Tag: Tabletalk (page 1 of 2)

Tabletalk: The Variance Question

Courtesy Wizards of the Coast
On top of everything, that hack Robert Wintermute killed Venser…

A quick note before we begin: the movie I’ve been asked to review isn’t available yet. It should be later in the day, but for now we’re going to swap the review with Tabletalk for this week. Okay? Okay.

Magic… it’s time we talked.

I’ve been playing you for years. Decades, even. And there is a lot that I like about you. Your planes are rich with game and story potential. You show interesting design choices at every turn. Memories of tournaments, drafts, and throwdowns with family are evocative of good or even excellent times, and I will never forget them.

But, to be honest, I’ve been seeing other card games.

I don’t want you to feel like you’ve done anything wrong. I don’t think it’s your fault. I am, in all honesty, just a little tired of some of the things that throw me off when it comes to you. I certainly don’t agree with all of your design choices, and I know that no cycle of cards lasts forever outside of Legacy. You may see me coming back to a local gaming store in the future. The big problem, though, is the irritation I have with variance.

I like games that are different every time you play them. They add variety and make me want to play more. The thing is, though, that a deck of Magic has a level of variance that tends to be rather high. While this can be mitigated with good deck construction choices, the bottom line is that the resources you need to play the game – your land – are dispensed to you entirely at random. You could have everything necessary in your hand to make a clutch play or escape a tight situation, but you can’t do anything because your land has not deigned to show up yet. It sucks for me when it happens, and it sucks for my opponent, too. When my opponent gets screwed on their mana, I feel bad on their behalf, since it doesn’t feel like we’re playing the game on equal terms, and that’s not fun for anybody who wants to have fun playing. I mean, if you care only about winning, then yes, you want your opponent to have every disadvantage possible, but that to me is not very sporting. Call me old-fashioned.

Some people like this. They like the extra challenge it presents, and the fact that games are not predictable. That’s fine. I can understand that. I personally feel, however, that games like Hearthstone and Netrunner are spoiling me, since my resources are not tied to random chance.

We’ll talk more about that next week. For now… I don’t hate you, Magic, but to be honest, I don’t think you’re my favorite anymore. It’s not you, it’s me.

Tabletalk: Netrunner Basics

Cyberfeeder, by Gong Studios
Art by Gong Studios

I have been well and truly hooked by Android: Netrunner for a variety of reasons. The game is steeped in atmosphere and flavor, from the names of each player’s decks and hands to some truly stunning artwork. The second-hand market for individual cards is practically non-existent, making it a slightly more economical choice, even if the up-front investment can seem a touch daunting. And much like Hearthstone, it’s possible to build a deck just using the Core Set of the game that has a fighting chance, or will at least yield a good time.

The asymmetrical nature of the gameplay, however, can be off-putting for new players. I thought I would take a bit of time before diving into the nuances of the game’s different Corp and Runner factions to talk about how the two sides play, and give some tips to newer players, or players who have tried to play Netrunner before and for one reason or another ran into obstacles not generated by the board state.

Both the Corp and the Runner are trying to score Agenda Points. Only the Corp player has Agenda cards in their deck. The Runner must steal Agenda cards from the Corp before they can be installed and advanced. The Corp advances Agendas by installing them in remote servers, areas of the playing area to the side of their identity card (which represents their hand, or HQ), then spends credits one at a time to match the Agenda card’s advancement requirement. The Runner can run on any server, be it one of the remotes created by the Corp, the Corp’s HQ, their R&D (or deck), or Archives (discard pile). The Corp can protect any of their servers with ICE, specialized software cards that are installed perpendicular and face down in front of the servers they protect. The Runner has means to break or circumvent this ICE, but it buys the Corp precious time to score their Agendas.

That’s the basic rundown; let’s get into some specifics.

If you are the Corp, you control all of the information.

The Runner has to keep their cards face-up on the table. From their Hardware to their Resources, you will always have a good idea of what could be coming at you. When you install a piece of ICE, it’s face-down, as are your Agendas, Assets, and Upgrades. The Runner has no idea how, when, or even if you’ll be paying the cost to rez (turn face-up) those cards. Knowing what you know, you can either push to beat the Runner before they get up to speed, or sit back and play a shell game, luring the Runner into traps or watching them bounce off of your ICE. Some of that comes from the choice you make in faction, but the confidence to follow through on your strategy comes from the fact that you know a lot more than the Runner does, at least in terms of board state information. Use that.

If you are the Runner, you should be running.

Running is the crux of the game and it should be done as much as is reasonable – and maybe some times when it isn’t. It’s how the Runner learns information, from the ICE the Corp has installed to the assets they’re trying to protect. It keeps the Corp player engaged and can lead to them interacting more, be it choosing different ICE or exploiting the Runner’s action in order to tag them or otherwise make the Runner pay. But it’s also the only way the Runner can possibly win the game. The more the Runner runs, the better their chances of stealing an Agenda, and every run also has the potential to throw the Corp off-balance and derail their well-laid plans. Sure, you might end up getting tagged or taking some damage, but Netrunner is all about risk management.

This is true on both sides. The Corp asks, “is it safe to install this Agenda? Can I convince the Runner that it’s a trap? Should I stockpile credits instead?” The Runner asks, “can the Corp flatline me if I make another run and take more damage? Will I have enough time before he scores that Agenda? Is than an Agenda in the first place?”

The game is rife with player choices, informed decision-making, potential for storytelling, and great moments of interplay. If you tried it before but found the asymmetry daunting or a particular player uncooperative, I hope after reading these tips you’d consider trying again. I’m going to be talking about the factions in the weeks to come; you might find something you like in one of them that’ll convince you to give Netrunner a shot. The card catalog is growing, and player bases are becoming more established; now is a great time to get started.

Tabletalk: Your Table’s Real Estate

Courtesy Theology of Games
Courtesy Theology of Games

Space at your common table, be it in your dining room, den, or boudoir, is precious. It needs to be used wisely when it comes to entertaining. You need room for everyone to sit and be comfortable. Room for refreshments is always welcome. Games that occupy the table should make good use of whatever remaining real estate their is, holding the attention of your guests and keeping them involved and interacting. This is one of many reasons why Monopoly sucks – most of its board is full of negative space.

It also never changes. Board games that I’m finding myself thoroughly enjoying have gameplay that varies from session to session. When a galaxy in Twilight Imperium is created by the players around the table, it is going to be completely different from any scenario setup or previous galaxy, adding another element to the strange brew that makes it fun to devote eight hours to a single game. Quantum is similar in that the ‘board’ is mutable and can be altered or changed drastically to change up the experience. Games like Mage Knight, Archipelago, and Escape: The Curse of the Temple take it one step further by making their boards what would be called ‘procedurally generated’: the board is revealed and assembled as you play, guaranteeing a fresh experience every time.

Other games like to decentralize the action. Galaxy Trucker may have a central board to track everyone’s position in the convoy, but all of the real action happens on the players’ individual boards, as meteors and laser blasts render your cobbled-together space truck back into the shoddy spare parts you used to build it in the first place. Suburbia gives each player their own space to build their SimCity-esque metropolis, with its bank and goals in a central location. Seasons may have a calendar in the center of the table and a single, shared scoreboard, but players will be interacting with their own decks, tokens, dice, and boards to manage the careers of their chosen adorable aspiring forest-wizards.

While board games continue to provide new and interesting ways to make the most of your table’s real estate, card games remain some of the most economical entertainment to grace that same area. While deck-builders like Dominion and Eminent Domain centralize the pool of cards players have to choose from in constructing their decks, Boss Monster takes the route of games above that sees players focused on individual areas just as much as the center of the table. Chez Geek and Munchkin encourage players to keep track of both their own area and those of other players as competition for victory becomes more and more rapid and cut-throat. Finally, hidden role games like Bang!, One-Night Ultimate Werewolf, The Resistance: Avalon, and Coup bring the eyes of the players up from the table and into those of the other players, the game play arguably more about bluffing, gambits, and deductive reasoning than any information provided at the center of the table.

Just to reiterate a point made earlier in this post, Monopoly sucks. Its gameplay never changes and its board consumes too much real estate on the table. Many games make better use of the space, even with similarly sized central boards; Pandemic, Ticket to Ride, SmallWorld, Lords of Waterdeep, and Battlestar Galactica are all examples of recent games that require a good chunk of your table’s space but make the most of it by varying gameplay elements, getting players involved and interacting, offering challenges or emergent narrative, and so on. It’s these things that make the game I’ve mentioned well worth the space on your table (and your shelves), and will more than likely bring people back for more, time and again.

Tabletalk: Winning in Twilight Imperium


We’ve come a long way, Your Excellency. You’ve become acquainted with the galaxy surrounding the ruined throne-world of Mecatol Rex, you’ve learned how to command your fleets and transfer forces between systems, you’re familiar with a variety of strategies, and you know how to issue commands to your Leaders, give referendums to your Representatives, and hire Mercenaries. But all of these are mere building blocks on your path to victory – how do you walk that path?

Victory in Twilight Imperium is not necessarily contingent on having the most planets, beating an opponent into stardust, or even acquiring the most Trade Goods (currency that can be used for production or influence). Victory comes in the form of Objectives. Players are competing to be the first to achieve a certain number of Victory Points. The means to earn those Victory Points are dicated by cards that define different Objectives. Some are Public, and some are Secret.

Public Objectives are made available to all players throughout the game, one at a time. These vary from having a certain number of Technologies and spending Influence, to occupying systems or even Mecatol Rex. At the end of each game round, any player can claim one of the available Public Objectives. A player who takes the appropriate Strategy can also claim one, giving them an edge in Victory Points. Temporarily, at least.

Secret Objectives (and their smaller cousins Preliminary Objectives, available in the expansions), on the other hand, are dealt to each player at the start of the game. These are worth more points than the starting Public Objectives, but are more focused and harder to obtain. Often they will bring players into direct conflict. Like Public Objectives, they must be claimed at the end of the round. Finally, it is worth noting that neither Public nor Secret Objectives can be scored if the player’s Home System is occupied by another player.

There are other ways to acquire Victory Points, be they ancient artifacts or unique finds uncovered on distant suns, but for the most part, the Objectives are what you want to aim for. Watch for them when they appear, and plan your strategies accordingly. Best of luck, Your Excellency!

You’re going to need it.

Tabletalk: Minions in Twilight Imperium

Pictured: The Admiral (top), General (center left), Agent (center right), Scientist (bottom left), and Diplomat (bottom right).

You may think, Your Excellency, that taking control of the galaxy is a lonely prospect. Looking at your home system and the expanse of space spreading out towards the throne world, huge fleets floating silently in the void, environmental hazards callously standing between you and your goals – it can be rather daunting. Thankfully, you aren’t as alone as you seem. You can and will have assistance, even if you have to pay for it.

Twilight Imperium provides options for several ‘minions’, as I like to call them. Not military units per se, they are supplemental facets of your bid for dominance. The systems they add to the game are rather straightforward, but can take a bit of explaining, so let’s begin.


Each race can include three ‘Leaders’, luminaries of your people that help you in various ways. Like your Ground Forces and PDS units, Leaders are always considered either on a planet or being carried by a ship. However, a Leader can be transported by any kind of ship, and never counts towards the ship’s capacity. Leaders are powerful, but fragile: they can be captured or killed if their transporting ship is destroyed in a Space Battle, or if an Invasion Combat in which they’re involved fails. Captured leaders can be ransomed and sometimes executed, provided you are unable to rescue them. Let’s leave out the particulars of such operations for now, and learn about the five different types.

Scientists increase technology discounts provided by planets, add to the build capacity of nearby Space Docks, and add to the defenses of a planet their own, preventing bombardment from War Suns.

Diplomats delay incoming invasions and allow fleets (with permission) to pass through enemy space.

Generals allow re-rolls during Invasion Combat, make bombardment much more difficult, and give a bonus to defending Ground Forces.

Admirals give the ship they’re on one extra die, increase the movement of a Dreadnaught they occupy, and prevents defenders from retreating (unless they also have an Admiral).

Agents help invading Ground Forces avoid enemy PDS fire, allow you to take over enemy Space Docks and PDS units, and can be sacrificed to take the role of a ‘Sabotage’ Action Card, preventing an opponent’s Action Card from happening.


When the Assembly is called, instead of voting on referendums yourself, you can send a Representative. You are, after all, a very busy potential potentate. At the start of the game, you will get three Representative cards. Each one adds a number of votes and sometimes have special abilities, like gaining you extra Trade Goods or forcing someone to vote a certain way. Most of them are Counselors, but some are either Spies or Bodyguards.

At the Assembly, each player chooses one Representative and sends them in face-down. Starting with the Speaker and going around clockwise, any Spies that were sent are revealed and their abilities resolved first. If the target of a Spy is a Bodyguard, it may also resolve an ability as a result of being targeted. After all Spies are resolved, non-Spies are revealed in the same way. Players can then offer one another Promissary Notes before voting occurs. These are special, binding agreements that may help a player get what they want out of the Assembly. Either way, if a Representative is assassinated or otherwise killed (by a suicide bomber, for example), he or she is removed from the game entirely. Bodyguards cannot be assassinated, but can die by other means.


Attracted to money and opportunity, Mercenaries are available for hire to anyone activating the Trade III Strategy card. When executing the primary ability of Trade, the active player looks at the top two cards of the deck of available Mercenaries, chooses one, and returns the other to the bottom of the deck. Each Mercenary card has a corresponding token, with one side for Space and the other for Ground. The active player places his new hire Ground-side up on any friendly planet. Mercenaries can switch between Ground and Space during a Tactical or Transfer actions, as well as specifically from Space to Ground during Invasion Combat.

While they can add to your forces and abilities, Mercenaries cannot hold planets on their own. Any planet robbed of its Ground Forces reverts to neutral even if the Mercenary survives. Some Mercenaries have Evasion, allowing them to live longer in combat. However, if your Mercenary is killed, both the card and the token are removed from the game.

We’ve looked at the core concepts of Twilight Imperium‘s Tactical Actions, the different Strategic options, and now we’ve covered Leaders, Representatives, and Mercenaries. The biggest outstanding question remains:

How do you win the game? Read on…

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