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Jurassic Dice


Dino dice logo

A while ago, I wrote a review of Steve Jackson’s highly entertaining Zombie Dice game. There was a very silly expansion involving Santa and cheerleaders (and I mean that in a good way), which has now been followed up with a new stand alone game using the same background mechanic: Dino Hunt Dice.

Unlike the previous game, where the premise was to eat as many yummy human brains as possible, this time you’re trying to capture dinosaurs for your zoo – I like to think of it as people too lazy to make their own Jurassic Park from scratch indulging in a bit of suicidal industrial espionage. As with Zombie dice, you get a cardboard dice cup with the game, although this one is a little dinkier than its elder sibling’s. You also receive ten dice and a mercifully brief sheet of rules.

There are three types of dice, although the brains have been replaced with dinosaurs, and the shotguns with leaves. The footsteps remain, but their roles have been switched – instead of being a good thing, now they are a very bad thing indeed, and mean that instead of escaping, you’ve been “stomped” by an unhappy dino who didn’t appreciate your efforts to bag him. There are five green dice (apatosaurus), three yellow ones (triceratops) and two red ones (tyrannosaurus), with progressively more footprints and fewer monsters.

Players take turns in selecting three dice from the cup, chosen at random and without peeking. They then roll those dice, and see what they get: dinosaurs are put to one side, as are stompy footprints. Provided all three dice didn’t roll stomps, then the player chooses enough dice to make their hand back up to three and rolls again, if they want to; leaf dice are rerolled. All dice are returned to the pot when players change over, with the running total of dinosaurs captured marked by tokens (which aren’t supplied). The first person to twenty dinos wins.

It’s a deceptively simple mechanic, requiring each player to make a judgement on how much they want to push their luck in any given turn; after all, if you acquire three stomps in one roll sequence, you lose any dinos you’ve captured in that sequence. Sometimes nerves of steel pay off – in one game, my husband kept rolling and managed a streak of eight dinos and only two feet! It also meant he beat me…

This is a fast, easily portable game and a great deal of fun. Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be an accompanying app for this incarnation of the game. The lack of tokens is understandable as it will keep the costs down, but given the propensity of Steve Jackson Games to produce tie-in tat for Munchkin, I am a little surprised they haven’t done the same for these games – there is room in the cup for storage.

PS: In looking to see if SJG did have associated tie-in tat, I discovered that they also have a version of these games for deer hunting called Trophy Buck. Ick…

One Simply Does Not…


…Walk into a Lego game.

Oh, alright – yes, one does. After all, Lego has something of a reputation now for picking up licences and turning them into cool (if increasingly expensive) toys and highly enjoyable computer games. And to be honest, there’s not a lot new here that we haven’t already seen before.

There is, however, something we’ve not heard before: actual film dialogue spoken by the mini-figs during cut scenes. I must admit, I was incredibly sceptical that this was going to add anything to the gaming experience, and was quite frankly concerned it would lead to a degree of programming laziness if the designers no longer had to rely on visual gags and some clever lateral thinking to get the point across.

Fortunately, I needn’t have worried: there are still some warped moments of silent comedy joy (Boromir’s death scene being one of the highlights, along with Peter Jackson’s cameo appearance), and the overlaid dialogue is kept to a minimum. They’ve also done remarkably well in getting people who can grunt and argh in convincing impersonations of the original movie cast.

There are, as ever, two methods of play: story and free, along with an incredible open world that you can smash to buggery. The backgrounds are beautifully rendered and there’s plenty to break in your quest for cash and glory (trust me, there’s something deeply satisfying about wrecking Tom Bombadil’s domicile and beating the bejeebers out of Rivendell). Fortunately, everything’s quite close together, so you won’t have to walk too far to satisfy your thirst for wanton destruction.

There’s also a rather fascinating split-screen technique in two-player mode that enables you to handle the action when things begin to fall apart. And I don’t mean split-screen in the way it’s worked in previous games (although that’s still there, too): no, in this version, the story literally splits, with Player One on the left hand side controlling a character running through a completely different (though often parallel) storyline to Player Two’s on the right hand side. The only downside to this is that you inevitably end up missing part of the plot because you have too much to concentrate on on your side of the screen, but you can always swap over during freeplay and see what you were missing.

Lego has a tried and tested formula which they really haven’t altered for this latest release; after all, they dealt with the worst glitch in the Star Wars games fairly early on (the one where one player could drag the other player off the screen to their death if you got too far apart). Sadly, this means that the hit-and-miss jumping issues still remain, and until you buy the Fall Rescue red brick, you’re at the mercy of dodgy camera angles and falling off things because you weren’t pixel perfect in your aim. And it’s probably best if you’re really nice and calm before going through the Dead Marshes in the open world, because there are some truly evil bits of jumping that will have you cursing lily pads for the rest of your days, otherwise.

As well as completing the story, quite a major part of the game is questing for mithril bricks and blacksmith’s plans, from which the baldy dwarf in Bree will make you allsorts of insane weapons and toys, including a carrot bow, a squeak sword and a disco light phial that makes anyone near you dance to what is a truly terrifying theme tune dialogue rap mash-up. Many of these items are required to get access to the red bricks which give you extra powers, all the way from the very useful (Fall Rescue and Invincibility) to the downright silly (8-bit music and animals pooing studs when you ride them).

All in all, this is another fun game from Lego and Traveller’s Tales. It’s so much fun, in fact, that for the first time ever we kept on coming back to it until we’d won all of the in-game and X-box achievements (including the almost obligatory Boromir meme one). There is DLC available: 2 character packs (one includes a miniature Balrog, which I really hope is as cute as mini-Sauron) and a weapons and magic pack, with possibly another character pack on the way. I’m not sure I entirely approve of Lego DLC, but I suppose you can’t blame them for trying to rake as much cash as possible from our tiny, battered hands…

Knights of a Thousand Stars: Camelot Cosmos

Camelot Cosmos is the first in a series of tabletop roleplaying sourcebooks by author Daniel Jupp, published by Postmortem Studios. It describes the realms of Camelot, a system of planets whose identity and history have predominantly been drawn from the misremembered pages of Arthurian legend (think original Star Trek episodes “A Piece of the Action” and “Bread and Circuses”), where two great royal houses battle eternally for total control. In charge of one of these tempestuous houses is Gawain XXIII, King of Camelot and the chivalric realms of Pendragon. His rival is the cruel but beautiful Queen Morgan, an unnaturally long-lived combination of mortal and Ascended god. Their minions wage war across the cosmos, both covertly and not so covertly, with both sides locked in a seemingly unbreakable stalemate, watched over by a pantheon of deities that occasionally step in to lend a hand. Artefacts of great power from the lost First Empire still remain, and many seek these (and the legendary sleeping warriors from this period) to aid in their struggle.

This particular book is the players’ guide (although that’s not immediately obvious from the cover), and details the rules, character creation, basic setting and personalities of the Camelot Cosmos, with constant hints of what’s to come in the Gamesmaster’s (GM’s) Guide. The rules are based on a stripped down version of the FATE system from Evil Hat Productions, which makes them pretty straight forward and quick to grasp. A character’s abilities are governed by Aspects, which each give the characters a portfolio of skills. To achieve goals, characters roll 2 six-sided dice (2d6), one “positive” and one “negative”, subtract the negative die from the positive die, add the relevant skill bonus and see if they have beaten a difficulty number set by the GM and based on the FATE Ladder. Degrees of success or failure are determined by “shifts” (i.e. the difference between the target difficulty number and the total from the skill roll) and can be altered by spending Fate points, if required. Fate points can also be spent to remove stresses and consequences (damage) and to improve skills.

Character creation is also stripped down and speedy. A player rolls or chooses three Aspects: a Physical or Psychological one, a Racial or Regional one and a Professional one. They then write a quick sentence to describe how they came by these Aspects and assign skill points within them. What is missing are the quirky, evocative names for the Aspects that are normally found in FATE games; I quite understand the author’s argument as to why he chose not to use them, but personally I think it’s a bit of a shame, particularly given the rich setting. Still, within a few minutes you can have a fully functional character: mine (rolled up just to prove how quick and easy it was) turned out to be an Ugly, Lower Tintagen Spy, born to a slave in the court of King Mark, who had risen to a position of court entertainer despite the disfiguring birthmark he possessed, before being recruited as a spy by one of King Gawain’s minions. There are one or two niggles with the character creation section: there are lots of Aspect lists that aren’t immediately relevant to starting game play, meaning you have to hunt out the lists that are, and some of the Aspect definitions are a little hinky (just because you’re Charming doesn’t automatically mean you’re devious, and being Humble shouldn’t automatically make you poor, either). These are pretty minor, though, and the associated skills lists and descriptions are comprehensive yet mercifully brief.

The setting is certainly interesting, blending Arthurian icons with recognisable genre settings (such as the American Wild West, Ancient Rome and Aboriginal Australia with what sounded very much like dinosaurs) and there is quite a bit of information present. There are details on the Four Courts of power (King Gawain, Queen Morgan, King Tristram and King Mark) and the associated realms associated with each (effectively splitting the Cosmos into Kingsland and Queensland), and character bios on major players in each Court. The three churches are covered briefly (Seraphic, Nephilic and Druidic) along with fleeting glimpses of the First Empire. I’m not sure all of it quite gelled for me (particularly the appearance of the Pinkerton Detective Agency), but there’s certainly plenty of scope for a wide variety of adventuring within the Cosmos.

The book’s layout is uncluttered and straightforward and the use of printed circuit diagrams overlaid with stylised flower motifs is simple but striking. Not all of the artwork succeeds in conveying the feeling of the game, mimicking as it does Aubrey Beardsley which, despite its Art Nouveau swirls and sensibilities, feels more Shakespearean to me than Arthurian (despite Beardsley’s work for Le Morte D’Arthur). I was also a little distracted by the watermark, which for some reason stands out far more on an iPad than on a computer screen (but that really is an incredibly minor point).

The biggest niggle with this book is the fact that it doesn’t contain the GM’s Guide. Although a skilled GM will definitely be able to run an entertaining and varied game with what is provided, there are so many hints and references to the GM’s Guide that its absence is a bit of a slap in the face. One of the main things missing from this book, apart from a passing mention of nanites, is just how “magic” works in the Cosmos, and what’s going on with the whole First Empire plotline; there’s also no introductory scenario. I know all of this is in the GM’s Guide, but I do like everything in one place. Again, I understand and sympathise with the reason for separate volumes, but it does make it harder to give a fair and balanced review of the game as a whole when half of it is located elsewhere.

All in all, this is an interesting concept, a straightforward system and a potentially very rich world to play in. Other sourcebooks, detailing different parts of the Cosmos separate from Camelot, are also promised, as is an ability to trot between them. But, as mentioned above, this book is also a terrible tease – promising you a glimpse behind the veil, but never fully revealing itself. And whilst it’s always good to have a little breathing space so you can let your own imagination run riot to fill in the gaps, it could also serve to put off less confident players and GMs, which would be a real shame.

Still, I look forward to seeing what else Mr Jupp has to offer…


Let Me Tell You A Story

Like most gamers (or at least, most of the ones I know), I have a bit of a thing for dice. I have a gigantic collection of them, far more than I will ever need or even use. Well, unless I end up running into a dragon again in Shadowrun (you know something is overpowered when a room full of gamers doesn’t have enough dice between them to manage the attack roll…)

Rory's Story Cubes

So when I found Rory’s Story Cubes in the mighty Leisure Games last year, I had to have them. Presented in a lovely little slipcase (the inner box has a magnetic flap to keep everything safe during transit), you get nine six-sided dice. But instead of dots, you have little cartoon pictures, ranging from straightforward items like an arrow and a pyramid, to slightly more abstract ones, like the comedy & tragedy masks and a demonic shadow.

The idea of the game is storytelling: roll all nine dice then try to make a story using the images on them. It’s quite an entertaining little exercise to try this on your own, but taking turns with friends is where this game shines. Due to the random element of dice rolling, you never quite know what’s going to come up, allowing you to create some weird and wonderful modern fables, either co-operatively or competitively.

And that’s basically it: the rules booklet is tiny and the instructions take up just over two and a bit inches square. The dice are sturdy and well printed, big enough for the recommended ages to handle easily but not too bulky for transporting here, there and everywhere (although apparently there are plans for giant ones, primarily for special needs children and group work). There is also an expansion set (“Actions“), which I have, and another one (“Voyages“), which I don’t (but intend to get hold of as soon as possible). Oh yes, and there’s the inevitable app for everyone’s favourite i-device – but heck, as fun as that might be, that’s not even real dice, so doesn’t actually count.

Because the game is fast and portable, it’s perfect for travelling and impromptu game sessions (say, down the pub or when not enough people turn up for your regular table-top game). Part of me also dearly wants to carry out an experiment to see if I can generate a coherent table-top scenario using nothing but these dice, just for fun. And that’s what this game is all about: pure and simple fun. As someone else’s advertising campaign used to say: “the only limit is your imagination.”


Here Be Dragons

I’m not very good at most computer games (now there’s an admission and a half from someone writing on a gaming blog), usually because I panic and press all the wrong buttons when things get a bit tricky. But I am good at solving puzzles and spotting things, so here at Chez Pixie most of our console gaming is co-operative: he hits things and I tell him where to go and what to do. And that includes the racing games…

I have a massive soft spot for computer RPGs, despite my rather unfortunate first encounter with them via The Hobbit back in the dim and distant 1980s (but that’s another story). I also have a long and rich history with their table-top cousins; the first game I ever ran at University was using the original red box D&D rules and despite the fact that I only used them briefly (because all of the players had been raised on red box and as a result, I felt I couldn’t surprise them with it), I still have very fond memories of that set, crappy dice and all.

So when we were playing Dragon Age: Origins (by the mighty Bioware), I got a serious attack of the warm fuzzies – you know, that glowing nostalgia for an old-fashioned but much-loved game you thought you’d never see the like of again. I’m not a huge one for game mechanics (funnily enough), but the fact that you could see characters marching steadfastly through the basic D&D rules on screen made me chuckle. The dialogue, though corny in places, was perfectly in-keeping with its origins and I loved it to bits. Dragon Age 2 was also great fun, although I missed the freedom of choosing your starting character’s race. And if Dragon Age 3 isn’t centred on Varric, it’ll be a crying shame (Best Adventuring Companion Ever).

It was, therefore, with a sense of dread that I heard Green Ronin had announced that they were actually going to produce a “proper” Dragon Age RPG (and by proper, I mean table-top); after all, there have been some truly awful conversions of big name intellectual properties to other types of format in the past, RPGs included. But when I saw the box set nestled on the shelf of our Friendly Local Game/Comic Shop over Christmas, I had to have a look, just to see if it really was a train wreck in progress.

My first impression was one of amusement: the cover of the box is very tat fantasy, with an elf, a dwarf and a mage kicking the bejeebers out of some nasty Darkspawn greeblies. Don’t get me wrong, it’s beautifully executed and the elf-babe is actually fully dressed – in fact, its perfect for what it’s attempting to emulate (apart from the over-abundance of clothing). The back of the box blurb is straight to the point, too: this is old-school roleplaying and a portal into table-top for those not familiar with the form. Oh yeah, and it has free dice in it as well. Free dice. What’s not to love?

Apart from the dice (three of them; two white six-siders and a red one), you get a Player’s Guide, a Game Master’s Guide and a map of Ferelden. This particular set is for characters of Levels 1-5 (thus continuing the whole original red box theme). At this point I decided it must be mine, whether it was any good or not. Now, having read it, I can tell you that it is good; yes, there are flaws, but on the whole this is a smashing little system that does everything the new and improved current red box D&D tries, but fails, to do (which just goes to show that new and improved is not always better than old and allegedly inferior).

The Player’s Guide sets the scene for the players, with the obligatory “What Is A Roleplaying Game?” section and some notes on group dynamics and game concepts. You then get a far too brief section on the history of Ferelden. This is one of the major points for which the game loses marks for me: okay, if you’ve not played the video version of the game, I’m not quite sure why you’d pick this version up, but some of us don’t have perfect recall anymore and some of the background intricacies have kind of got mixed up with other properties (<cough> Skyrim <cough>), so it really could have done with a bit more oomph.

After the world set-up comes character generation. Nice and simple this bit: roll your 3d6 to generate eight ability scores, pick your background concept (pretty much whether you’re a human, dwarf or elf), tweak it and then choose your class (of which there are three: warrior, mage and rogue) and then tweak some more. The background concept is a little more involved than that, seeing as you have seven actual templates to choose between, but the system is streamlined enough to get a character up and running pretty quickly.

The next chapter goes into more detail about your character’s skills, known in this game as focuses (shouldn’t that be foci?) and talents. A focus is an ability specialisation and a talent is a more specific skill (like weapons training, for example), all of which help to differentiate the characters despite the limited starting choices. Next up is the weapons chapter, which comes with the most adorable set of armour paintings that made me long for a paper doll version of Alistair I could dress up in each one. As with character creation, everything is kept simple and there are no encumbrance rules (The One Ring, take note). Chapter Five deals with magic, another mercifully short and to the point section that gives you what you need to play, rather than endless lists of fireworks that usually bore me to tears and make me give up reading a game all together. The final chapter is an overview of the game rules, such as action resolution and health. There’s even a glossary and an index (and a photocopiable character sheet on the back!). For those of you not sufficiently Luddite, there’s also a link somewhere to a downloadable pdf version.

The artwork on the cover of the GM’s Guide is much more like it, with the good lady mage basically dressed like Morrigan-inna-hoodie. It starts with advice for the GM on setting up a game, creating a story (again, a bit brief, but solid nevertheless) and the different types of GM and player styles. I’m not sure I agree with all of their definitions, some of which may be down to proof-reading failures, which seem to be much more prevalent in this book than the Player’s Guide. Chapter Two looks at the rules in more detail, and even then, they’re nice and bijou.

At its most basic, each dice roll (or test) involves rolling your 3d6 and adding a couple of relevant modifiers. If you roll doubles on the dice, you generate stunt points which allow you to add particular special effects. The red die is known as the Dragon Die, and can alter the outcome of the roll (in terms of degree of success or failure), as well as telling you how many stunt points you get when you do roll doubles. In most cases you’ll be trying to equal or beat a target number, but you might be making opposed rolls (against someone or something else) or an advanced test, which aims to simulate events that take time and uses a threshold mechanism rather than a straight success/fail one. And that’s pretty much it in a nutshell – it really is introductory in every way, shape and form.

There’s a nice chapter on the type of creatures you’re likely to find in Ferelden, including Mabari war dogs (a must-have as far as I’m concerned), and a final one on rewarding your players (oh yes, XP!) before you get to the sample scenario. Now these things are a often a nightmare to write, because you have no idea what players are going to come up with character-wise, so it must be all things to all people. This particular one, “The Dalish Curse”, does suffer from being a bit rumpty-tumpty (and I can see some players running riot with it as written, or wandering off in totally the wrong direction), but it does its best under trying circumstances.

There’s nothing about the Grey Wardens in this set: they’re inBox2(Levels 6-10, or the old dark blue D&D box for those of you who remember these things). Its best to think of this first set as being the section of the video game at the beginning, when you blunder about working through your character’s initial background material (for us, it was all the political manoeuvring surrounding the new Dwarven King). And I enjoyed reading this so much, and making little “awww!” noises at it, that I’ve gone and bought the second box as well (much to the delight of the lovely lass in Travelling Man Newcastle, who was tired of only selling the starter box to people).

So if you want to indulge in a bit of misty-eyed wallowing that harks back to the alleged Golden Age of gaming, or are looking for a way into table-top through a familiar background, this is actually a pretty good place to start. Nicely produced, a good price and a fun, fast read. Go on, give it a go – you know you want to…


Madder Than A Mountain Full of Madness

Every now and again as you wander through your Friendly Local Games Store, you see something that makes you go “Eh?” quickly followed by “Noooo, they can’t have done” and “How in the blue blazes is that going to work?” (Or, you know, something along those lines). I had that very experience last weekend, when a tootle round Grainger Games revealed this intriguing oddity:

Yes, that is H.P. Lovecraft’s Mountains of Madness. And yes, that is a jewel puzzle game. My one previous attempt at a jewel puzzle game ended badly, but this was something I just had to see…

At its heart, Mountains of Madness (well, this version anyway) is a hidden object and match-3 puzzle, with a bit of “figure out how to get the jewels out of ice/hideous statues of Elder Gods” action thrown in for good measure. It must be said, carrying out a hidden object search through the frozen corpses of hideously murdered Antarctic explorers isn’t something you’d want to do every day, but its certainly a new twist on the format (particularly when, if you click on said corpses, there are some pithy statements made about the poor person involved). One particular comment about a person trapped under an overturned sled looking a bit distressed made me laugh somewhat inappropriately (and he, at least, was still alive).

Some of the match-3 games are tricky, but not in a “throw your DS across the room in a fit of pique” way. Plus you earn tools that, once you figure out how to use them, can be tremendously useful in beating some of the harder puzzles. Although be warned: one of the tools lets you switch the colour of every stone on the board, which can actually put you in a worse position than the one you started in. You also earn trophies as you progress through the game, although it’s a bit idiosyncratic as to when it hands them out. I received the one for playing for three hours before I got the one for playing for two and I’m still waiting for the one you get for achieving 12 other trophies.

The story, as you would imagine, has been massively abridged and monkeyed with to make it fit the game format. Some of the translation leaves a lot to be desired, both in what some of the objects in the puzzles are called (I’m sorry, but a glass beer stein is not the same thing as a jar) and also in terms of the passages of narrative text, particularly at the end of the game where it all gets very confusing.

One of the main ways the game shines, though, is in the artwork. The backdrops for the puzzles are beautifully painted and very atmospheric. You’ll again get comedy comments if you click on certain items (“I wouldn’t want to meet the thing that posed for that statue!” etc) which shows that although their translation skills may be a bit duff, the designers have a very good eye and a sense of humour.

It’s a truly oddball thing, this game. I suspect hard-core devotees of Lovecraft will hate it because of what it’s done to the story, but it actually gives a little more interest to the proceedings. After all, if I hadn’t been bamboozled by the concept in the first place, I never would have bought it. And that would have been a real shame; it neither drove me mad nor reached new peaks of gaming experience, but it was fun and compelling and that’s pretty much all of what I ask for in a game.


See You In Salem

Still on the search for a cracking puzzle game to tide me over until the next Professor Layton dramafest, I picked up a pre-owned copy of “Hidden Mysteries: Salem Secrets – Witch Trials of 1692” by GSP. It had good reviews elsewhere (when will I ever learn?) and it looked sufficiently different plot-wise to pique my interest.

You arrive in Salem to investigate the disappearances of four girls, only to find that the entire town has shut itself up and there’s no-one to help you. And this is where the major problem with the game arises: in any other puzzler like this, you’d go and talk to people to try and get an idea of where you have to go next and what you need to do. Not here; there are no clues, which tends to leave you blundering about rather a lot. The little booklet that comes with the game doesn’t explain much either, to such an extent that towards the end of the game I discovered a hints option hidden on a menu screen that isn’t even mentioned in the guide. It might have made things easier earlier on, but long before then I’d resorted to a walkthrough (something I usually avoid using at all costs because it always feels like cheating).

In terms of the puzzles, you have reasonably standard hidden object games, some logic puzzles and some that I have absolutely no idea how you’re meant to solve without the walkthrough (unless you’ve psychically discovered the hints menu right at the beginning and even then, I’m not so sure). Puzzle games are great if you know what the rules of the puzzle are, but far too often in this game you’re left dangling as none of them are explained. I’m still not sure how, as a character with no knowledge of witchcraft, I was supposed to figure out what to do to release the second girl from her ensorcellment, or know what the components of a spell recipe are. But then, I’m not sure how I should know which way the town’s apothecary likes their shelves arranging, either. Part of this isn’t helped by the tiny graphics on the DS’ upper screen, but this isn’t true in all cases. If you do get utterly fed up, there is a skip button which allows you to bypass the puzzles, which on one occasion I did actually use because even with the walkthrough and the hints menu, I still had no idea what I was supposed to do.

Other platforms’ version of this game apparently have a map, which would have been really useful, given that until I caved in and found the walkthrough, I was convinced there were only two streets in the town. There are no arrows to show you possible directions for investigation, leaving you randomly tapping bits of the screen just to see if there’s a hidden footpath somewhere. On top of that, the game does a stunning Michael Crichton and just stops all of a sudden, even though the on-screen dialogue suggests there should be something more.

All in all, it’s a bit of a wasted opportunity, this game. The atmosphere is spooky and the storyline not that bad, but a few suspicious townsfolk to guide you on your way would have given it a huge boost in terms of both tone and playability. Maybe if I’d found the hint menu earlier, I wouldn’t have felt so flummoxed. But because of that frustration, I’m not willing to go back and give it another go just to see.

And so, the hunt for the perfect puzzle game continues…