My New Scifi RPG Scenario

I played a lot of role-playing games in the 80s and 90s, and published a few scenarios. Then I quit almost entirely until last fall when I took up Ashen Stars in a big way with friends. Now I’ve published a scenario for this gritty space opera game.

In The Disappearing Sensei, the crew is tasked with tracking down a long-forgotten cyborg deserter and data thief. Neither her motivations nor what she stole from the Combine navy turn out to be quite what the crew might have expected.

The cover art is a portrait by Jorge Don de Rayoja (VanCoralArt) of the German actress Anna Maria Mühe in a Weimar Republic style. Fritz Lang taught us in Metropolis that there were robots in 1920s Germany, and apparently there were cyborgs too!

Go ahead and have a look at the scenario!

Thoughts after 16 Sessions of Ashen Stars

I’ve been game-mastering Robin D. Laws’ gritty space-opera detective role-playing game Ashen Stars since September with a group of four players. In this game you’re free-lance FBI agents in a space federation on the skids after a war. We’ve had fourteen sessions and played six scenarios. I’ve also re-played the intro scenario with another group of four, so a total of sixteen sessions. We’ve had lots of fun!

Ashen Stars offers a rich background of world building, scenario hooks and advice on how to design your own scenarios. There are nine published scenarios for the game, and we’ve played five of them so far plus one of my own. Here are some thoughts.

The game has detailed rules for designing space ships and running space battles. But none of the published scenarios contain any space battles. The only expensive stuff you can buy with the in-game money a player group makes from solving cases is spaceships and ship upgrades. Which you never need. So my group soon stopped paying attention to how much money they have. It’s just piling up. Of course I can put in any number of space battles that I like, but I’ve told the players that this will only happen if they take an interest and learn the rules themselves. So far nobody has.

The central design principle in the Gumshoe family of role-playing games is that you never fail an attempt to get core clues using an investigative skill. If a player tells me that she uses Data Retrieval to look up the alien arms dealers online, then she rolls no die: I just give her any core clue I may have lined up. Less important clues can be bought with skill points. And then there are situations where I just tell a player that “here’s some information that’s immediately obvious to everyone who has the skill Forensic Accounting”. So there’s a) active skill use on the player’s part, which is free. And there’s b) semi-active skill use with a point fee, that I need to prompt for. And there’s c) passive skill use where I just blurt information. I often find it hard to determine whether the scenario designer has intended that a player would use a skill actively or passively in a given situation.

I’m starting to feel like it is never more fun to deny a player extra info because she’s run out of points, than to simply give her the clue anyway. The point-spend rules are intended to divide spotlight time evenly between the players. When an imaginative and talky player runs out of points, the theory goes, he’ll have to give other players more room for the rest of the scenario. But my players don’t seem to care who found a clue. I don’t hand the clue on a slip of paper to the player who bought it with her points. I just tell everyone that their pilot has realised something interesting about the alien arms dealers, and then they discuss what this clue means for their case. When nobody cares much whose skill points bought the clue, then it becomes less meaningful to keep track of those points.

So after 16 sessions of Ashen Stars we’re still having fun, we have no idea how the space battle rules work, we don’t care how much money the characters have because nobody ever buys anything, and we’re losing the motivation to keep track of their investigative skill points. To be continued!

(And one more thing. The PDF version of the rule book is so graphics-heavy that it takes ages to scroll through it. Instead I use the EPUB file that has no illustrations. Works great! I’ve put it on my Kindle and I bring that to game night instead of my laptop.)

Addition 20 April after 22 sessions: I remembered another piece of rules machinery that’s fallen by the wayside: the group’s reputation score. A high score means a short time between paid missions, which allows you to save money, if you care about how much money you have. Space battles demand ship upgrades demand money demand a high reputation score. Take out the space battles and all four become unimportant to gameplay. Of course, my players still always neatly fulfil the missions. It’s just that their reputation score has proved unimportant.

Boardgame Review: Nättrollz

As blogging has assumed a lower profile in the minds and habits of Internet users, creators and publishers have sent me fewer review copies for Aard. Looks like the last time was over nine years ago, when I reviewed the Italian boardgame Beer & Vikings. (Sadly it never made much of a splash, having only 78 ratings on the Boardgame Geek website today.) But now I am happy to report that I have received two games for review. Let’s first look at the Swedish 2017 party card game NätTrollz by Mattias Dristig. It’s from the publisher Eloso on a licence from Dristig’s company Vildhallon.

Fluff & flavour text
This game is about Internet trolls, as its Swinglish name suggests. A game consists of the players having five pointless discussions on an online forum, each of which ends when someone posts a cute cat video that distracts the participants. The cards have funny flavour text which becomes familiar during your first game.

Each card has a drawing of an ugly internet troll by Jan Kustfält. Though the drawings are strongly formulaic and all the trolls look pretty much the same, I don’t mean that the art is lacking in skill. These are skilful caricatures of one really ugly person.

Game mechanics
NätTrollz is a trick-taking game with a lot of interrupt cards. Players of whist and bridge will understand if I say that in order to take a trick here, you need to have the special trick-taking card, and you can play it at any time out of turn order. Tichu players will understand if I say that this is Tichu, only you always play single cards, a trick always gets bombed repeatedly, and indeed the only way to win a trick is to bomb it.

The trick-taking card is the cute cat video. 9 cards in a deck of 82 are cats. If luck has it that you don’t get any of these cards, then you can take no tricks. For a chance to get more cat cards you need to draw more cards, which will often result in you ending the game with a full hand. And any card you’re left with after five tricks is negative points. There is no new deal between tricks.

The large number of other interrupt cards (16 out of 82) confuses gameplay quite a lot, since you can play them at any time, for instance three different interrupt cards in a row during someone else’s turn — or your own.

It says on the box that this is a party game, so it’s somewhat beside the point to say that NätTrollz is largely a game of chance with humorous flavour text and does not reward much re-play or tactical study. It’s fun for people who have never played it before, who don’t expect to play it again soon, and who have perhaps drunk a few beers. If you buy this as a gift, I’d say that the ideal recipient is a non-gamer who hangs out a lot in online forums occasionally plagued by semi-literate racist uncles.

Most-Played Games Of 2020

This odd year has also been an odd gaming year. During the two pandemic waves, we moved boardgame night to my friend Patrik’s apartment closer to town, and I mainly invited people living nearby who wouldn’t have to use public transport to get there. We rented the scenically sited gazebo at Lilla Sickla for three long summer sessions. Both LinCon in May and the annual weekend boardgaming retreat in November were cancelled.

On the other hand, I came back to role-playing games in a big way after a 23-year hiatus. I’ve played four Call of Cthulhu scenarios* with three Keepers, partly over Zoom and Discord. And I’ve game-mastered four scenarios in Ashen Stars** with four of my most dependable boardgaming friends, one of whom participates over Teams.

Here are the nine boardgames that I played more than twice during 2020. The year’s total was 70 games. It’s a little less than usual, and on average I have played each game fewer times than in a normal year.

  • Chosŏn (2014, new: card game, unusual mechanics, unfortunate timing ambiguities)
  • Coloretto (2003)
  • Tichu / Zheng fen (1991)
  • Hive (2001)
  • Roam (2019, new: read my review)
  • Sechs nimmt / Category 5 (1994)
  • Architects of the West Kingdom (2018, new: worker placement, jail your opponents’ workers)
  • Clash of Cultures (2012, new: best boardgame implementation of computer Civ)
  • Keyflower (2012)

Dear Reader, what was your biggest boardgaming hit of 2020?

* Missed Dues (in the 2014 Keeper Screen), The Sanatorium (in the 1990 collection Mansions of Madness), Tatters of the King (2006), Saturnine Chalice (in the 2020 collection Dead Light & Other Dark Turns)

** The introductory one from the core rule book and the first three of four in the collection Dead Rock 7, all from 2011.

Stats courtesy of Boardgame Geek. And here’s my list for 2019.

Boardgame Review: Roam

roamRoam is a 2019 boardgame by Utah resident Ryan Laukat, whose 2015 design Above & Below we’ve been enjoying for the past year. He is unusual in that he doesn’t just come up with the game mechanics, he also paints the lavish illustrations and writes most of the narrative text for his games. Roam comes in a box the size of a large hardback novel and plays in about an hour with four players.

The fluff or story of the game is funny: each player leads a search party to find people who have contracted a “great sleeping sickness” and wandered off dazedly into the wilderness. When you find them and slap some sense into them they join your team and help to find more walkabout stoners. On each card are a few lines of text describing what they were up to when you came across them:

Maart Gruthe was yodeling on a peak. Malia Carver was composing a symphony. Glunken Drop was gnawing on lava rock. Embre Meze was telling stories to a pack of rabbits.

As for the game mechanics, it’s mainly about area dominance: once a card (i.e. search area) has been covered by player chits, the one who placed most of them gets the card, on whose other side is a new team member and a victory point value. Once someone has ten team members you tally the final score. There are also magical objects you can buy to bend the rules in various ways.

Roam is similar to Mykerinos (2006) where you also strive for area dominance on a game board laid out from cards with 6 x 2 squares, and there too when you gain a card it turns into a character who helps you put more chits on the board. But the art is much better here. Roam also borrows a mechanic from Manhattan (1986), where what you can do on the game board depends on how you are oriented towards it: a card will in many cases do four different things to the game state depending on which player uses it.

I enjoy Roam: it’s tactically interesting and highly interactive (certainly not one of those competitive solitaire games that are for some reason so popular), the art is beautiful, the components are solid, and reading out the odd activities that the victims of the sleeping sickness are found engaging in is shared fun too. Extra points for the diversity (gender, age, skin colour, even species) among the depicted characters, a trait seen in Above & Below as well. Roam is not quite short or slight enough to be considered a filler: we have played it as a game-night starter.

Boardgaming Retreat 2019

Interstellar cluster fuck in Eclipse

The annual boardgaming retreat is 48 hours with fellow gamers at an off-season rural hotel. This one was my ninth, at a golf and country club near Trosa. I played ten sessions of nine different games. Only the tiny filler Tides of Time was entirely new to me, and all were very enjoyable!

To give you an idea of how popular each game is, I’ve included its current BGG rank in the list below. For instance, Eclipse’s 40 means that right now there are only 39 boardgames that the largely US-based users of rate more highly. And they have rated tens of thousands of games!

  • Above and Below (2015). Ranked 206. Resource management and action point allowance with beautiful art and a story book that the players read bits out of to each other. One of the event’s most-played games this year.
  • Eclipse (2011). Ranked 40. A Finnish design: interstellar colonisation and war with a nifty resource management engine.
  • Glory to Rome (2005). Ranked 175. Intricate card-based logistics game by Carl Chudyk who later released the excellent Innovation. Good fun, not too long!
  • The Quacks of Quedlinburg (2018). Ranked 125. You’re herbalists cooking potions. Like a deck-building game but you draw little tiles from a bag instead. A push-your-luck mechanic keeps you worrying that your cauldron’s contents will explode!
  • Scythe (2016). Ranked 10. Intricate cube pusher / worker placement / mini war game in the dieselpunk world of amazing Polish military fantasy painter Jakub Rozalski. Not enough interaction for my taste.
  • A Study In Emerald, 2nd ed. (2015). Ranked 1172. Lovecraftian horror meets spy fiction and detective fiction in Victorian Europe in another hit game by the revered Martin Wallace, based on a 2003 story by Neil Gaiman. Combines deck building with various other mechanics in a nice salad. (The 1st edition from 2013 is ranked 710.)
  • That’s Pretty Clever (2018). Ranked 154. Like Yahtzee only fun and intricate.
  • Tides of Time (2015). Ranked 992. Neat short two-player card game where you play a card, then swap hands with each other, and repeat this until you run out of cards.
  • Yellow & Yangtze (2018). Ranked 1206. This is a modified, streamlined and re-skinned version of Reiner Knizia’s classic 1997 Tigris & Euphrates, which is one of my personal favourite games. At rank 74, T&E is the second-most popular 1990s design on BGG. The main difference between the versions is that Y&Y has a hex grid instead of a square grid. Both versions are excellent games but you only need one of them.

I’ve blogged before about the retreats in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2018.


Play Designer Boardgames On-Line


My friend Nicholas Hjelmberg is a frequent guest at game night. Here are his best tips for how to play designer boardgames on-line.

Here’s a list of some web sites that I have visited to familiarise myself with various games. All are free to use but you have to register.

  • Boardgame Arena. A large and well developed site for many games including Keyflower and Palaces of Carrara. I do miss the ability to retract moves though.
  • Triqqy. A slightly buggy site but one of the few where you can play Reiner Knizia’s games, including Tigris & Euphrates and Samurai. Here too I do miss the ability to retract moves.
  • Spiel By Web. This site has better functionality than design. Its games include Reef Encounter and Tikal.
  • Yucata. Reminiscent of Spiel By Web, this site has shorter games like Alchemist and Torres.
  • Boardgame Core. A stylish site with several games from Splotter Games, including The Great Zimbabwe och Food Chain Magnate.
  • Sloth Ninja. For those who miss the Splotter game Indonesia, that is one of the few games here.
  • >Boite à Jeux. a good-looking site with games including Alchemists, Myrmes, Vanuatu and Concordia.
  • Michael Schacht. A simple but fully functional site for many of Michael Schacht’s games, including China and Patrician.
  • MaBi Web. A little site with less known gems such as UR and Mykerinos.
  • Civilization. A not entirely intuitive site dedicated to Civilization and Advanced Civilization.

LinCon 2019 Gaming Convention

evolutionThere’s no objective metric of a life well lived. But by the standards of 13-year-old me, I think I pretty much maxed out at LinCon this year. I was at a major gaming convention, wearing an organiser’s badge and an Äventyrsspel tee-shirt (makers of my boyhood’s favourite games), and gave a talk in the biggest auditorium about my seventh book, which deals with excavations I’ve headed in the ruins of Medieval castles. Good times!

I played seven games this year, four of which I knew well and only one of which was new to me, Evolution. Most con-goers are simply too shy to shout “HELLO STRANGER LET ME TEACH YOU THIS GAME” at people the way I often do.

  • Forbidden Island (2010). A super pretty co-op where you race to collect four treasures before the island sinks.
  • Azul (2017). Pretty and abstract with neat mechanics.
  • Evolution (2014). Develop strong populations of your creatures and help them adapt to their faunal environment.
  • Coloretto (2003). Pretty and abstract with neat mechanics.
  • 7 Wonders (2010). Civilisation building with simultaneous card drafting, which makes it enjoyable even for seven players.
  • Agricola (2007). Build the best farm in Early Modern Germany! Worker placement and resource management.
  • Five Tribes (2014). Vaguely Arabian in theme, this is a rather messy concoction of several abstract ways to gain points.

At the con’s flea market and used-games dealer room I bought Spyrium, Kingdoms and Above & Below. Also mistakenly a copy of Candamir that is probably the very one I sold back in 2013 after trying the game and not liking it much, haha. I keep making poor purchases at the spur of the moment at LinCon! At the auction I sold Hanabi and Sid Meier’s Civilization (both bought at last year’s con and sadly not big hits) plus Gaia Project and Stephenson’s Rocket.

2019 was my seventh LinCon. Here are my impressions of last year’s con.

Sentenced To An Hour Of Beheading

beheadingRemembered a D&D story I heard in the 80s. One of the player characters had stupidly and overtly committed a serious crime – had he attacked the King during a formal audience? – and been sentenced to beheading. Letting this happen is never a fun way to end a character’s career, but I believe both the players and the Dungeon Master were quite young.

The day of the execution dawns, the prisoner is taken out to the chopping block in the town square, the executioner steps up with his sword… And the only way this DM knows to handle situations involving swords is the combat rules. Which don’t really offer any details on combatants lying trussed up and face down on the block. Also, the execution victim is quite a high-level character, while the executioner is a basic man-at-arms.

The executioner could barely hit the victim, and when he occasionally did, he took only a small proportion of the victim’s hit points. It took an hour in the game world and endless dice rolling in our world to behead him.

Most-Played Boardgames of 2018

hiveHere are the eleven boardgames that I played more than thrice during 2018. The year’s total was 74 different games.

  • Hive (2001)
  • No Thanks! (2004)
  • Gaia Project (2017)
  • Sechs nimmt / Category 5 (1994)
  • Azul (2017)
  • Plato 3000 (2012)
  • Tichu / Zheng fen (1991)
  • Innovation (2010)
  • Keltis (2008, travel version)
  • Patchwork (2014)
  • Heimlich & Co (1984)

As always, the games on the list are mostly short ones that you can play repeatedly in one evening. But my new acquisitions Gaia Project and Tichu are way longer, full-evening games. All eleven highly recommended!

Dear Reader, what was your biggest boardgaming hit of 2018?

Stats courtesy of Boardgame Geek. And here’s my list for 2017.