Board Game

This Is Shadows Of Brimstone

I thought I understood pain.  As a former attendee of the high school educational regimen, an attendee who was not terribly liked nor disliked, I thought I understood apathy.  Demoralization.  These feelings are mere constructs when laid bare against the foundation of Brimstone, they facsimiles of an emotion which is only a shadow-sliver of its true strength.  As a frequenter of the streets of Arkham, I have become hardened against the potential dark waiting with its maw and its suckers and its gaping hate, and in those things I find no fear.  Only resolve.  But in Brimstone, in the mines outside the dust of an old west town where inspired abominations pull at the fabric of our world, my will was tested.  It was broken.  There is no love for my avatar now.  No bond forged by tribulation.  Having suffered defeat upon defeat in the face of these eldritch terrors, I dash my pawn willingly against the beach of that sharp shore, thinking not of their sacrifice, but of my lust for revenge.

My brother and I have approached the first scenario in the game – the basic, introductory scenario, I might stress – a total of eight times, and in those eight attempts, we have come close to victory twice.  Those two, that bleak twenty-five percent, is close only in the way a tornado missing your home before changing its trajectory is close, a brief moment of hope before realization settles, and the inevitable quiet follows.  We would reach our objective ahead of the curve: in good health, sound mind, and with our “continue” (a Revive token) still in hand.  Things were up.  Then the card draw, the Fate-capital-eff of our heroes decided by what it read, what monsters we would face, and the overwhelming crush chasing after.

Rinse.

Repeat.

There were times we made it only one tile into the mine, a series of terrible rolls drawing Darkness cards which unleashed poisonous gas through those narrow shafts, the putrid air sickening us so deeply we collapsed, quite literally per the flavor-text’s painting, in pools of our own vomit.  There were times we were outnumbered, and in a fit of strategic brilliance I’d lit my stick of dynamite and sent it howling into those devil hoards only to overshoot my mark, that stick taking one unlucky bounce, a second unlucky bounce, a final unlucky bounce before detonating at the feet of my partner, around a corner, turning his fine black suit into red mist.

I respect a certain amount of luck in my games.  I even respect a certain amount of luck in my life.  A small part of me understands my making it safe to work is a roll of infinite cosmic die, my car a working heap of human-constructed parts surrounded by hundreds of other heaps of human-constructed parts all traveling at an incredible pace, all driven by people with more vying for their attention than the person racing next to them.  In my own life, however, I have some semblance of control.  That control may be mythical, the idea of balance where none exists, but an idea is still a powerful thing, and in that idea, I feel control.  It is one thing to roll the dice and witness the result.  It is another thing entirely to believe you chose the result.  This concept is the root of my love and my hate of Brimstone.  This, like so many of Flying Frog’s other games, are wholly dependent on a six-sided cube.  Eight-sided if you’re playing the Marshal, a cube which statistically lands on the number two far more than odds or science or whatever dictates this sort of thing professes it should.  All the planning in the world will only carry you so far.  My choosing door A over B for a strategic purpose matters little when Hell comes shooting from it, a Hell spawned by the roll of a seven and not a six, or a poorly timed series of doubles, and my actual decision held no weight in the outcome.  Things like that make me want to crawl into an Elder God’s belly and be devoured for millenia.  This is a game of random outcomes, and there’s very little planning you can do which will affect your Fate.  Chances are you were dead before you set foot in the mine, you just didn’t know it yet.

Here’s the good news: it’s fun.  A lot of fun.  For all the hours spent exploring and dying and repeating, I don’t see any of them as wasted.  There’s something wonderful about playing a Saloon Girl (yes, a Saloon girl) with a hidden pistol who lays waste to a creature with tentacles for a mouth.  There’s even something wonderful about a stick of dynamite with a vendetta against my family.  Or a portal ripping open to unleash sadness into an otherwise innocuous room of bones.  Moan though I may about performance issues, I understand nothing here wishes my success, and the mountain and the climb to save the world is great.  This is a stacked deck.  A number of stacked decks, come to think, the Darkness cards, Growing Dread cards, Encounter cards, Threat cards, even Scavenge cards all sorted and randomly filed to shut your excitement down the moment you start shaking those dice.  What could make for a miserable experience is mitigated by the enjoyment when something goes right, the ability to string this curiosity of a story together and finding laughter in its retelling, and the presentation.  I like the miniatures.  Yes, I wish I didn’t have to assemble them myself because I’m terrible at it, but whatever.  Having finished with the setup, I’m incredibly happy.  The components are typical Flying Frog and very well done.  The setting is outstanding.  Like I mentioned in a previous post: western meets Lovecraft equals yes.  My only legitimate complaint as far as game design goes is also something of traditional Flying Frog stock.  A lot of care has gone to make you feel as though you’re in a roleplaying game.  Between the personal items your character begins with to help flesh out your history, and the ability to go to town between missions and further these adventures as you travel, you’re meant to become attached to your person.  Again: any love I once held is gone and they are now merely vessels for my hate, but the intent is there.  Trouble is, all the other stats your character comes loaded with – Agility, Cunning, Spirit, so on – are there only for use when an encounter occurs.  Rather than use my Agility to nimbly thread the grip of a Strangler in an effort to buy myself distance and set-up a kill shot, that Agility goes unused unless I’m told to make a skill check due to some environmental hazard.  Like I said, this is something all FF games do for the most, and I’m not surprised nor really put-out by it, but with such a heavy focus on the craftsmanship of self alongside all these other stats, it’s tough not to be a little disappointed said skills are a rarely used trigger rather than a choice in the Player’s arsenal.

There are two base sets: City of the Ancients, and Swamps of Death, both of which are independent experiences with the ability to mix/match should the fancy strike you.  I have the former.  I think Swamps comes with some lady who shapeshifts into a bear which I’m a little disappointed about, but Saloon Girl > Bear-Lady.  My copy was about $90.  Worth it?  Totally, if you can handle the sheer size of garbage you’ll need to dodge in a string of lucky rolls.  I don’t mean to sound as though there are no decisions you make which will change the outcome, there are, though these are very few and very far in comparison to some well-placed prayers.  I get my pure strategy fixes elsewhere, and while I’d be happier if the needle was tilted ever-so-slightly further in that direction here, I’m mostly involved to posse it up against the coming dark.  And that’s exactly what I get.

If I ever manage to make it through the ten missions included, I would absolutely get any and all expansions for this thing.  Even if not, I like the game enough to just put them on my shelf and stare at the potential dangers inside.

Recommended.

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Board Game, horror

This Is Elder Sign

I’m a fan of Lovecraft.  His mythos, along with the help of August Derleth, is among some of my favorites.  I’ve always been drawn to the idea of hidden worlds, uneasy truths at the corners of our vision.  There’s something startling about a force so much greater than ourselves which can upend reality with a thought or a word (or a look) which we, in our smallness, can do nothing about.  Lovecraft thrust ordinary people into the presence of these impossibilities, the results of which are never good.  Always interesting, but never good.  There’s The Festival, a long walk through the darkness of Kingsport.  The famous The Call of Cthulhu.  My personal favorite, The Colour Out of Space, reminds me of my youth in the strangest way and forest behind my house I refused to go in.  These Lovecraftian Things hit the world like a thunderclap, and the people they encounter are swept easily with their coming like so many pieces of flotsam.  How does one rise against Azathoth?

With dice.  Obviously.

I’m a fan of board games.  Not traditional ones, necessarily – though they have their place – but more, say, thorough choices like A Touch of Evil, Cosmic Encounter, or Battlestar Galactica.  I love Arkham Horror, a Lovecraft inspired battle through the streets of Arkham and other worlds, but it’s cumbersome.  Ridiculously.  With all of the possible expansions laid out end-to-end and shuffled together – and I’ve got them all – you spend more time setting up than you do playing, and it’s a four plus hour game.  It’s a shame, because it means it rarely hits my table.  Even then latest Eldritch Horror curbs this some (and is amazing), but the set-up and gameplay of it can take a while too.

Thankfully, there’s Elder Sign, a dice game with all of the Lovecraft and none of the mess.  Very little mess.  The game takes place in Arkham’s museum where the players, known as Investigators, solve riddles, navigate cosmic portals, and do battle with Star Spawns, Nightgaunts, and Cultists.  Players choose an available encounter, often a particular room within the museum where an event is taking place, and roll dice to complete various patterns found on the encounters.  For example, one encounter may force you to roll a skull-skull-magnifying glass pattern (in a single roll), where another is two eldritch symbols, represented by a cluster of tentacles.  Of course.  Players can use items found throughout the museum to help with these encounters, some in the form of health, others in the form of special red or yellow die which ups your chances of getting the symbols you need to win.  The main thing you’re looking for are Elder Signs – symbols in the mythos which look like this – these helping you seal the gateways the chosen Ancient One is using to breach worlds.

That’s the entire goal: for Investigators to stop the Ancient One from awakening and doing very-bad-things.  Sometimes eating the universe.  Sometimes driving everyone insane.  Sometimes making the DMV a year-long process.  Every Ancient One affects the overall tone of the game in a unique way.  Take Yig, for example, the Father of Serpents.  The two main resources an Investigator has is Health and Sanity.  If any ever hit 0, the Investigator is devoured (dramatically), and removed from the game.  Those necessary Elder Signs I told you about a paragraph ago?  Yig takes one away should any Investigator be devoured, or if Investigators ever defeat a Cultist.  Cthulhu, however, reduces everyone’s base stamina and sanity by 1 making it that much easier to start chewing your tongue.

I know rolling dice doesn’t sound super exciting, but I love it.  There’s a very strong risk/reward mechanic which makes me feel like I’m playing a game of Press Your Luck, minus the Whammies, and a number of decisions you need to weigh when choosing what encounters to tackle and when.  Rounds are marked with a timer in the form of a clock, and after each turn, it goes from midnight to three, six, nine, and back to twelve.  With each new “day” a new set of parameters come into play – much like how the Ancient One will change things up – some giving Investigators breathing room, others pushing the big bad that much closer to tearing a hole in the fabric of reality.  So, do you take things slow, chipping away at “known” victories, or do you head for more dangerous encounters, arming yourself with a Tome and a Shotgun, while praying to whatever god you believe is merciful to get you out alive?

Great with friends, great solo.  So completely recommended.  There’s nothing better than being driven to the edge of madness and having one roll of the die left to either save or engulf the world.

As a brief aside, you can also get Elder Sign for Android or iOS.  A bit of a different experience, but the core is similar.  Though you can form your own narrative with the physical game, the digital version focuses a bit more or storytelling, and that’s something I really enjoy.  Also recommended.

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