New Game Weekend: Zombicide Season 2: Prison Outbreak

ZPrisonboxIt’s hard to escape zombies.

The Walking Dead TV series just wrapped its fifth season this past week, and my entire family huddled around the television to see where the story would leave us until our favorite survivors of the zombie apocalypse were back again. Until then, there’s a spin-off series called Fear The Walking Dead premiering this summer which tell the tale of the beginnings of the zombie outbreak from the perspective of a different group of survivors in Los Angeles. There’s also the original monthly Image Comics series (currently at 139 issues) I’ve been reading for more than ten years now for a story that both parallels and differs from the story the TV show portrays. There’s certainly plenty of zombie stuff out there to keep me going.

zombiboxAbout two years ago I also got hooked on Zombicide. Lots of people caught the bug, judging by the continued success of the game. The first game launched based on a nearly $800,000 Kickstarter funding campaign in late 2012. The following year, Zombicide Season 2 brought in over $2.25 million on the funding site. This past summer, Zombicide Season 3 topped that number with nearly $2.9 million raised. The maker of the game, Guillotine Games, has also maintained a steady flow of additional special edition products, a companion app, free customizable game resources and dozens of scenarios available online. With the new Zombicide Season 3 just being shipped to players worldwide this month, there’s even been hints at a Season 4 which throws back to a Medieval-themed zombie outbreak.

ZprisonminisSurvivors, berserker zombies and zombies miniatures from Zombicide Season 2: Prison Outbreak

The base game has been a big favorite at my house for a couple years, and this past week we added Zombicide Season 2: Prison Outbreak to our home collection. As with the original base game, Prison Outbreak is big heavy box of zombie gaming goodness. Nine game two-sided game board tiles, about 150 cards, over 100 tokens, dice, Survivor player cards and 90 miniatures pack the box with components oozing in great design.

IMG_5680 “The Break-In” tutorial scenario from Prison Outbreak

This time around, the game adds a bunch of new aspects to play. Firstly, the miniatures come with some differences for both the zombies and survivors. Berserker zombies, cast in a muddy brown, bring a new aspect to the undead horde with Walkers, Runners, Fatties and an Abomination which must be attacked at close quarters in melee combat. This means more risk for players having to get right into a messy scrum with Berserkers using baseball bats, nightsticks, hatchets, hammers or saws, leaving ranged firearms for the original zombies molded in grey plastic like the base game.

IMG_5710The zombie horde in the “Find The Keys” scenario from Prison Outbreak

With the game amped up with more danger, the players too have received an upgrade with the possibility of coming back as Zombivors. Yeah, that’s an undead player which comes with an extra model and reverse side to the Survivor identity card. After a player is hit twice and killed by a zombie, the Zombivor comes on the table and the player fights on and may take five more wounds before truly being dead.

IMG_5708Grindlock goes toe-to-toe with a Berserker Abomination in “Find The Keys”

Things happen a lot faster in Prison Break as players are forced to quickly rack up zombie kills, pushing the experience level up in the game and spawning more and badder zombies onto the board each turn. To help out, a lot of new special skills have been added to the Survivors, allowing players to draw zombies toward them with “Taunt,” rescue other survivors from neighboring spaces with “Lifesaver” and a bunch of other new abilities once a player turns into a Zombivor.

IMG_5711The Survivors poised to make their escape in Zombicide Season 2: Prison Outbreak

The combination of new weapons and skills balances nicely with the new threats from Berserkers in Prison Outbreak. Playing through the first few of the ten scenarios supplied in a storyline campaign, we’ve quickly found a good combination of using skills to draw zombies into close combat with characters armed with hefty melee weapons like the concrete saw while defending with nightsticks and riot shields. In a pinch, a molotov cocktail can still take out a mass of undead in one throw, but the game only amps up with so many points scored with one huge kill. Balancing skills, finding the right weapons, getting them into the best Survivor’s hands, timing when to kill and when to elude zombies, and making the decision to allow a character to die and resurrect as a Zombivor all makes Zombicide Season 2 an enormous amount of high-stakes fun over and over again.

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New Game Weekend: Legendary

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I’ve been a Marvel Comics collector and fan since the 1970s, but my gaming experience with my favorite super heroes has always been a less than satisfying experience. TSR’s Marvel Super Heroes Role-Playing Game never really played like the feel of a comic book back in the 1980s, and my brief experience with the Heroclix system in the past few years has also left me flat even with some great looking toys. And so, I was thrilled when I recently got into Legendary, a game that finally placed me directly in the midst of the wide Marvel Universe of heroes and villains.

Legendary Expansions

Fantastic Four, Paint The Town Red and Guardians of The Galaxy expansions

Released by collectibles giant Upper Deck in 2012, Legendary is a deck-building card game in which players take on the roles of super heroes doing battle with super villains in a near endless combination of scenarios and team-ups. Legendary is gloriously illustrated with all-original artwork with a hefty base game box containing heroes and foes primarily drawn from the Avengers, X-Men and Spider Man storylines. Additional expansion sets pull players into the cosmic worlds of the Fantastic Four and Guardians of the Galaxy, as well as the streets of New York populated by Daredevil, Elektra, Black Cat and Spider Woman.

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Sample X-Men and Spider Man cards

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Sample Fantastic Four and Guardians of the Galaxy cards

Each hero is presented in a series of 14 cards of progressively higher value and ability. Team affiliations are depicted with small icons and values for recruiting other heroes and attacks are found at the bottom of the card. Special abilities and bonuses through interaction with other cards are listed along with colorful flavor text under the hero’s illustration. And so, each hero’s range of abilities is represented over the set of cards, allowing each character to grow in strength and use different powers or abilities throughout the game.

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Sample Mastermind, Henchmen and Villain cards

Evil doers in Legendary are divided into three categories. Mastermind cards depict the powerful, lead villian like Doctor Doom, Magneto or Galactus within a given game and are represented with a stack of five cards. Henchmen are a group of identical cards of lower level bad guys such as Doombots and Hand Ninjas with limited abilities. Villain cards feature characters from teams of arch enemies from groups like the Sinister Six, Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, Hydra or Skrulls, each with varying abilities, effects and strength. Like the super hero cards, Villains, Masterminds

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The Legendary game board

A game of Legendary is played on two levels. The players work collaboratively as a group of heroes to beat the game itself represented by the villains. If the players collectively win the game, points are tallied with each player based on the number of villains each player has defeated. The player with the most points wins. The mix of individual competition and teamwork is just one of the ways Legendary really feels like a comic book story as super heroes team up to achieve a unified goal while also performing heroic feats as individuals.

Legendary begins with the selection of a Scheme (ie scenario) which gives the conditions of victory for the heroes and villains. A Mastermind is chosen to represent the lead baddie in the game, and then Henchmen and Villain cards are selected. A Villain deck is created by shuffling in all Villains and Henchmen along with Scheme cards and Masterstrike cards which allow for attacks by the Mastermind. Depending on the number of players, a set of Hero cards are also shuffled together into a Hero deck. Choosing the mix of Heroes and Villains are sometimes dictated by the Scheme, can be done randomly or may be done by making specific selections. Part of the fun of Legendary is in the combinations of cards used to create the numerous combinations of Hero and Villain decks

Each player is given a starter deck of identical twelve S.H.I.E.L.D. Hero cards and all other decks are placed on the Legendary game board. Six cards are drawn by each player from their shuffled starter decks. Five Hero cards are drawn from the top and laid out face up in the S.H.I.E.L.D “HQ” area and made available in turn to each player to “recruit” into their deck each turn based on recruitment points on their six cards in hand. Players may also play cards from their hand to fight Villains drawn each turn from the Villain deck and placed face up in the “City” area on the board. As each new Villain is turned up, other Villains shift down the City row and may be fought be players playing attack points on their available hand of cards. Played Hero cards also contain a variety of abilities, often used in combination with other cards to greater effect. Hero abilities can allow for extra cards to be drawn or discarded, stronger attacks, automatic defeat of Villains, extra recruitment value and numerous other special effects. Defeated Villains provide positive and negative effects on players and are then scored in a victory point pile for each player. Villains who move down the City track escape, causing negative impacts to the players. Scheme cards drawn from the Villain deck likewise cause bad things to happen. At the end of a player’s turn, a new hand is drawn back to six cards and play passes to the next player.

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One of my many recent games of Legendary

Legendary thus plays over a variety of turns as more Heroes are recruited into a player’s available deck, Masterminds and Villains are defeated, Bystanders are rescued and progress is made in defeating the Scheme before the bad guys win. Hero cards from the same or aligned teams combine to powerful effect, and certain Villain and Hero cards also interact in different ways. Getting the right number and combination of hero cards moving through a deck is key as the game progresses.

There are so many things I love about Legendary. Primarily, the game just “feels” like a comic book. Teams, like the Fantastic Four, X-Men or Avengers, work best together, combining skills and abilities to powerful effect against Villains. Individual Hero abilities each play with the superpowers known from the comic book canon. For example, Rogue from the X-Men is able to siphon abilities off other Heroes and Hulk rages and sometimes causes damage to Villains and Heroes alike.

Dark City

The big Dark City expansion for Legendary

I got into Legendary in a big way over the 2014 holiday season with the base game and Fantastic Four, Paint The Town Red, Guardians of The Galaxy and Dark City expansions. With hundreds of Mastermind, Villain, Henchmen, Hero and Scheme cards available, each game plays in a nearly endless variety. With the modern Marvel Universe dating back to 1961 and re-invigorated with a constant flow of hit blockbuster movies since 2000, Legendary draws richly on the complex intersecting storylines from a half century of comic book popular culture.

Legendary has started me off in 2015 with a new game favorite and one my entire family has enjoyed playing together. As a lifelong fan and gamer, Legendary has finally given me the chance to team up with my favorite heroes from the Marvel Universe.

New Game Weekend: Letters From Whitechapel

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This fall will be the 125th anniversary of one of the most famed unsolved crime cases in history and a story that continues to fascinate to this day. The Jack the Ripper case, also known as the Whitechapel Murders for the section of London where the killings occured in 1888, involved the gruesome homicides of (at least) five prostitutes by a still-unknown perpetrator. Much like today’s high-profile crimes, the case held Victorian London in a state of rapturous horror as an anxious police force, press and citizenry obsessed over the murders and hunt for the suspect. Graphic crime-scene photos, mysteriously cryptic letters and speculation on potential suspects – from butchers to surgeons to members of the British royal family – combine to make to make the lore of “Ripperology” a thing of modern legend.

Jack The Ripper in Pop Culture

From a pretty early age, I had a macabre interest in Jack The Ripper. Aside from the countless true-crime books on the case, Jack The Ripper has made it to the big and small screen dozens of times over the years. I love the moody 1928 silent picture Pandora’s Box starring Louise Brooks as a wayward innocent who falls into a life of prostitution before becoming a victim of Jack. The 1979 movie Time After Time adds a sci-fi spin on the case with Malcolm McDowell as H.G. Wells chasing Jack The Ripper through time to modern day San Francisco. My favorite by far has to be the 1988 Golden Globe-winning TV miniseries Jack The Ripper with Michael Caine chewing the scenery as the real-life Scotland Yard chief investigator of the Whitechapel Murders Inspector Frederick Aberline. Made on the centennial of the case, the series focused on the theorized link of the murders to the British royal family and re-introduced the case to a new generation of Ripper-obsessives like myself.

Pandora’s Box

Time After Time

Jack The Ripper

fromhellcoverOf all the movies and books I’ve encountered about Jack the Ripper nothing can hold an oil lamp to Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell‘s 1999 graphic novel masterpiece, From Hell. Orginally released in a 10-issue serial and now available as a bound edition, From Hell is one of the most dizzyingly complex stories I’ve ever read. This is also Moore at his most obsessive with nearly 600 pages of slowly-building detail ultimately pointing to a grand and ancient conspiracy. The muddy black-and-white ink drawings of Campbell perfectly capture the grime of the streets of 19th-century London and the unhinged mind of a serial killer. The depth of research and detail in the characters and places surrounding the case really can’t be described, and it’s this complexity in the book that has driven me back to re-read it a number of times over the years. Johnny Depp starred in a 2011 film adaptaion of the story, but honestly I’ve never been able to bring myself to watch it given how much I love Moore and Campbell’s original series. A new book, The From Hell Companion, goes behind the scenes to the story and visual development of the book, and I’m certain I’ll be picking up a copy very soon.

Letters From Whitechapel

With a long-time interest with Jack The Ripper, I was thrilled to get a chance to play Fantasy Flight Game’s Letters From Whitechapel recently at Metropolitan Wargamers. The game presents a historically-accurate map of Whitechapel with its intricate cobblestoned streets and alleys on which a group of police officers attempt to track down and apprehend Jack The Ripper before his murderous spree comes to a bloody end.

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In the game, one player is elected to play as Jack while the other players take on the roles of patrolling London policemen. Behind a special screen, Jack denotes his hidden home base on a special sheet before placing tokens on the board at the location of possible victims. The police players then secretly place the starting locations of their patrolling officers. Then, all starting places for the police and prostitutes are revealed and markers are placed on the board. Going first, Jack then decides whether to kill his first victim or delay for time. Once the victim is murdered, a red token is placed to denote the scene of the crime and the police pawns are moved up to two black squares at a time.

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Jack the Ripper then moves each turn in secret between numbered spaces, marking the locations on his sheet away from view from the police players. A carriage token allows Jack to move two spaces and slip by police potentially blocking his path. An alley token lets jack slip through a dark back passage within any given city block. After each move by Jack, the police move and choose to investigate nearby areas or speculate on and adjacent location of Jack and make an arrest. If a player investigates a space where Jack has been, a clue is revealed and marked on the board. Turns alternate with Jack moving and the officers attempting to string together his movements through discovering more clues. Jack attempts to get back to his secret hideout before being found out by the inspectors within the set time of the round. If Jack is successful, the next round begins with a reset of the board and a new potential victim being placed.

Letters from Whitechapel is basically a cat-and-mouse game with the police players attempting to decode Jack’s possible routes of movement in order to close in and capture him. In my first game, it took us two rounds to track down a very elusive Jack who ran devious circuitous routes back toward his hideout. After the first round, we felt fairly confident we had narrowed his home base to one of three areas of the board, and we finally caught him in the second round by focusing on those areas. The game involves a lot of discussion among the police players with various theories of Jack’s whereabouts bandied across the table throughout the game.

For gamers with more than a little Jack The Ripper interest coupled with a desire to play out a game of hidden movement of the opponent, Letters From White Chapel is incredibly satisfying. With 125 years of the unsolved Whitechapel Murders behind us and probably many more to come, having a go at bringing Jack The Ripper to justice makes for an intriguing couple hours of play.

Retro Gaming The 70s & 80s: Marvel Super Heroes Role-Playing Game

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Way back in the late 1970s, well before we had summers filled with superhero movies, I was a comic book collector. Those were the days when my younger brother and I bought our weekly fix of Marvel and DC superheroes off a squeaky rotating rack in a corner store, all for under a dollar each. Eventually our collecting graduated to visiting comic book shops, flea markets, yard sales and small regional comic book conventions in Western New York. As our collection grew into thousands of books by the mid-1980s, my brother and I were receiving weekly warehouse wholesale shipments and were bidding on lots of older books through auctions by mail. Both of us sold-off the majority of our collections in the late 1980s and early 1990s before the market became glutted, eBay arrived on the scene and CCG-graded comics became the new collecting norm.

timetrapI still have a significant, albeit more scaled-down, interest in comic books to this day. Yet as I recall those peak collecting years in the early 80s, my mind eventually takes me to memories of 1984 and TSR’s release of Marvel Super Heroes: The Heroic Roleplaying Game. The game arrived during big expansion years for TSR as the popularity of their flagship Dungeons & Dragons franchise continued to grow in player fandom and pop culture infamy. Winning the Marvel license allowed TSR to launch a new game with a built-in base of players which had a lot of cross-over interest in comic books and gaming (like myself). Despite the promise of the total package of the Marvel Universe delivered in a RPG by the makers of D&D, the Marvel Super Heroes game never really delivered.

murderworldThe core box came with a quick start “Battle Book” and a more detailed “Campaign Book.” Also included was an introductory scenario, “Day of the Octopus,” plus a fold-out map, character reference cards and some rudimentary markers. TSR quickly expanded the game with a number of accessories including a couple sets of poor quality metal miniatures and quite a number of game adventures following the module model which had proven so successful with D&D. An eager collector, I snapped up a bunch of adventure books, including “Time Trap” featuring the Avengers and “Murderworld!” starring the Fantastic Four. Expansions also included a number of adventures which featured “adventure fold-up figures.” Unable to help myself, I happily bought the Hydra-themed “Pit of the Viper” edition along with a few others.

pitofviperDrawing on the stable of established Marvel characters, the game looked great. Mechanics borrowed broadly from D&D with “Attributes” establishing the primary strengths of a super hero on a scale of 1-100. “Superpowers” defined unique abilities while “Talents” were a set of skills a character could draw upon. A system of “Karma” (similar to D&D Experience) allowed for character upgrades. The problem I quickly found with the game was that you played characters within an established set of backgrounds and relationships. Spider-Man, Thor or The Human Torch carried enormous backstories, robbing players of the opportunity to create and grow a character from the ground up like in the more pure RPG realm of D&D. Eventually, I was buying the expansions simply to read the text and assemble the little cardboard figures and terrain pieces.

Despite the mediocre quality of the game overall, TSR went on the release a revised version of the game in the late 1990s. More than anything else, the second edition of the game was probably an effort to retain the license from Marvel. Even so, Marvel and TSR eventually parted ways by the early 2000s.

So much of my generation was defined by the first modern wave of toy licensing with Star Wars that I can hardly fault TSR for jumping on the brand-extending bandwagon with Marvel. It’s amazing to me the game lasted so long given my memory of its lack of interesting play. This is one game I can’t foresee ever returning to. Its true superpower lay in how deep the marketing of those characters was a part of me then and stays with me today.

Collector’s Note: Most probably owing to the low quality of the game, the original TSR  Marvel Super Heroes game starter box set and most expansions can be found on eBay for under $20 each.