Thursday, December 18, 2014

Mistfall: The Shieldbearer

After taking a look at the history of the world of Mistfall and a short trip to the Valskyrr, it is finally time for the first Hero to enter the stage. For all those putting their faith in the simple and straight blade of the long sword and for all those who believe that courage and sturdy shield is all one needs to fend off their enemies, let us introduce the Shieldbearer.

Art by Enggar Adirasa

Shieldbearers of Frostvalley

 

For over a hundred years the Frostvalley Keep has stood as an unbreakable wall against the waves of beastmen and undead creatures trying to invade the southeastern regions of the Valskyrr. Among its many defenders, the Misthunters and Shieldbearers have been known to not only stand on the walls in perpetual vigil, but also help those in need, often lost far in the Mist-ridden lands.

Descended straight from the resilient warriors of old, the Shieldbearers serve both as dauntless sentinels of Frostvalley Keep, and as the protectors of all who ever pass through the stronghold’s gate. Their martial prowess and toughness made them almost legendary, with the Shieldbearers’ unflinching courage in the face of any foe reminding the inhabitants of Valskyrr that the white bear crest on a thick shield always brings hope to those pursued by the Mists.


Fengray son of Orm

 

Fengray was born in the shadow of Frostvalley Keep, a first-born son to a weaponsmith father and a Shieldbearer mother. From the day he first laid his eyes on a Shieldbearer’s gear, he knew that one day he would carry the Bearshield to protect those in need – his sisters and brothers, his companions and the common folk trying to make a living in their cold and unforgiving homeland. Now, well over three decades later, he is among the most renowned of Frostvalley’s sentinels.

Like many Shieldbearers, Fengray has been schooled in the craft of martial combat and taught to always lend his strength to those weaker than him. Ever ready to face the enemy, fiercely loyal to his friends and companions, Fengray has prevailed through many battles and skirmishes. Always ready to venture forth with his companions, he has proven his value both as a Shieldbearer, and as a friend to all those who accompany him.


Fengray as Player Character

 

With supreme defence and an ability to fell even the toughest of enemies, Fengray is a great choice for all those playing Mistfall for the first time. The abilities that allow him to withstand a lot of punishment (or protect others from excessive damage) and still be able to deal significant damage, also make him a natural choice for those who wish to explore the world of Mistfall alone.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Gaming with children - should we let them win?

I must confess that I do not have children yet, but like every other self-respecting adult I have been a child once - some friends claim that I still am - and I also know quite a few families with children. Parents play games with their children - a very good endeavor - but some also let their kids win to protect the little ones' self esteem. Is that good practice?


Photo by Alan Light
When I was about 5 years old I saw this TV show about people playing chess and since communist Romania had exactly one TV channel at the time, I watched and became intrigued. I was also a lucky child because my parents always believed in me, so they taught me how to play chess. One lovely summer day after claiming that I understood the rules of chess and my father agreeing with this conclusion, my father and I played a competitive game of chess - my first chess game ever. I lost. I was a competitive man ever since I can remember, but so was my father.

That day a tradition started. Over the next many months, almost every Sunday morning my father was making time to beat his 7-year old son in a game of chess. I don't recall single duels with details, but I do remember a faint feeling of frustration. After every game which inevitably ended in my defeat, my father would explain how I could have played better. My father was no Kasparov, but his adult mind could easily devise the right strategy to defeat me. 

I heard my mom on several occasions scolding my dad for not letting me win even once and my father saying "that's how he'll learn" and not giving in at all. It was even more frustrating to know in advance that things would not change, but I was still looking forward to my next Sunday morning.

What my father did not know back then is that I kept count of the games we played and he was the proud winner of 41 consecutive games of chess against his son. But all that was about to change. I don't exactly remember how - I suspect that my mother had something to do with it - but I got my hands on a chess book which I read religiously several times. Since I am not a great chess player today, I probably did not understand much, but I had a very good memory and so I learned by heart as many opening as I could.

On our 42nd chess morning my father's winning streak was over. I took the time to think about my every move and after a few long hours, I could finally lift my fist up and scream "Victory!". My parents were surprised. After having seen 41 defeats in a row, I knew that my father had not let me win, but I still had to ask, hoping for a confirmation of my legitimate victory. He confirmed, and it made me feel so proud that I can still remember this story almost 30 years later.

It's been a while since I last thought of this story, but with my adult mind I realized that it was one of my most relevant childhood experiences and one that shaped my life. I learned not to give in to anything and anyone and I also learned that with a lot of hard work and persistence there is no mountain too high. But as a child, the one thing I took (without even knowing it) from my chess weekends with my dad was self confidence. I had found out that adults are not invincible and if they find their ways to deal with grown-up stuff and I can beat them, then I will also be able to handle anything life throws at me. Sadly my 42nd chess game against my father was also the last due to some family issues which are beyond the scope of this story. I was lucky enough to have just enough time to learn my very valuable life lesson. I still remember the frustration of more than a year of  chess loses, but the feeling of victory and the lesson learned are the most vivid and sweet ones.


Source: www.redmeeple.com
Fast forward 26 years into the future. A few weeks ago I was playing Galaxy Trucker with my 10-year old nephew. In the second round, his space ship was heavily damaged by evil aliens and asteroids, he realized that he could not win anymore and thus got upset and flipped the board. The game ended right there, with the adults explaining why that was not the right behavior and the child crying from anger. 

Another awkward experience was with an adult friend who dislikes every game she cannot win, blaming the game for being "stupid". In theory, dealing with adults should be easier, we are all supposed to have the ability to listen to reason. After three consecutive sessions of Ticket to Ride all in the same weekend, the friend qualified the game as "illogical" (defeat), "absolutely great" (win) and "stupid" (defeat). I believe that this kind of behavior is as a result of not having the relevant childhood gaming experiences. I am not referring only to board games, but to all childhood games. If adults offer their children a false sense of security and shield them from any kind of defeats, they shape the reality of their kids into a dangerously long streak of fake successes. As soon as children grow into young adults, they simply cannot be shielded anymore and the fresh adults stand to get heavily hurt.

Dear Parents, the holidays season is upon us and thus you have more time to spend with your children. I am not a parent and thus my experience is incomplete, so let me ask you a few questions. How do you play with your kids? How protective should one be with the young ones? How important are the lessons learned and what is the right balance between teaching and creating joy?


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Thursday, December 11, 2014

No second chance to make a first impression



The theme of a game is something that needs to be considered carefully, as I tried to prove the last time I tackled the topic, pointing to issues that turned out to be somewhat problematic when it came to reception of some games. Sometimes navigating through what rubs players the right or the wrong way turns out to be surprisingly difficult, as a small misstep can make some of our potential customers unwilling to buy our product, regardless of the quality of its mechanisms. So, maybe dropping the theme completely would be a better idea altogether?

Image source: 
BoardGameGeek
The obvious answer is, well, no. Themes are there for two important purposes. The first one relates our game to other games already present on the market, allowing it to either stand out, or fall in line with similar products. This is a little bit like sending a message: “If you like games like Puerto Rico or Caylus, you will like this game as well” or “This might tickle your fancy if you like Talisman style fantasy adventures”.

The second purpose is of a seemingly different nature, as it is a more practical one. A theme is something that helps us learn a game. It uses shortcuts that help our brain process all the new information we are feeding it in order to finally sit down and have some fun around a gaming table.

Now, I know that at this point some of you might say that a lot of games do not have a theme and they are doing pretty well. However, even in some of those cases rudimentary theming is often also involved, especially if the game comes with six types of pieces, with each of them using different movement rules (and as a side note: while I would never try to argue that Chess is thematic, once you read The Flanders Panel, you will never look upon Chess the way you had looked at the game before).

Image source: 
BoardGameGeek
However, if you try to completely remove a theme from a more complicated (rules wise) game like Agricola, you will quickly see how ungodly difficult it would be to teach it to new people. Just think about trying to make new players remember that the yellow and orange pieces are multiplied through placing them on brown squares (which you first place on green squares), while the white, black and brown pieces are gained through placing them on green squares which need to be either surrounded by your sticks or need to contain a cube of your colour before you are actually allowed to place them, and any multiplication is performed only once every four, three or two rounds.

The two above reasons make some of the most abstract European games, excellent titles like the classic Goa, Shipyard or Yspahan cling to their theme, hoping that even with a significant number of disassociated mechanisms, they will still be able to make use of the ones that make some sense, and give new players a foothold, that will allow them to actually learn the rest of the game.

In short, the theme of the game is there to translate a bunch of complicated mechanisms into a language we can easily understand and relate to something we already know. Farming, building a castle, constructing ships, sending good overseas – all this help us make enough sense of some wooden cubes and some strange symbols to actually have fun while pushing them around a board. And the memory of this process also allows us to choose efficiently while making purchases, which brings us back to relating our game to other games on the market.

Image source: 
BoardGameGeek
A proper theme of a game announces what we can expect inside the box. A ship, a sheep and a sad guy on the cover will tell us that we will most probably be optimizing our moves, exchanging cubes for other cubes and preparing a nice point salad. A dude with an oversized weapon, a fiery dragon or a charging army will tell us that we will most probably be rolling dice, playing “in your face” cards, putting narration over common sense and relying on both strategy and luck to win the day. Altogether, the box tells us then, if the learning process will be aided by a positive filter, or hampered by a negative one.

Finally, it all boils down to our likes and dislikes yet again. I know a very aggressive gamer, a fan of extremely confrontational games, who suffered through an explanation of Istanbul and ended up really liking the game, after he had powered through the somewhat stunted learning process to appease his wife. I also know a very multiplayer solitaire centred gamer who decided to give Combat Commander just one try and ended up having lots of fun leading her troops, but only after overcoming her aversion to aggressive gameplay and World War II history.

And as much as the above cases tell us that many gamers can actually enjoy games towards which they were initially reluctant, the publishers should probably learn a completely opposite lesson. Because in fact, most people will not play a product they are not fond of right from the start, and with the abundance of games on the market today, no game will have a first (not to mention the second) chance to make a good impression – and very rarely will there be another person around to help with making the first one really count.

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Tuesday, December 9, 2014

An expansion for Exodus - IX. Confederation of Sol

We're presenting today the one but last faction of Exodus: Edge of Extinction, Confederation of Sol. Originally reuniting the peoples of Latin America, the Confederation has evolved past its historical ideological boundaries, while keeping the essence of its ancestry.

Confederation of Sol sketch by Odysseas Stamoglou

While the Confederation is not favoring open conflict, their history recorded many asymmetric responses they offered to various threats. They have mastered the weapons of mass destruction while developing almost impenetrable protection against them, making the Confederation less vulnerable to surprise attacks. And since the people of Sol do not like surprises of any kind, their technologies include Advanced Cloaking and Dark Energy Shield, making their space ships very difficult targets.


If the years since we left Earth has taught us something, it’s that we just want to exist. Without poverty, without threat, without revolutionists and warlords telling us what to do. We are happy with the status quo – or we would be, if other weren’t so unhappy with it. We don’t want a war, but if we are to face opponents who think they are stronger than us, then so be it. They will be in for a surprise.

The Confederation of Sol originates from what was known back on Old Earth as Latin America – a place filled with wonder, but also with social inequalities and injustice. From corporations eagerly exploiting the people and the lands, to power hungry local leaders, the faction’s ancestors rarely had had an easy life of the rest of the world. That is probably why the Confederation now just wants to exist in peace and be left to its own devices.

Many other survivor factions boast their reputed technology lead, the might of their fleets or the superiority of their way of life. In comparison, the Confederation of Sol does next to nothing in terms of flexing their political muscle or displaying their military might, believing that when the imminent conflict finally comes, there may still be hope that the warring factions will leave Confederation alone.

Rapid technology development is not the main goal of the Confederation – or at least does not seem to be. A very cautious observer might notice, however, that research was a discreet focus of this particular faction. There are even those few who, after repeatedly provoking the Confederation, lived to tell the tale. And it is a horrifying tale of whole fleets silently materializing in the emptiness of the void to strike with surgical precision and wreak unspeakable havoc before disappearing once again, without a single ship lost.

Survival and a relatively comfortable existence are the current goals for the Confederation’s leaders. Simply put, they want to live their own life and are perfectly content with letting other survivor factions do the same, going so far as to easily forgive minor infractions that would set others off – and buying time to mount a sudden, unstoppable and crippling counteroffensive. That is also why they fight most their battles on their own territory, and with ages of guerrilla warfare experience behind their belts, the members of the Confederation will usually only defend their homes, and do this effectively enough to put all else to shame.

If you're curious about the other factions in Exodus: Edge of Extinction, check them out:
Sirius Theocracy 
Arctic Dominion
Han-Xia Dynasty
Titan Diarchy

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Friday, December 5, 2014

The World of Mistfall: The Valskyrr

This time the history of the world of Mistfall continues, focusing on the Valskyrr – an icy northern region and a stage for heroic struggles the Heroes will undertake, facing the sinister power of the Mists.


The First Days


Despite the Valskyrr being one of the most inhospitable of the known regions of the world, it was also one of the first to be conquered by humanity in the early days, long before the Mistfall. As if to prove their right to rule the world, the Children of Dawn built their homes in the rocky foothills, on mountain slopes and and deep in the snow covered woods of the valleys.

The north-western part of Valskyrr ends with a cold sea that occasionally freezes for the duration of a few of the coldest months of the year. That, however, did not stop the Valskyrrians' expansion, making them some of the first people to master the art of shipbuilding. It quickly led them to become explorers and traders, and sometimes, in the case of those who decided to worship Dusk, also raiders feared on every other coast of the known world.


Valskyrrian Landscape - prototype art by Enggar Adirasa

After Dusk created his own children, the Valskyrrians were first to come into contact with them. The beastmen tribes quickly found out, however, that although their numbers and their ferocity may make them almost invincible, even in a hopeless situation the people of Valskyrr would not go down without a fight – and without taking as many of their hated enemies with them.


After the Mistfall



Skeletal Warrior
by Enggar Adirasa
The Valskyrr was also one of the regions first touched by the corrupting tendrils of the Mists, with its most northern parts influenced heavily enough to change the land itself. It was here that the Mistwalker term was coined, as the bravest and strongest of the Valskyrrians, already known as fearless explorers, would venture into Mist-ridden territories in search for an answer to the mystery of the Mists. And although many have not returned, some say that one woman uncovered a terrible secret, now guarded deep within the dungeons of Frostvalley Keep.

Although the people of Valskyrr are truly indomitable, their territories have suffered greatly from invasions of beastmen, both before and after the Mistfall, which scarred the land and left hundreds of burned villages and decrepit runs of old outposts, now haunted by creatures returned from the dead or created by the Mists.

Now the Valskyrr is a house besieged, perilous and more hostile than ever before. But for as much the Mists push its people, so do they push back, never easily broken. It seems that their strength and resolve remains unwavering in the face of the nameless horrors spawned by the Mists and the brutality of its beastmen servants.


Denizens of the Valskyrr



Wild Icehound
by Enggar Adirasa
Today most of the Valskyrrians live in or around Frostvalley Keep, a stronghold built between two mountain ranges almost four ages ago to stop any further expansion of the beastmen hordes. The rest are spread all over the land, inhabiting small settlements that exist in constant danger of being taken by the Mists or invaded by its servants.

People of the Valskyrr are easily recognizable wherever they appear: tall, stout and broad shouldered, with strong arms as if made to wield smithing hammers, axes or broadswords and heavy thick shields. In some parts of the world the Valskyrrians ar considered giants, for even Valskyrrian women often stand taller than men born in less harsh and unforgiving regions.

As for other denizens of the Valskyrr, the whole lands and especially its northern territories, are swarming with beastmen, and almost every old ruin seems to house some sort of a returned dead: from reanimated skeletons taking up weapons against the still living, to wraiths, night wailers and the formidable draugrs. The coldest parts of the Valskyrr are also a home of all manner of ice beasts: animals twisted by the Mists and partly melded with the ice that surrounds them.


A Land of Cold and Peril


Ancient ruins, dark forests and icy lands await all those brave enough to venture into the wild. The influence of the Mists seems strongest here, so there is always work for the those ready to lend their weapons, their magic and their resolve to help keep the relentless Mists at bay.

 

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