Saturday, October 29, 2011

Dark Tower Lives!

I'm so excited! Back in 1981, Milton Bradley (now owned by Hasbro) released a board game called Dark Tower. I was 9 at the time, but around the time I was 10-11, I got this game for Christmas. It was the most amazing thing I had ever seen! The board was circular and had 3-D plastic buildings that snapped into it, 3-D keys, flags, and even a miniature plastic dragon. That in itself was unusual for a mainstream board game at the time, but the kicker was the huge dark tower (get it?) in the center of the board. The tower was electronic and took care of movement, combat, exploration, you name it. Keep in mind, this was before the era of amazing computer games. This board game may has well have been from the future as far as I was concerned. I played it all the time.

I don't remember what happened to it, but at some point it disappeared. I suppose my parents either threw it out or sold it at some point. When I got back into board games a few years ago, I entertained the idea of buying a used copy of this game, but it is very hard to find. And when you do find it, it sells for $200-300. And I'm not even sure if the electronics would still work after all this time. And, in all honesty, the game may not be as fun as I remember and that's not something I wanted to come to terms with after forking over $300.

Then tonight I stumbled across a free online version of the game at the Well of Souls Dark Tower Fan Page. I'm off to try it out, and at least this way if it turns out not to be as fun as it was almost 30 years ago, it won't have cost me anything.

For those that are interested, here's a direct link to the Flash version at Well of Souls: Dark Tower Online Flash Version.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Halloween Heroscape

Just in time for Halloween, I posted pictures of a custom Halloween Set my son and I made for Heroscape, about 4 to 5 years ago. It's over on our customizing blog, Droid Factory Customs.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

New Domain Name

I now have a dedicated domain name for this blog. You can reach it directly at The old URL will continue to work, so nothing should (hopefully) break.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Why Heroscape Will Always Be My Favorite Game

For many people, their "gateway game" was something like Settlers of Catan or Carcassonne. Or perhaps it was something like Dominion, like for my friend Christine. For me, however, the game that definitely got me into the hobby was Heroscape. Maybe not the most traditional gateway game, but I mean....who can argue with a board game that looks like this:

It started in the Spring of 2007. Heroscape had been out for a little over 2 years, but I had never heard of it at that point. My then 5 year old son, Evan, saw an ad for a Heroscape set in a newspaper flier. He begged me to get it for him! I looked at the ad and saw aliens, ninjas, cowboys, robots, and WWII soldiers all in the same set. My first thought, honestly, was "what a messed up piece of crap!". I set it aside and told him "no". Over the next few weeks, that ad suspiciously made its way to my desk over and over again. Each time, I set it aside. Then one day, my son and I were at Fry's and they had the Rise of the Valkyrie set and the Fortress of the Archkyrie set (the castle expansion) on sale for a ridiculously low price. I can't remember now how much, but it was something like $20 for both. Needless to say, my son was ecstatic and begged me to get it for him. Finally, inevitably, my will caved and I said "okay, we'll try it". I bought one of each set.
Rise of the Valkyrie
Fortress of the Archkyrie           

When we got home, I cracked open the rulebook and read the rules for the Basic Game. It was quite simple, overly simplified in fact. My son and I played 2 quick games but became disheartened at the idea of a massive, red, fire-breathing dragon being killed by a single hit from a samurai. Yes, I was even more convinced now than ever - this game sucked.
A typical Heroscape card
So we took a break while I read through the Master Game rules. Hmmm.....this was interesting. These rules were not very complicated at all, and they added a lot of depth to game. They were, in fact, quite elegant. And better yet, they looked easy enough for my 5 year old to grasp, outside of being able to read all the powers on the cards. At that point he could read well enough to read the stats and the names of the figures, but not quite well enough to parse all of the special power text. But still...perhaps I had misjudged this little game?After a while, we set up another scenario and, this time, played with the Master Game rules. Wow, what a difference! Now this game was fun! We played game after game that day, well into the night, until my wife made us stop so we could put our son to bed.
The next day, we broke out the castle set and played even more games. Then at one point, we got stuck on the specifics of a rule so I decided to search for an answer online and came across a little website that would change my gaming life forever - I got my rule question answered (the members on Heroscapers were very prompt and helpful), I noticed people on the forums talking about figures that we didn't have in our set. Huh?! This game had expansions?! Off we went to scour every local Wal-Mart, Target, and Toys 'R Us. Suffice it to say, over the next year our collection grew to include one of everything that had been released to that point. By now, our Heroscape collection filled a big Rubbermaid tub. Then we started seeing the value of having multiples of the common figures and terrain, so our collection grew even more. Eventually, we were forced to move our 3-4 Rubbermaid tubs into the garage. Today, we have an entire room dedicated to gaming, over half of which is exclusively taken up by Heroscape terrain and figures. One day, I will post pictures of our gaming room and the amazing work my wife did with helping us put it together.Then we started making customs. Oh, the customs...that was so much fun! My son and I made more and more. To this day, we have made around 800 customs (which I will post at a later date). Roughly half of those are in the superhero genre and the other half are Star Wars, with a few other random ones thrown into the mix.
Eventually I became more and more involved in the customs community, which is a thriving community on Heroscapers, even today after the game is no longer in print. I was part of community customs projects and even helped to found some of them - TNT, NM24, HoSSC3G, and C3V/SOV, just to name a few. C3G and C3V, in particular, have unofficially replaced the official expansions now that the game is out of print, and have done a remarkable job of it. But most importantly, I made some great friends and became part of a welcoming and productive community. There are many fine members whom I admire and respect - Griffin, A3n, Hahma, Spidey'tilIDie, NecroBlade, GrungeBob, Balantai, tcglkn, whitestuff, Sherman Davies, Matt Helm, Allskulls, and many, many more. I almost hesitate mentioning names for fear of forgetting some that shouldn't be forgotten. In particular, though, I would like to call out one specific member that, in many ways, became sort of a mentor for me, and in every way became a friend, Nick (IAmBatman on Heroscapers). Without his guidance, friendship, and humor, my time on Heroscapers would not have been nearly as enjoyable or fulfilling.
In addition to getting involved with customs, I also got to know, both personally and by reputation, several of the designers and playtesters behind Heroscape. The best testament to their skill and hard work is the fact that I would buy any game they put out without knowing anything else about it. In fact, I have already done so - Summoner Wars by Colby Dauch and Battleship Galaxies by Craig Van Ness. I bought both without ever reading reviews or even knowing anything at all about them, purely based on my knowledge of their designers. I was not disappointed in the least. I know there are other games by the same people, as well as by some of the other designers and playtesters, and rest assured these are all on my short list, as well.
So this is why Heroscape is my favorite game. Between the bonding experience with my young son, the wonderful friends I made, and the amazing community I became a part of, nothing will ever displace Heroscape's position in my heart and mind. If you ever look for me on Heroscapers, I go by the username GreyOwl. Feel free to look me up! Note that I have, unfortunately, been on hiatus from the site and all the customs projects for a while now, due to personal life issues (you can read a little about that here, and maybe you can even help out two kids in need!), but I still hold out the hope of returning one day to rejoin the community. It is always on the back of my mind, and I constantly resist the urge to go to the site for fear of immediately getting sucked back in before the time is right.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Two of my favorite gaming partners, my niece and nephew, need help getting their first bikes. They've had a rough childhood, and though things are on the path to improvement now, it's not always easy to provide them with the things they need. Please go read their story at and help out with your time or money if you can spare it. Thank you!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The History of Rome

While not technically about board games, I find that most gamers also tend to be history buffs (especially wargamers). I came across this excellent podcast last week and thought I'd share it. It's called The History of Rome (old location - new location is here) by Mike Duncan.

The History of Rome is a weekly podcast, available for free both on Mike's blog and on iTunes. As of this writing, there are 154 episodes (actually, a little more because some are split into parts "a" and "b"). He follows the entire history of Rome chronologically. I'm currently on Episode 19. It's a very down-to-earth narrative and isn't dull or  boring by any means. Mike injects just the right amount of humor into his podcast. So for anyone interested in history or Rome, I strongly recommend checking out this podcast!

Friday, October 14, 2011

Cargo Noir - First Impressions

Last night I played my first game of Cargo Noir, a recent release from Days of Wonder (as a side note, off to the right you can see the three most recent games I've played). For those that don't know, Days of Wonder is the publisher of some very well-regarded games that have quickly solidified their position as "classics". Chief among these is 2004's Ticket to Ride, but not far behind are games like Memoir '44 (2004) and Small World (2009). As a general rule of thumb, if a game says "Days of Wonder" on it, it's probably a good game. Cargo Noir is their most recent release. From their website, this is how they describe the theme behind the game:
Cargo Noir is a game of illicit trading in which players run "families" who traffic in smuggled goods. Designed by Serge Laget, the game takes place in the thrilling and evocative setting of 1950's film noir.
Now this is a cool theme for a game! It isn't cliché, and therefore a refreshing change from the run-of-the-mill fantasy and sci-fi games (though I still love me some fantasy and sci-fi games!). It's also a nice change in that everyone plays a "bad guy", but without the dark overtones of a game like Chaos in the Old World. Cargo Noir is essentially a family-friendly way to be a bad guy.

I played the game with my 9-year old son, who has been an avid gamer since he was 5 and easily grasps most games we play, and my wife, who rarely and only hesitantly ventures into the world of designer board games. She's fairly at ease with the aforementioned Ticket to Ride and also Carcassonne, and will occasionally dabble in Dominion. When I opened the box, the first thing that struck me was the high-quality of all the components. The bright colors, the great artwork, and the quality materials really make it feel like the game is worth what you paid for it. Of course, high production values are to be expected from a company like Days of Wonder, and they usually don't disappoint.

All of the components of Cargo Noir

I won't go into all the details of how the game is played, because I personally hate reviews that recite the rules. I want an impression of the game, not all the details. However, if you are interested in the rules, Days of Wonder has them available for free on their website.

To start, each player picks one of 5 crime families - Casa Nostra (Italian), Al Kabash (Middle Eastern), Ti Pot Tong (Chinese), Tres Sombreros (Mexican), or Kali Pakora (Indian). There is no gameplay difference between the families except for artwork and the color of your ships, so just pick whatever you like best.

The board has the Black Market and a Casino, both in Macao, in the center, surrounded by several other ports. The number of ports that are "open" (used in the game) vs. "closed" (not used) depends on the number of players.

There is also a variety of illicit cargo, such as cars, weapons, alcohol, gold, jewels, cigarettes, etc. Each player starts with some cargo, some money, and three cargo ships.

The goal of the game is to collect the most victory points, through Victory Cards, before a set number of rounds ends the game. You gain Victory Cards by trading in your illicit cargo in sets that are either all the same (all uranium, for example) or all different. The more items that are in your set, the more it's worth. So how do you get your illicit cargo to start this process? You try to outbid other players for it, and this is where you get to the meat of Cargo Noir, which is, at it's heart, an auction game.

Every turn, you dispatch each of your ships either to a port, along with a stack of coins, or to Macao. If you go to the casino in Macao, you simply get 2 coins, whereas if you go to the Black Market in Macao you have a choice of either 1) drawing one illicit cargo tile at random from the draw bag or 2) trading one your illicit cargo tokens for one that is visible in the Black Market.

As for the ships and coins on the ports, it turns into a bidding war until everyone drops out but one, at which point that person wins all of the cargo at the port. There is a delicate balance here between trying to get the cargo you need, denying your opponents the cargo they need, not spending too much money, and trying to force your opponents into spending too much money. This mechanic adds a lot of strategy and tension to the game, without the necessity of overcomplicated rules and mechanics. And while this bidding/auction mechanic is nothing new or innovative, it just plain seems more fun with this game. Perhaps it's the cool noir theme...

Close-up of the cargo ships in Cargo Noir
That's pretty much the whole game, except for a few Victory Cards that grant certain privileges during gameplay, such as a warehouse that increases your storage capacity of illicit cargo, or additional cargo ships to add to your fleet. Gameplay takes 30-60 minutes, depending on the number of players, and goes fairly quickly. There is very little waiting around for other people to play, especially since it really pays to watch your opponents move in order to plan your own. It is also quite easy to learn, and all of us quickly had all the rules down by the second round of the game.

Cargo Noir has a simple elegance to it that makes playing the game a very enjoyable experience. While some people have criticized the lack of theme in the gameplay (or more accurately, they have criticized the lack of connection between the theme and the game's mechanics), I tend to disagree. It very much had the feel of "civilized criminals" that were unwilling to go into all-out war with each other, but at the same time had no qualms about screwing each other over financially and strategically. To misquote Star Wars, this kind of crime war reminded me of a more elegant war from a more civilized age. And that, I believe, is a very cool thing in a board game.

Overall, I give Cargo Noire 4 out of 5 meeples. The only thing I think could have possibly enhanced the game would be if each family had one special ability that set them apart from the others, in order to add a bit of strategy into the choice of family at the start of the game. Also, it might have been interesting to include other combinations for trading in illicit cargo besides "all the same" or "all different", maybe something akin to poker hands. That being said, I can definitely understand Serge Lagent's decision to  keep things simple and more elegant. If you like Eurogames, your money will be well spent on Cargo Noir.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Welcome to Tactical Meeples!

Welcome, welcome to Tactical Meeples, my new blog about gaming. Gaming can include a lot of things, and I may touch on them all at some point, but my primary focus is board games. Namely, designer board games. If, when I say "board games" you think Monopoly or Candy Land, then you have a whole new world waiting to open before you! On the other hand, if you think of Pandemic, Dominion, or Settlers of Catan, then you are in the right place. I may also talk about iPad and other iOS games from time to time, especially ports of actual board games. In rare cases I also reserve the right to bring up the occasional video game, too!).

Oh, and...what does "tactical meeples" mean anyway? Well, it has to do with how board games are typically categorized. They are usually classified into groups fondly known as Eurogames and Ameritrash. Eurogames are more abstract, involve strategy, and are usually themed around economic or political ideas. Ameritrash games, on the other hand, tend to be more about combat and wars, and include a whole plethora of wonderful wargames. Eurogames often times use highly stylized wooden pieces to represent people which are known as "meeples".

A yellow meeple, from the game Carcassonne.

While some people adamantly favor Eurogames over Ameritrash (or vice versa), I choose not to discriminate. I love both with equal passion, and to symbolize that I chose the name "Tactical Meeples". So there you have it. That, and the domain name was still available.