It was back in October last year that I first supported Family Plot, and I was anticipating its arrival. I have had my final copy for a few months now and thought it was about time that I finally reviewed it.
In the last few days there has been a leak that shows us an early print of the upcoming Magic: the Gathering block Ixalan. This is actually the second leak, but the first was barely a glimpse of the cover art which gives us some idea of the inspirations behind it, and listed with a different name “Atlazan”. Very minor compared to this huge release of info, a sheet of actual cards not due to be released for months. Understandably, Wizards of the Coast and Hasbro are not happy about this, but is a leak all that bad?
For Wizards of the Coast a great deal of money, effort, and time goes into preparing their usual advertising campaign. This isn’t just the regular steady drip feeds of new cards through social media worldwide, but it also includes the short stories on their website written by teams of cannon artists developing the wonderfully deep narratives behind every block, and the normal promo events with Friday Night Magic prereleases.
Read this piece by M;tG web content manger Trick Jarrett from the leaks around the Oath of the Gatewatch block two years ago about how such information leaks can undermine months, even years of work. For him it’s a personal kick in the teeth as it’s his work that’s being undermined. Through various associations with outside companies WotC expose themselves to the possibility of unauthorised leaks on a regular basis, but it’s still important to them to maintain creative control over the advertising process.
It seems like a no-brainer, leaks happen because people want to know stuff! There’d be no need or call for leaked information if people weren’t interested, and there isn’t a company that doesn’t want anyone to be interested in their product. Should a company be keen to know that people are so determined to learn about their product that they’re willing to go around their planned release schedule?
And by all means make a big deal about how you don’t want anyone to know about the information, but in many ways bemoaning the leak helps draw attention to it. You can frequently bring more attention with a leak and you’re own adverse reaction to it, than with your average run of advertising. Does Magic need the extra attention a leak might bring in for them? Not necessarily, but their advertisement can usually be formulaic. It can do some good to shake things up from time to time. Not that I’m accusing them of leaking their own cards, but maybe they needn’t be so downhearted.
Let us not forget that this is not just a game of fun for some people, and that Magic is a game played at a competitive level, and it’s these people watching attentively at the leak sites to get a head start on the maths. That may sound a little over-the-top but there’s actual money in it for some people. And those players less involved who pursue the game’s news less rigorously lose out. In those particularly rare instances where leaks are more physical than just a photograph, some people can get hold of some early copies of cards long before release.
These are the kinds of leaks that can truly damage a game and cause serious issues for the competitions that are integral to the gradual releases.
Just a quick note on one of the finest examples of a film that could have never existed without leaked footage. Plenty of us have speculated on the possibility that Sony, probably Ryan Reynolds himself stole the test footage in an effort to make his little fan project a reality, and if that little flicker of perfection hadn’t hit the internet like an atom bomb we may have lost one of the best superhero films of the decade. Now, there’s no good comparison to make between a film and a CCG with regular releases, but it does go to show that leaks can have their benefits, and while they may wound the pride of the developers, ultimately they may find their efforts rewarded.
Pros and cons aside let’s take a look at some of the content of the Ixalan sheet. It goes without saying that mechanically the cards are a solid mix of the usual chaff that will inevitably prove mildly useful or too specific for regular circulation, and the merciless and glorious horror cards that will have me – I mean, will have people buying booster after booster without a shred of remorse for their poor aching bank balance. I want to talk story and themes here.
There’s a prevailing theme in the art contents, pirates and dinosaurs. There’s more to discuss but I feel that needs to sink in for a moment, pirates and dinosaurs. I’m also rather gratified to see that Ixalan’s giant reptiles are depicted with feathers. Early speculations included strong Atlantean and south American styles in the visual thematics, continuing in the ancient civilization themes, Greece, Mongolia, and Egypt, and with feathered reptiles we may see some Aztec deities or myths, perhaps a coatl like creature somewhere in the block.
Finally we have our pivotal planeswalker, Vraska the Unseen, or whatever nickname she accrues. It’s going to be great to see a minor figure get some air time, although could the gorgon/assassin join the Gatewatch? I doubt it. That said I also doubt she’ll be the main threat to Jace and the Gatewatch.
Whether the leak is for the better or the worse, this is going to be a cool set, and I’m really looking forward to the future of the game.
Readers… we spoil you! Check us out; two board game reviews in the same number of days. If yesterday’s board game – Great Scott – was not your thing, then how about you try this offering from Sibro Games?
Great Scott is a drafting game of invention from Sinister Fish. While at UKGE this year I had the opportunity to secure a copy of Great Scott. Ostensibly I was there to buy for someone else, but at their recommendation I ended up taking a copy home too. I had never before pondered the need for a Diabolical Donkey Destroying Banana Bender, but I have come to an all new appreciation for the device, and here’s why.
Each invention is put together with cards, three concepts and two assets laid out in a particular order to create a coherent and descriptive name, effectively boiling down to a simple formula:
Adjective – noun – verb – noun – noun
Each section is it’s own deck, players take two of each, and commence building by drawing card from a deck, taking one, and passing their hand to the next player. You begin fairly free form, but as the cards are passed around you find yourselves with fewer and fewer gaps to fill, and the pattern you’ve tried to create may suddenly be completed or broken depending on which stack you draw from. Everyone then pitches their idea, describing how it works and what purpose it serves. Everyone picks a favourite and a second favourite, and the next round begins.
Points are accrued from scores on the cards, matching pairs or groups, the commendations of others for a fantastic pitch, and alliteration. So while you may score fewer points by building a Colossal Cactus Burning Bee Booster than an Alarming Albatross Attracting Ape Automaton you may still recover some ground by describing the method by which your huge device might hold back the bee extinction by immolating cacti, compared to the guy who’s mechanical gorilla has led to an albatross infestation.
I love draft games as a format, it’s been a while since I did a Magic: the Gathering draft, but I still love a round or two of 7 Wonders every couple of months. Drafts tend to leave you completely oblivious to begin with, and madly desperate towards the end, so adding the draw step gives Great Scott a little bit more freedom to build an invention you can be proud of, but doesn’t give you sufficient support to make the game too easy.
It’s a sign of a good game that round by round players end up with very similar points, and by the end of Great Scott the point difference between first and last place is quite narrow. There’s a good balance of random and tactical play, and it always leaves you with an invention that is sheer chaos to try and pitch to the crowd. However, it’s this mechanic that does cause a few issues.
For those without a very creative mind, trying to describe their inventions can be difficult, especially for those who perhaps don’t know the less common words like Bitumenising, meaning that points accrued in the commendations phase are often lost. The Aspect cards break down into animal, vegetable, and mineral, and it’s entirely true to say that animals are funnier than most rocks and plants like Diabolite or Elm; there are a few shining examples like arsenic and dynamite, but it’s still a bit of a struggle to derive humour from Bauxite for example.
Really that’s an issue with target market. I still rate the game very highly, it’s good quality daft fun that kills an hour without effort, and even comes with a set of baggies that are slightly too small for any single deck in the box. Ah well, still a nice consideration.
Chris covered some of the RPGs on show in his article last week but while he covered what was on the shop floor, I wandered the Hilton, who had mostly filled their rooms with tables equipped with DMs, GMs, Storytellers, and enough rulebooks, character sheets, dice and assorted other accoutrements to keep dozens – maybe hundreds – of people entertained all weekend. As someone who is obsessive over tabletop roleplaying it was amazing to see so many games going off at once, I mean just look at this:
Most of these photos may look like identical rooms, honestly it’s just the decor and layout. People were flooding into the sign up room, and I had to edge my way around the queue to get a photo inside.
Competitions and Tournaments
One of the NEC main halls was given over fully to competitions for the more popular games, on a national and international level. Wandering that hall I think I heard as much German, French and Polish cast around as English. There were games I expected, like the Magic tournament, the Pokemon tournament, I even fully expected to see people competing in the X-Wing miniatures skirmish game, but I wasn’t expecting to see Infinity or Dropzone.
I already talked about what these guys got up to, here’s a few images from the guys over at the Living History Camp, and the time they went to war against a pillaging horde of small children:
Yeah, the best part is just wondering around wherever we pleased (up to a point at least). This has only been my second occasion as a member of the press so I’m still never certain what I can and cannot get away with, but dammit if I’m getting all-access I’m going to work hard for it.
It was incredible wandering the hall before and after the horde joined us. The difference was simply astounding, the freedom to walk the floor reduced to swimming through a crowd; strange echoing silence turned to a cacophony of voiceless sound. These events are made by hard working people who put their livelihoods out on trestle tables to be judged, exhausted staff and volunteers fighting to keep every moment organised and controlled for the good of everyone involved, and by the people who keep coming back year after year to make it all worthwhile.
Here’s what we saw:
Pictures will be on Facebook soon enough, if you see yourself, tag yourself. In the mean time, so long UKGE, see you next year.
While I love Magic: the Gathering to an unreasonable extent – like a borderline addiction if I’m honest – I’m not under any illusions that the game is not without a rather glaring flaw, and it’s the erratic progression of the resources you have to spend. For those not aware, mana is spawned from land by tapping (turning) the land cards, to spend on the cost of a card, for example to play this card:
Would require the player to tap one each of white, blue, black, red, and green mana. Presumably if a player has built a deck with this card as a central figure they would have a wide variety of ways to either find the pertinent cards from the deck or to otherwise generate the mana through other means. Even so that’s no easy feat, and a lot of your deck has to be devoted to creating a wide variety of mana types. Now most people will build decks around one or two colours to make this job a lot easier but it’s still a possibility to find yourself stuck without enough mana of the right type, no matter how well you proportion your deck.
In short it’s a flawed system, essentially functional, but often as cruel and fickle as dice.
Which brings me neatly onto a game I sampled at UKGE as I was wandering the floor exchanging business cards and quietly gathering freebies. I was handed a carrier bag which I found later had two cards in the bottom for Dragoborne: Rise to Supremacy, they were very simple, immediately understandable, and featuring some truly epic artwork, enough to draw me in and drive me to find the stall again and try it out.
Dragoborne manages its resources far more effectively at the cost of some of the otherwise useful cards. Once you’ve drawn your first card in a turn you then draw a second which you commit to your resource pool. It means possibly losing a good card to resources, but it leaves you with a considerably better increment of resources throughout the game. You won’t be caught with an expensive card sat in your hand while your life slips away, just waiting for the resources to arrive. You always begin the fight with enough of your various resources to play any card you might possess, so long as you can wait a mere handful of turns.
Mojang’s CCG, Scrolls, has a similar incrementation method, where every turn you may choose to sacrifice a card of your choice in favour of either more resources, or more cards in hand, giving you an effective way of managing both key components of your game, and if my experience is anything to go by, leaving you screwed one way or the other.
Resource management is one of the hardest things in any given game to balance and still keep creative. With Magic: the Gathering, it’s something of a contract between players and designers, so long as they can produce cards that help manage your mana supply and we have the presence of mind to build our decks with due care and attention, we have a game. A resource management system gives us limited progression allowing for a game that grows organically and fairly. Making them balance well is a task that can bore you beyond tears, and I respect any game that approaches it with a different method.
I’m back to working on an old game design, spurred on by the many enthusiastic playtesters at UKGE, every one of whom had a full table and a captive audience. Management of resource in my game is going to be easy for the players… once I’ve gotten them balanced across several imbalanced factions. Wish me luck, see you next year.
Sessions of D&D are usually not short. Any session that I have been to has ranged between 2-4 hours in general, so I was intrigued to go and see a specifically designed 90 minute D&D base show at The Improv Theatre in Bristol. I was very interested to see how this would work and being a fan of things like Critical Role, and the Acquisitions Incorporated sessions I had no idea how they would make it work and was very pleased with the result.
This one’s kinda huge. I mean really big.
Every other entry from the moral alignment axis table comes pre-packaged with its own ethos, its own motivations and philosophies, so often Neutrality is seen as bland, so aggressively treading the middle of the line that at its most extreme the True Neutral character will spend his days alternately helping old ladies cross the road and filling her house with bear traps before turning yourself in to the police. But Neutral doesn’t have to be the dry toast of moral breakfast time!
Settle in, let’s have a look at what kind of person fits under the massive True Neutral label.
Practically everyone in the word is Neutral! I’m deadly serious. There are plenty who might like to believe that they’re Lawful good or Neutral Good, just inherently nice and selfless people, generous and caring to a fault. But let’s be honest now shall we? We’re apes, we are inherently tribal, and on some level we are competitive and inherently selfish. The morality we have is the result of a massive expansion in our mental capacity to care for family, to the point where we’re capable of empathy not just for our own species, but to care and love for other species as well. Many of us are good, no denying it, but many of us will also grab the last cookie without a word and blame it on a sibling.
We lie! We cheat! We want stuff for ourselves, we’ll disagree with the laws as written and break them when we think we can get away with it, but most of us won’t kill people just because we’re afraid of getting caught (most of us). We’re not good, we’re not bad, we’re not rebels or conformists, we just want an easy life for ourselves, and you can get that a lot easier if you tow the line and get on with people.
I joked about helping the infirm only to mutilate them in their homes with inhumane hunting traps, and that’s the kind of hilarious extremes you can reach in a role-play situation. To me, True Neutral is about the little every day good deeds and selfish acts. It’s parking on a double yellow line and then feeling bad about it for an hour before eating a bagel and forgetting about the whole thing. It’s denting someone’s car and not feeling guilty because it was a Mercedes.
Because we’re only human.
The Moral Starting Point
And because we’re only human, we are hugely capable of extremes of philosophy and individualism. We’re driven by passions and impulses, dogmatic in our believes but easily swayed by suggestion. That makes us mighty.
In the other articles in this series I’ve discussed how your alignment changes how you pursue your goals, or how you work to drive the goals of an organisation you have affiliated yourself with. A neutral character simply is the goal they pursue, the ethos they uphold, their personality without strong leanings in any moral direction. In fact one should always assume that they are building a True Neutral character to begin with, before sitting back and debating how the decisions they have made might cause their character to lean more strongly in one direction or another, and how the pressures of their history have made them more strongly aligned along one axis or another.
In short we are born Neutral. The D&D monster manuals always list animals as neutral because the notion of charity or cruelty, obedience or rebellion are very human concepts, born of personality and millennia of history trying to rationalise our existence. Beautiful in its way. The reason why the admittedly flawed alignment system causes so many arguments is because of how each alignment is perceived by other people.
Anything But Bland
You’re not a boring person.* You have hopes and dreams and have lived a life of experiences that have driven you, shaped you, and moulded you into the glorious specimen we all know and love.**
The archetypal view of True Neutral is the dull and flavourless character bumbling their way through life without a rhyme or reason to their name. It’s just not the case, because nobody is that boring. The best example of a character who never sways from the stance of moral stoicism despite the forces that pull him in every direction could never be accused of boring: Tyrion Lannister of Game of Thrones.
Tyrion’s interests lie predominantly in self preservation. He is loyal to a family that despises him until their betrayals force him to unconscionable acts. He is loyal to a nation that very nearly destroys him, and so he turns to someone outside who might be able to save everyone from themselves. He could never be accused of being Good as he acts in his own self interests as far as he can get away with, exalting in hedonism as far as it will go without harming another. He could never be truly considered Lawful or Chaotic, because while he may be a loyal servant, he picks and chooses his masters and runs vicious and hilarious tactics against those who have the power to undermine him.
The same is true of Jessica Jones. Invasive, deceitful, even outright criminal in her actions but keeping her paperwork in order and working to uphold the law. She stops a supervillain but she’s no hero, in fact she’s given up on the very idea.
Are these bland characters? Hell no. But they’re True Neutral because most of us are, most of the best characters are.
*If you are a boring person, please disregard.
**If we do not know you personally, please disregard.
Villainy comes in all manner of forms, from the cool and conniving, the corrupt, the vicious and spiteful. It can be crime so organised it seems impossible to pin down, cruel enough to seem capable of anything, or suitably unpredictable to be considered dangerous beyond all others.
There’s a much finer line between Chaotic and Neutral Evil than one might believe, both are driven purely by self-interest without a damn given for the needs and feelings of anyone else, but there’s a line there to be drawn. Chaos is rebellion, be it in the interest of a people free to live their lives, or in the interest of no one stopping you from doing whatever you want. It isn’t necessarily the brutish violence of a conquering monster, or the man on a mission to undo everything in his path… it can be those things, but ultimately Chaotic Evil just wants to go wherever its whims take it, and doing whatever it wants when it gets there. (more…)