04 June 2022

Marvel Super Heroes Adventure Game Three-Shot Recap (Pt 0)

Part 0: Intro

Dropping clues for the PCs...
I pile almost all my creative energies into the Christmas/New Years holidays, basically because that's the only period I get enough free time. Case in point: I ran a three-shot of Marvel Super Heroes Adventure Game (MSHAG) over the holidays and I'm only now finding the time to talk about it.

My enthusiasm for running MSHAG again for the first time in over 20 years, coupled with an average reading pace of three comics a day, resulted in a pretty dang good game if I do say so myself. Sure, I was pretty rusty at GM'ing but at the end of my second session one of my players said "that was like a movie!" Music to any GM's ears.

A firm grasp of the source material and motivation isn't enough for RPG success. I think three more factors played key roles in the positive outcome of this three-shot: proper scope, willing players, and good prep.

Proper Scope: I knew that other time pressures in my life would prevent me from running an ongoing campaign but I also realized that I wanted to develop the story more than a one-shot. I settled on a rough outline of a story, with enough material for four sessions, anticipating (correctly it turns out) that we'd probably lose one session.

Willing Players: Only two of my AD&D group had the time to play and both were unfamiliar with MSHAG. Not only were both of them willing to put aside their skepticism of the card-based mechanics, both players had strong concepts for their PCs and a love for the Marvel Universe.  One of the players was mostly familiar with the MU through the Marvel Cinematic Universe, while the other player shared my fondness for 70s and 80s comic books but without any recent reading.  Each player therefore found plenty to discover during the game but also familiarity in the iconic characters in Marvel New York.  Most importantly, both players "got it" when it came to our time constraints. They knew implicitly that this was a three-to-four-shot and eagerly pursued the adventure hooks I dangled in front of them.

Good Prep: My prep work consisted of choosing a setting and fleshing out all the places the PCs might end up, based on the hooks presented. I settled on NYC since that's where most of the Marvel Universe action seems to take place; it helped immensely that one of the players had familial ties and familiarity with Manhattan. I chose 1980 as the timeframe because I wanted to play in that era of Marvel, with the established characters as I remembered them from my childhood. My players of course generated their own heroes... as it should be.

Microsoft OneNote helped my prep work immensely; OneNote is definitely my new RPG campaign management standard. Since I was running weekly sessions, the Tags in OneNote worked beautifully to keep me on track with to-do lists of prep tasks.

NPC generation was a snap with OneNote. I download huge databases of names from public records (Yellow Pages, building permit applications, etc.) and randomly swap out first and last names so I'm not using real people in my games. I can very quickly generate a list with scores of names and I keep this on a OneNote page labeled "Master Name List". When I need NPCs, I'll cut-and-paste from this list onto another appropriate OneNote page. For example, if I'm fleshing out the cops the PCs may meet, I'll have a "NYPD" OneNote page and I'll cut-and-paste maybe seven names on that page. I can very quickly write short descriptions for each person right after the names or take it one step further. Sometimes I'll use the "Link to Pages" option which allows one to generate multiple new Pages, each linked to an entry in a list. So with my NYPD example, I'd just highlight the seven names and use "Link to Pages" and instantly each cop would get their own hyperlinked page. It's amazing how quickly one can generate details for an NPC when one has a whole page to play with.

My story revolved around the aftermath of Iron Man issues 36 and 37, from 1972. Basically a throwaway story, the issues featured four alien robots so immensely powerful that, working in tandem, they could level the surface of the Earth into a global plain of glass! Despite their power, the robots needed direction from a humanoid alien, the Foreman. Iron Man barely defeats a fifth robot, the scout known as "Ramrod", before trashing the Foreman's control helmet and freezing the four "Changer" automatons in their far-flung locations around the globe, just before they could activate their world-leveling power. The astounding thing about the story is, despite their awesome power, the Changers never surface again in the Marvel Universe. At the end of issue 37, the Foreman is dead in midtown Manhattan with his interstellar craft landed in the middle of the street and the four robots stand motionless in distant lands.  Issue 38 starts with a totally different storyline with no reference to these life-altering events.  

Answering the "what happened" regarding these abandoned plot points gave me a perfect touchstone to the canon Marvel Universe with some ready-made tools of mass destruction just waiting for a super-villain to find (and my PCs to thwart). Adding both Atlantis and Wakanda to the mix obfuscated the real plot while providing more Marvel flavor.

With a story outline in hand, I kicked off the three-shot by pushing my players a front page of the Daily Bugle over Discord a few days before our first session. I created this handout not only to provide clues but, using real world events from that week in history, to establish the exact timeframe and atmosphere. The newspaper worked better than I imagined...my players thought every word was a clue and provided their own red herrings! I included the Carter/Kennedy story just to establish that it was 1980 but the players immediately assumed the plot was political and thought Ronald Reagan was behind the dastardly events in the city!

Online MSHAG board; PC Card highlighted
Since one of the players lives in another city and the other player joined in from work, we needed a way to play online.  The site Playingcards.io was perfect for this, and I built a custom game board for MSHAG, complete with my DIY Marvel SAGA cards, character cards, areas for the Doom Bank and Narrator card, and buttons for auto-draw for when the players play matching suits (we don't use the "T" word around here).  Voice comms were via a Discord server created for the game.

09 May 2022

Thunderbird 5 is the Giant Robot, Right?

 Alternate Title: Further Baby Steps into the Board Game World

I discovered a new board game recently, Thunderbirds Co-Operative Game by Modiphius. OK, not new as it was produced in 2015 and apparently will never be reprinted due to licensing but new to me.

The click-baity title is only slightly tongue-in-cheek: I know hardly anything regarding Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds TV show. I knew of Gerry Anderson from his association with model-maker Martin Bower; as a huge Martin Bower fan I’ve seen Anderson referenced in the many biographies and interviews I’ve read. So I knew Gerry Anderson as the driving force behind Supermarionation and could probably even name most of his shows. Still, I knew very little of the Thunderbirds mythos prior to owning this game. The concepts of the Tracy family, the Hood, and International Rescue were all foreign to me. I do not exaggerate when I say that I honestly thought the five Thunderbird machines linked together to form a giant robot, sort of a prototypical Voltron.  Oops.

Anyways I stumbled across reviews for this game and sought it out since it sounded intriguing. The game goes for quite a bit secondhand due to its rarity but I managed to secure a mint condition copy with all the expansions.

Will Gordon Rescue the Rig Workers?
Notionally designed for multiple players, the board game plays beautifully solo with little modification.  Component quality is top-notch and so far there is a ton of replay value.  I’ve played six games without even using any of the expansion material and enjoyed all six of them, even the three I’ve lost.  Perhaps that’s what drives the high replay value: the difficulty of the game.

BoardGameGeek features links to quite a few play through videos showing the components and gameplay.  I won't belabor that here.  Apparently Thunderbirds shares much of its mechanical DNA with the popular game Pandemic and (presumably) like that game (I've never played) features a lot of tension with the player racing against two different game-ending danger tracks.  Good fun!

The best part of the game for me is the fast set-up. Although there are multiple decks to shuffle, I can still get the board prepped in ~5 minutes and then play for 60-90 minutes. That’s a great time sink ratio.

I’ve no critiques but I’ll note that the game certainly targets Thunderbird fans over casual gamers. The Disaster cards illustrate this. Although each Disaster features a crystal-clear still from an old Thunderbirds episode, many of the images show an appropriately perilous event like an explosion, or fire, or building collapse. The Thunderbirds fan probably has the episodes burned into his/her head and the amorphous pyrotechical image on the Disaster card acts as a touchstone stoking fond memories. Those of us not steeped in Thunderbirds lore likely find some Disaster images a bit boring, especially knowing all the cool set pieces and models that each episode showed. I can rectify this “problem” however by finding some Thunderbirds episodes to watch. In the meantime I’m going to explore these expansion sets!

EDIT: Just finished my first game with the expansions... the additional material adds a lot to the game, from leveling up characters, to Disaster Vehicles, to additional Schemes and Disasters.  Great fun; it's a shame Modiphius no longer publishes the game. 

27 March 2022

NASA Rejected Me Twice... But I'm Still LEAVING EARTH

 ...Alternate title: I Guess I'm a Boardgamer Now

Long time no blog.  I blame the usual suspects: work, school, life commitments.  Honestly though I've been in a bit of a creative funk since the new year, considering the state of the world.  I've stalled out on my Super Mission Force campaign, waiting on painting one stinking miniature.  My sculpting sits stagnant and even my comic book reading has tailed off as things have gotten busy.  Despite this malaise, I have actually been doing quite a bit of a very specific type of gaming.

My recent discovery, the incredible boardgame Leaving Earth, is probably the most fun I've had gaming in the last 10+ years.

Last year I bought a near complete collection of the old RPG 2300AD for ~$200.  Then, realizing I'd never play it,  I sold the collection to Noble Knight Games for $100 in store credit.  Buy high sell low, that's my motto!  Anyways... despite the poor financial strategy, that $100 in credit led me purchase Leaving Earth and its expansions in January and hours and hours of gaming enjoyment.

Sometimes you just find rocks

Leaving Earth is a boardgame without a board, using only card tiles.  The theme is realistic management of a space program, starting in 1956 and ending in 1986.  It's got exploration, danger, excitement, arithmetic.  If you're a space nerd (check!) and a math nerd (check!) and a solo gamer (check!) then you want to check this game out.  I'm missing sleep and sneaking home from work to play Leaving Earth, it's that good!

I've only played solo but that's really the only way I want to play.  The replay value is off-the-charts: I'll spend 7 days playing a massive 30 year game and as soon as I'm done I'm setting up the next one.

The art is so good that I'd probably try LE even if the rules sucked... but they don't.  Extremely tight mechanics with clearly written rulebooks and a constant creator presence over on BoardGameGeek. I even reached out to the designer, who is also the artist, to ask how he created his illustrations.  His response was immediate, friendly, and detailed, which matches his responses to rules questions on BGG.

Just look at that art!

The full game is a table hog
I'd recommend only playing with both expansions.  The base game is fun but Stations adds a lot more to do, and Outer Planets gives you time window constraints for doing all that extra stuff.  The expansions don't seem like unnecessary bloat but rather a true "advanced version" and in my opinion the only way to play.

My only (very minor) quibble is the exclusion of (solid core fission) Nuclear Thermal Rockets.  The game has speculative (for 1956) topics like wetlands on Venus, a hollow Phobos, and Moon bugs (all of which enrich the game, even if scientifically inaccurate today) but NTRs were actually seriously considered as the front-runner technology for manned Mars missions in the 60s-70s, with full power tests conducted here on Earth.  My propulsion textbooks from college all have three rocket classifications: chemical, electric, and nuclear.  The omission of one of the major types of feasible rocket propulsion bugs me but not enough to give the game anything less than a 10 over on BoardGameGeek.

I talk a lot on this blog about games I'd like to play but other than my bi-weekly AD&D session I do very little actual gaming.  As a RPG enthusiast and wargamer I've always thought of boardgames as "simple" and rather noncommittal, too casual for a "serious gamer" like me.  I've since realized that to be a serious gamer one needs to actually play games.

So, if you'll excuse me, I need to set up another round of Leaving Earth.  Maybe I'll record it for this blog.