A homebrew system for parties who want to earn battle scars.
A homebrew system for parties who want to earn battle scars.
If a player character of level 3 or above takes more than half of their hitpoint worth in one strike of damage, they must make a Constitution saving throw of DC 15 or suffer a potentially mortal wound. A failed save uses its total result to determine the wound sustained.
All wounds sustained in this manner require extended recovery through non-magical means and are likely to leave permanent markers or scars.
(This is the fun background story behind this week’s blog post. For the DIGC310 specific uni angled blog entry stuff, read below the horizontal bar.)
Recently I attended the birthday celebration some family friends were hosting. Ordinarily at gatherings with this family, my own, and my cousin’s I fill the role of the entertainer, providing the movies or games to keep the younger generation content throughout the evening. Admittedly we’re probably old enough now after all these years to participate quite happily in the adult conversations about politics and taxes and renovations and what have you (that’s what grownups talk about, right?). I still tend to arrive with a stack of DVDs, ranging from stellar to dreadful, under my arm though – just out of habit.
On this particular occasion, however, I knew it wasn’t just our usual familial trio in attendance, and didn’t know what to expect. So instead of DVDs, I showed up awkwardly balancing a pile of Betrayal, Tokyo and Pandemic, and explained (badly) to a person or two I happened to know from university that usually I’m in charge of amusement. It seemed for a while that I was just going to remain that weirdo who brought along a useless clutch of board games that were going to go unplayed while everyone was enjoying their adult conversations about politics, taxes, renovations and what have you.
But then, Zach showed up.
I was sitting in a room at the front of the house to escape from some of the noise when this intrepid ten year old thought to do the same (he may have been avoiding having to dance with his mother).
“What’s your name?”
“Cool. I like your shirt.”
“Are you going to be playing those board games?”
And there it was. Straight out of the blue, this kid looking for an escape from boredom, the unwanted attention of those he deemed grownups, and awkward interactions with the half dozen other kids there he didn’t know had seen his way out. And the way out was King of Tokyo. We needed at least three players, so with my sister Shannyn onboard, we sat down for my first ever go of this game I’ve had since Christmas.
And, as if this game were the Pied Piper’s flute, we played and the children came. One by one they appeared through the cracks. Young girls sat aloof on a nearby couch watching the game unfold, kids enthralled by the exciting artwork snatched up each card to ask me what it did, boys so tiny a feather could break them appeared at my elbow and asked to roll my dice for me (I’m glad I allowed this, they were much luckier than I).
So out of nowhere a spirit was fostered of companionship among these children who didn’t know each other and only minutes before had no interest in GETTING to know each other. Three games in and I was losing almost instantly while these humans half my age, and less than half my height, continued on without me, engaging with each other for hours on end, the game acting as babel fish translating their previous disinterest into sudden and unexpected friendships. Even the kids who elected not to partake in the game play itself were opening up and chatting with each other as well as me, like the room had filled up with an aura that said “this is where the fun is at” and all of the kids could sense it a mile off.
But it was what happened next that REALLY surprised me. A little while in to the Tokyo smashing frenzy, the party’s parents must have realised they hadn’t heard complaints from their children in a while. I was showered with unanticipated (and mostly unearned) praise, with thank you after thank you, and kisses on the cheek, I’m part way surprised there wasn’t any confetti being thrown—these people were thrilled to not have to worry about keeping their youngins entertained. The appreciation was honestly overwhelming, especially given how little effort I’d had to invest and how much fun I got out of it, plus a cool little gang of demi-human peeps to boot.
So I guess it was a good idea to bring those board games after all.
MORAL PANIC AND VIOLENT GAMES
So both children and their parents were swept up in powerful positivity in response to the kids’ participation in the game King of Tokyo. It’s interesting to me, thinking about it now after a lecture on Moral Panic and Violent Games, that not a single individual was concerned that the core of this game is “punch each other until there’s only one of you left standing”. Granted, you’re punching each other as big city smashing monsters, but still there was a lot of punching involved.
It’s interesting thinking about this in regards to the concept of moral panic from the lecture, especially once you add in the concept from early on in the course of moral panic associated with new technologies. When coming up with entertainment for these kids I didn’t find myself having to stop and wonder whether a “monsters punching each other” board game was suitable, or questioning whether their parents would object. It was all just immediately deemed acceptable by all involved (including parents). However, any time I’ve found myself in a situation in which I’m selecting videogame based entertainment for children, I’m instantly having to consider a bunch of different things. What will the kids enjoy? What will the kids find simple to play? Is the content in this game suitable for their age group? Do I just think it’s suitable for their age group because I’m a gamer who doesn’t think of videogames as damaging? Even if it IS suitable, will their PARENTS think it’s suitable? Do I even KNOW their parents, what they’re like and what their standards are in this regard?
It just makes me a little bit flustered, you might spot.
Even a videogame I would consider comparable in many ways to King of Tokyo at least so far as violence is concerned, Injustice: Gods Among Us (ultimately just a big smash up, larger than life player characters, bright colours, violent concept with low gore factor), is something I question in presenting to children. But what’s the difference? Is it that while playing a videogame acts of violence are depicted visually in front of the player while a board game often relies on a players imagination?
I mean after all, where’s the harm in just rolling a handful of dice and using your imagination? No one would be crazy enough to fly into a panic over the effects THAT would have on children!
I definitely feel like there’s an element at play here in which new technologies tend to attract moral panic. Board games, new or not, are an old school gaming medium—videogames are where the real fear is at. It seems to not (always) have a whole lot to do with the violence within the game itself, and more to do with the mode in which the player consumes that violence.
Gregory Kenyota describes the relationship between videogames and controversy and makes the point that “While the Congressional hearings took place, Congress focused mostly on Mortal Kombat and Night Trap and missed games that could have been just as controversial.” (790) In their panic, congress was so busy going after videogames as a medium for violence, that they actually forgot to keep in check the violent content itself. This suggests that the technology in question likely, and the content not necessarily, has a big role to play in the moral panic associated with violent games.
(I’d just like to take a moment to state clearly that I do not think that videogames, board games or tabletop RPGs make people violent. I am also appreciative that all the families at that party were cool non-dubious types, which is also probably part of the reason no one questioned the monster beating up content.)
This is a blog post written for my Digital Game Cultures class at university which required I limit word count, if you want to read my full review with pictures, quips, and all you can find it here.
I got far too invested in my first blog post for DIGC310, reviewing a board game I’ve played in the last week, so for anyone who doesn’t have the time to read my near 2000 words on City of Horror (and for Chris to read as part of the assessment criteria), here’s the Cliff’s Notes version.
The game requires that each player try to keep a team of survivor characters alive through four rounds of incoming zombies, scarce supplies, and blatant betrayals by other players. Significant mechanics include limited movement, limited capacities at each location, a democratic voting system to decide who gets new items or dies, among others.
The art in this game is truly fantastic, and was one of the reasons I bought it in the first place. In particular the clever use of art on the board space to make the placement of piles of items not currently in use feel natural is something that stands out, for example the barricade of sandbags behind which the restless army of undead are held, and the abandoned ambulance housing the antidotes players must scavenge throughout the game. The game’s pieces are beautifully thematic, combining comic book elements with the appropriate gritty and abandoned feel of any apocalyptic setting. The use of art serves as an excellent production element, happily using detailed images on 2D stands for characters and zombies instead of the plastic miniatures opted for in some other games which can easily warp or send the price skyrocketing.
Apart from this, however, the game is really quite disappointing.
Many characters are stereotyped, possibly in an unsuccessful attempt to mock the tropes and character archetypes of B Horror films. The characters of The Rasta, the Sushi Chef and The Student stand out as being problematic—a psychic black man, a chef who, being Asian, OBVIOUSLY makes sushi and has ninja know-how, and an Asian high schooler with an extremely short skirt as part of her sailor style school uniform. Then there’s my personal favourite (read: the depiction I hate most). The Blonde. This character doesn’t even get a special ability. Instead she is constantly screaming, which attracts a new zombie to her location every turn, and the only way to stop this is by “exhausting” her character. Flip over the card to see the alternate art for the “exhausted” Blonde and, oh hey, she’s been physically gagged!
My disappointment when I first bought the game and discovered the thinly veiled elements of sexism and racism (not mentioned by anyone in reviews while I was researching before making my purchase) was immense.
In fact, most of the media surrounding the game online was fairly misinforming. Specifically, the ‘buy me’ text attached to online store listings of City of Horror claimed that “the city map changes each game” insinuating a high level of replayability. This was a big selling point for me, so imagine my dismay when I discovered that in fact the game contained only six locations which are present in every single play through that can be flipped to reveal… More or less the exact same thing.
The game as a whole, while it does some things very right (especially when the mechanics and theme align), often feels more like an unfinished prototype, with simple instructions translated into obscure coded images in game, and the rulebook occasionally difficult to navigate on top of having some frustrating ambiguities in the way it has been translated into English by the Belgian production company.
Pretty pictures aren’t enough to carry a game.
When I first bought this game, my brother Rhys, my sister Shannyn, and myself were so excited about it that we cleared off the dining table and played it all night, getting through enough games to make sure we’d tried it with every single character (of which there are many). We very quickly became attached to these little drawn figures, doing away with the bland (to us at the time) classic horror trope titles they had as designations and naming each and every one of them with love, care, and countless pop-culture references. During a brief break between the second and third games to dart off to the Macca’s drivethru, we charted out relationships, reasons for their visiting specific locations at the start of the game, entire backstories! We concocted in our minds, almost instantly, an entire miniseries based on the stories that had revealed themselves through play. But still, my opinion of this game is not a particularly good one.
City of Horror is yet another member of that seemingly endless horde of zombie apocalypse themed board games currently available for purchase. It’s marketed as a “backstabbing survival-horror game” and the mechanics basically require that each player take control of a number of characters and keep them alive throughout a series of zombie waves, all the while collecting antidotes and fending off attacks. Points are earned at the end of the game mostly according to the value assigned each of the surviving characters, and are complicated by the need for antidotes to have the characters count as ‘alive’, an “exhaustion” mechanic which allows the use of a character’s ability but leaves them worth less, and added points value from tinned food and any excess antidotes. Honestly, if there are so many antidotes to the zombie virus lying around, I don’t quite see where the problem is in beating this apocalypse, but hey!
The production values for the game were the first thing that caught my eye, and a big part in why I eventually bought it. The game utilises detailed art on 2D stand figures rather than miniatures (to accommodate without extreme expense the large number of zombies required during play). The artwork is truly spectacular, and at times used in extremely clever ways. The game’s pieces are beautifully thematic, combining comic book elements with the appropriate gritty and abandoned feel of any apocalyptic setting. Most impressive to me, I think, are the clever ways the board incorporates token placement for piles of anything not in use. Antidote tokens lie atop the image of an ambulance and weapons cards similarly make use of a halted military truck. The dormant zombies are stored as if trapped behind a barricade of sandbags, and the food tin tokens lie scattered across the crossroads as if they’ve spilled from the overturned food truck. This artistic ingenuity is seen again when the character cards, flipped to their “exhausted” side, bear different artwork reflecting the change caused by that character’s power. When the Security Guard uses his ability to kill two zombies at his current location, you flip his card to find that his dog is missing from the image, as if he’s set it loose on the walking dead. The Pregnant Woman has the ability to vote for two every turn until the end of the game, but only if you allow her to give birth, an action which leaves her permanently exhausted (I mean, she can hardly put the baby back IN). Turning her card over reveals her cradling a kind of grossly accurate new born baby.
Elements like this are FANTASTIC but City of Horror is bizarrely inconsistent with them. Only 3 characters out of 21 have an altered image on their flip side (one of them being The Blonde, we’ll get to her in a minute). The Thief, for example, isn’t shown on his “exhausted” side to be struggling to carry something heavy he’s stolen, which would both fit his character ability and account for his supposed “exhaustion”. Instead, the red side of his card just shows the same image of him, lithe as ever, but for some reason now worth less. The powers themselves even show this inconsistency, some of them being applied seemingly arbitrarily. The Housewife, for whatever reason, is able to kill two zombies in her current location. Sound familiar? Yep, that’s the exact same ability as the one belonging to The Vigil. Are we supposed to accept that her umbrella would have the same effect on the hordes of the undead as a trained attack dog? Similarly, The Rocker and The Geek both share the ability to move a zombie away from their location to somewhere else on the board, with no explanation as to how these characters are in any way alike (aside from the occasional image of them sitting together drinking energy drinks outside a convenience shop) or in fact, how they are able to repel a single shambler each at all.
Then there’s the stereotyping. It seems, from other reviews I’ve read over on Boardgamegeek.com and from the folks at Shut Up & Sit Down that these character depictions are easily brushed off as part of the theme, as the kind of characters you would see in a typical B Horror film. However, when there are games in the genre that have already done that brilliantly, such as Last Night on Earth, and when City of Horror includes survivalists that I’ve never seen in any horror movie my whole life, such as The Sushi Chef and The Punk (hey, maybe I’m just watching the wrong zombie movies), the ‘making fun of the tropes argument’ doesn’t quite cut it for me. The characters of The Rasta, The Sushi Chef, and The Student are fairly problematic—a psychic black man, an Asian chef with ninja know-how, and an Asian high schooler with an extremely short skirt as part of her sailor style school uniform. Then there’s my personal favourite (read: the depiction I hate most). The Blonde. This character doesn’t even get a special ability. Instead she is constantly screaming, which attracts a new zombie to her location every turn, and the only way to stop this is by “exhausting” her character. Flip over the card to see the alternate art for the “exhausted” Goldie and, oh hey, she’s been physically gagged!
My disappointment when I first bought this game and discovered the thinly veiled elements of casual sexism and racism inside (not mentioned by anyone while I was researching before handing over my money, mind) was immense. I am proud to say, however, that my siblings and I, while not confident enough to alter the functions of cards like Goldie’s in case we break the game’s mechanics, are excellent at thematic spin. “Screaming?” says my brother, “She’s not screaming, that’s her battle cry! She demands that the zombies come and fight her in mortal combat!” As much as our own head canon has done a good job of putting a bandaid on the wound, this is something that would have had a huge impact on my purchase had I known about it earlier. Perhaps I could have looked harder to find out if the game would contain anything I’d be offended by, but no one should have to—it’s on the game developers to not be offensive, not the buyer to not be offended.
Speaking of things that would have impacted my purchase! There’s one major thing mentioned in the breakdown of this game that’s copy and pasted to every site where it is sold that has caught my attention while writing this blog post; “the city map changes each game”. This, when I was originally looking to buy, called to mind more expensive games I coveted like Zombicide or classics in the genre like Last Night on Earth. Games with modular map tiles that can be randomised or rearranged to create a new layout every game, with new location combinations, all adding massive replayability. This was a big selling point for me! What I got, however, was six locations that are always present, two of which are always in the same place on the board, no matter how you puzzle piece it together. These tiles CAN flip, as I’m sure was promised somewhere, but the flipped side shows the exact same image with perhaps one fewer capacity spaces or an alternate zombie limit which hardly add a lot of variety to the game play.
Possibly the biggest problem I find with this game, though, is one of the most important parts of any game; the rules. Most of the in-game instructions are provided in coded images, which is a perfectly sensible idea for saving space and getting meaning across clearly and quickly. Or at least it is if the images make any sense. I’ve played this game probably close to a dozen times and still find myself needing to clarify the meaning of many of the little vectors. Some are pretty easy to get a grasp on, like the Chainsaw or the Hideout, but when you’re trying to understand what you can do with the Pepper Spray or the Businessman’s power it can become confusing, especially given the use of the universal “recycle” symbol to mean several, slightly different things. But sure, I have to double check with the cheat sheet or the rule book sometimes, that’s not too bad! Except that the rulebook is one of the most difficult to navigate I have ever encountered. It’s deceptively simple at first, but then you notice the mistakes the Belgian publishers have made in their English which could leave a rule meaning two completely different things. Then you start to realise that some of their layout decisions make no sense, like putting the advanced set up rules on page 7 amongst the descriptions of how the game ends and is scored, rather than at the beginning of the book with, you know, the set up rules.
City of Horror does a lot of things right, like the spectacular moments when the mechanics and theme work together seamlessly. Someone fires a flare at the water tower leading zombies there and away from themselves, only to have the flare blow up the last of the tower’s foundations, bring it crashing down on the mindless face eaters congregated underneath, washing them away in the flood of water! But then, that doesn’t happen all that often, really. Usually it’s more along the lines of “the military have airdropped us some supplies and… It’s a kitten and some energy drink…” It often felt like an unfinished prototype in the way some of the mechanics functioned, or occasionally didn’t.
On the whole, I’ve enjoyed this game many times but most of that is thanks to the creativity of the people I was playing with. The production values played a big part in getting me to buy this game, but the pretty pictures aren’t enough to carry the game and make me content. The game needed a lot more work in its mechanics, its communication and its sensitivity training in particular.