minor tweaks to give those battling to save their characters sanity a sense of small gains, and large losses, rather than a static brick wall of frustration and inevitable doom, no matter how Lovecraftian that may be in essence. Recommended for future runs, but needs a tiny bit of work. I enjoyed it though.
Friday night the Belgian contingent threw a wonderful chalet party, and I got to chat to some of the other delegates I had not met before. This was a great part of the whole experience. I woke up late on Saturday, perhaps at ten, and I had taken a whole day off gaming. A friend came down to visit us, and we enjoyed a long walk with Lloyd around the beach and cliffs, and down the “bunny” and back. In hindsight I probably could have played another game on Saturday – everyone has their own endurance on how many games they can face in a day,and two I think might be my limit really; perhaps tiredness leads one to not enjoy a game as much as you should.
Saturday night however was to prove amazing, for me at least. I was off to Blandings Castle – my castle in fact, for I was Lord Emsworth, and with the county fete just four days away I was determined the Empress of Blandings my prize pig would take the prize. Midsummer Mischief is a perfect slice of pure Wodehouse, and whoever the authors were, I wish to thank them for this heavenly madness. There referees did an outstanding job, time flew by (one day an hour, and four hours till the end) and one had a real sense of freedom to scheme, plot, interact and do some pretty odd and very very silly things.
Now one of my biggest fears in any game where I get a chance to play an over the top character is that I will spoil it for others with my rather exuberant performance in the role – I certainly never wanted it to get too silly, because then comic characterisation fails as absurdism creeps in. It can work in a Monty Python sketch, but there is one episode of Father Ted that I felt became just marginally too surreal: for me a brilliant comic character is like Basil in Fawlty Towers extreme but (just about) believable. I’m hoping I managed to stay just the right side of the line, and keep dear old Emsworth eccentric but acceptably so, rather than making him a thin parody! However some players clearly liked my Emsworth, which genuinely surprised me, but I guess it was my sheer love of the character and the enthusiasm and real joy I found in playing the role that shone through, whatever the deficiency in my “acting”. Beach was absolutely perfect in the role, Connie and the other two sisters present were fantastic, and Pru and her bloody cats, Vee and Aggie and their romantic arrangements, blasted Freddie my son and the insufferable Popjoy all kept me running around in increasing panic, while bloody Huxley — I can say no more. Maudie the librarian was great, and Lord Vosper with the pig kept me so so paranoid, while that slime Parsoe-Parsoe (beautifully played) outwitted me as I expected. I should have asked Gally to biff him!
This is an older game, and the use of item cards can to me be distracting, as can the multiple envelopes and sub-systems of the rules certain players need to know, but it all works perfectly. I don’t recall speaking to a ref once in Dulce in decorum est – there was simply no need, the game ran itself. Gallery of Shades needed a couple more refs, Starship Aries was just right, but the three referees in Midsummer Mischief were worked off their feet and served admirably. They were marvellous, simply marvellous. I can not give a best game, as they were so VERY different, but Dulce and Midsummer are certainly among the best games I have ever played, and if you love Wodehouse you must play this game!
Saturday night saw an amazing chalet party, and astonishingly good hospitality, plenty of booze (which I did not partake of ) and great company. I’d like to thank our hosts, and hope the chalet survived the influx! I was home by 4.30am and in bed by five — shame I had to be up at eight thirty today…
The final game of the weekend for me was Come Hel or Hiawatha, a fun game set in Vinland. Some Vikings have landed in the wake of an earlier failed expedition, and met the natives, the Skraelings. Plots involve the tense negotiations between the two parties, tempered by romances, personal ambition and the epic consumption of mead. Strange things are afoot, and my character was a rash young Viking warrior, who I played as wildly impulsive, hotheaded and not exactly bright. I hope that I did not take it too far, but I did really enjoy the character, and while he had the same name (Gunnar) as my dad, they were very very different Vikings! My character married the girl of his dreams and gave up on a career as a warrior to farm ducks. I called them all Anders, in case you were wondering.
This is a gem of a game, that could be played slightly comically, or totally straight. We played it straight, with my character providing occasional moments of mild comic relief from the tense negotiations. Well crafted, definitely worth playing!
OK, so we left after the closing ceremony, Hugh driving back through driving rain, but finding time to take in the Rufus Stone, Stonehenge and Avebury en route. I had a great weekend, and if anyone is interested in learning more about Consequences or Freeforming do check it out or email me: a good place to start with friends at home might be these excellent games.
A wonderful memorable weekend, but I’m off to bed.
OK, so this year for Christmas I took a huge risk and bought Becky a boardgame Ticket To Ride Europe. I am happy to say this proved to be an excellent choice! If you enjoy games, whether a hard-core gamer, or are just someone who likes to play something with friends other than Chess or Bridge or Strip Poker from time to time, I’d seriously consider buying this game. Even if you normally don’t like games, give it a go! And do read the review – because I include details on how you can try it out from the comfort of your own pc for free…
How do you explain TTR? It’s a family boardgame, which anyone aged over twelve should be able to understand the rules of an play, and intelligent kids from ten up should handle it – hell I was playing Avalon Hill’s Diplomacy at that age! It is certainly not Snakes and Ladders, but actually I think it is much less complicated than say Monopoly, and to me many many times more absorbing. I’m not a fan of long drawn out boardgames, and I quite like the mission cards in Risk which let the game end earlier if you meet your objectives — and yes, this game is easier to learn and more enjoyable to my mind than Risk. In fact I think it may be my favourite boardgame ever — and an avid Diplomacy fan like me has to admit that I may even prefer it to that great game. I’ll come back to that at the end of the review. Well this game can be played with 2 to 5 players, with the 2 player game being as good as the 3, 4, or 5 – just faster – and all of thm can be played in under an hour once everyone knows the rules, and maybe less.
So how does it work?
Ticket to Ride Europe is an amazingly simple but elegant design. You start with a game board (fairly large, will fit on a coffee table though- normal boardgame size I guess) depicting a map of Europe in 1901 (Spring 1901 perhaps?). Place names are generally rendered in the local language – Vienna is Wien, and so on. The map is fairly geographically accurate, with a few places positions nudged a few miles to fit better on the board, but t will certainly teach you geography, and may actually be useful in that respect. The map is attractive, and covered in pretty coloured railway lines – well potential railway lines, waiting to be built.
These routes are then built on by the players taking it in turns to lay their little plastic train carriages, to connect cities. It sounds deadly dull, but it isn’t. It’s utterly fascinating! To build a line you have to play cards, and you on each turn can either take two cards, from a face up selection, or from the deck for a random choice, to add to your hand. Alternatively you can play cards from your hand in sets to build lines (there is a third and fourth option mentioned below). So from London to Edinburgh can be built by playing a set of four orange cards, you have collected, or four blacks. Once someone has built a line that’s it : the route is claimed, and other players can’t build there, with the exception of double tracks, which you can build anyway – like London to Edinburgh – if you have the other colour. In the two player game only one set of double tracks can be built on. Lines do not have to be contigous: you can build anywhere on the baord you have the cards to play. Grey routes are wild, any coloured set of the relevant size can be played to complete them, but having the longest track does give you extra points and aid greatly in winning.
As well as the pink, white, green, yellow, orange, red and black cards their are also locomotive cards which are wild and can be played anywhere. They can also prove useful for building tunnels: I won’t explain tunnels and ferries here, but the rules are simple and elegant. The full rules can be downloaded here if you are interested, but it’s much easier to understand them if you have the map and pieces in front of you: neither Becky nor I were very excited when we first read the rules before we tried to play. (In fact she said it looked like “a game for trainspotters”). Now we are both addicted to this game! New features over the original Ticket to Ride (itself avery fun game, set in the USA 1901) are Tunnels, Ferries and Stations which add a little complexity but are enjoyable.
Building lines earns you points: byut the game is far more than this, and there is a nother vital deck of cards I have not yet touched upon – the Tickets. Tickets are destinations, and come in to two types – long routes and other routes. There are only six long routes in the original game, and this is perhaps the only weakness of the game as sold – you soon (after the maybe forty odd games I have now played – I told you it was addictive) -get to know all the long routes off by heart. There is an expansion pack which gives morte destination cards including 9 more long routes, but we have not bought it yet, as the game is very playable without it. These Ticket cards are at the heart of the game: you start with one long route and three short routes, randomly drawn, and get points for connecting these cities. You cn reject a couple if you want, and take a risk and draw more in the game (drawing three of which you must keep one is the third play option on a turn.
The final option is building a station – these allow you to run a service along a short stretch of a rival’s line, say Essen to Kobenhavn (Copenhagen for the Danish impaired among you, and I mean the language not my friends!). This costs you four points at the end of the game, but can be well worth it. There is an excellent tutorial and guide here on the publisher’s website, with loads of photos, a fun video which will show you the basics, , and all kinds of other great stuff.
Winning the Game
The player with the most points at the end wins, and you gain points by laying “track” – for example 1 point for a one stretch, 7 points for a four piece track and 21 points for the 8 piece tunnel between Stockholm and Petrograd (presumably actually a mix of tunnels and ferries, doubt anyone would try and bridge or tunnel under the Baltic there in reality, probably a line through Finalmnd off the top of the map?). Completing tickets earns you more points, and your long route is worth 21 or 20 alone – but if you manage a route from Kobenhavn to Erzurzum in Turkey, Palermo to Moscow, Athens to Edinburgh or Brest to Petrograd to give just three possibilities then you deserve it! Actually these long routes nearly always get completed – if you don’t complete a route, you LOSE the points instead of adding them, so you will lose 40 or 42 points from what you would have had if you made it.
The final source of points if for the longest continual stretch of of track built: ten points. Final scores range from about 150 (by me) to the lowest score I have ever seen, 30, achieved by Ed, though I think Becky managed that on an USA 1901 online game last night!
Fast and absorbing, especially in the 2 player game. Even in the 5 player you are usually busy planning your next move till your turn comes round again, though if another player is absorbed in an interminable text message conversation with a girlfriend on their turn or are a bit slow of understanding owing to being absorbed in something else like say cooking, it can be annoying to have to prompt them – but it’s the same with anything, and such people should be banished from civilisation (to Buxton, I know Ed never reads my blog so he won’t notice this!) anyway.
There is a lot of room for tactics and a large degree of skill, but also with the drawing of cards plenty of room for dumb luck and of the best laid plan to fall through. Careful play can usually mitigate this: Becky still wins most games, but we have all won a few, and DC won his very first game, which may have been through skill. The game is however quite low on interaction: you don’t trade cards, and the only real interaction comes in blocking each other routes by building where someone else needs to go. Experienced players see opportunities to do this more: they know the routes and important bits of track — (hint: the two piece green routes from Frankfurt to Essen and Rostov to Kharkhov are usually worth grabbing fast) — but even if you realise that Bob is building from Athens to Edinburgh, it is not really worth trying to block him, except possibly in 2 player game. You only have 45 pieces of track — and you will need all of them. In online play deliberately blocking someone is considered unsporting by many players anyway: wasting track messing about with your opponents planned routes is rarely worth it anyway, as you are more likely to win by going for your own destinations. I tend to like highly interactive games like Diplomacy: I still love TTR.
How Can I Try It Out for Free?
Go to the publishers website, Days of Wonder. Make sure you have read the rules – I put the link above. If you register on the Days of Wonder site you can play online free, I think four free games, which usually take about twenty to thirty minutes each to complete – online play seems much faster. You should be able to work it out quite quickly, and so long as you understand tunnels and ferries and stations (to play a station online drag and drop a card over the city you want to build on, and hit ok when it asks you: to play track drag and drop card on the route, and to take tickets double click on the Ticket cards.) Look for a game called For Beginners – and remeber that Ticket to Ride USA is the easiest to learn and play (no tunnels stations or ferries to worry about) so start with that. If you like it you can buy the online versions – owning a Days of Wonder boardgame gives you a ten per cent discount, and buying from the US store in dollars it was less than a tenner to buy Ticket to Ride and Ticket to Ride Europe online versions. It might take you a little while to work out how to join a game etc, but the tutorials are excellent and you are made to play a solo game against robot players (bots) first to make sure you get the hang of it when you register. So why not try it? I’m registered as CJ23 on the site, so do add me to your buddies when you join and I’ll play you if we are online at the same time.
Fast, addictive, plenty of strategy and a lot of fun – go play trains!
If you enjoyed this review you may wish to read my review of Agricola here