Monday, November 11, 2013

Dakota Smith's Oriental Adventures - Part 1, Brother Virigi, Wherefore art thou?

Keith, Mike S, and Tom hot on the trail of Brother Virigi -- a Portuguese monk from Macau in the 1930s
 I had 5 players for my first-ever Pulp Alley game. I had been working my way towards this for many, many months. So, it was nice to get all those 28mm figures I'd been painting out on the tabletop. I'd asked Keith, who was hosting, to set up the table with a 6'x4' area. After the terrain was all laid out, I discovered it was a bit bigger -- nearly 5' across, not 4. So, I told the players controlling the four Western archeological teams to deploy within one foot of each of the corners. The Order of the Fire Coral would begin the game disguised as Chinese peasants scattered throughout the board (roughly 1 in 3 would be agents, the rest actual peasants). The player controlling them secretly marked the bottoms of the figures representing agents with tape. To move, they had to "cast off the peasant garb" and be revealed. The four minor plot points were just over a foot away from each starting location, with the major plot point being hidden inside the church's Chancery in the center of the board. They discovered the location of the major plot point (Brother Virigi's journal) only by taking control of one of the minor ones (monks from the monastery).

Fraulein Blucher is escorted by two German sailors, while Von Jaeger and Ottom Tulmann interrogate Brother Malachi by the pig pen
 Since these were brand new rules that we'd never played as a group, I had a number of worries heading into the game. My first worry was that I wouldn't have enough Fortune Cards if the players decided to hold onto them. I have just the starting deck of 25. With each player receiving 3 at the start of the game and a further one at the beginning of each round, I was wondering if the deck would ever grow dry. At first, the players were hesitant to use them. Eventually, they got the hang of using them to frustrate their opponents -- especially the weaker characters belonging to other players, who may have trouble passing the tougher challenges.

Reporter Eric Bylan and socialite Dolly Flanders, tagging along uninvited on Dakota Smith's expedition, approach the monastery graveyard
 My second worry was there would be no way the characters could accomplish their goals in the game's six turn limit (cards can be played to extend it a 7th and even 8th turn). The board looked simply too big. I think that worry was borne out by the events. Only one character actually entered the church by the end of the game. Of course, the two "Parley" cards played over the course of the first six turns really slowed things down, too. I almost feel like making a change so that is a one-shot card, and not letting it be played a second time. To not be able to attack or run for 1/3 of the game's turns seemed a bit extreme.

Harold Fortwine guards the rear of the American column, unaware of the agent from the secret martial arts society, Order of the Fire Coral, hiding in the shadows behind him
 The rules explanation at the beginning went fairly well. Of course, true to Sunday night form, my gamer friends were more off-task than my 7th grade students are on average. I expected that, though. It is part of the fun -- the random comments, the digressions in conversation, and so on. The players picked up the rules fairly quickly, it seemed. The one fairly consistent mistake we made was that wounded characters roll dice no higher than their current health level. I'd predicted we'd miss that one and we did a few times. It took a turn or two to wrap our heads around the Challenges, when to play them, and how that is different than passing a plot point. We did it right, but had a couple players question the proceedings. I have to say I was fairly happy with how we caught changes in Initiative -- how it gets traded back and forth between players -- although I would not be surprised if we missed one or two.

Keeping together tightly, the British party is shadowed and harassed by the Order of the Fire Coral all along its advance towards the church
 The only real issues anyone had with the rules was when the German archeological team got pinned down by the French sidekick Jacques Nero. The best gunman of the French, he got into a covered firing position and started gunning down Germans as they passed in front of him. The player was upset that Jacques' "Hardened Veteran" ability meant he could keep shooting with no "Multiple Combats." That, and Dr. Lambert's "Deductive" ability meant the French league snagged an extra Fortune card nearly every turn. I showed the Germans how he had a character with the exact same stats. He had just rolled worse when Jacques Nero and Otto Tulmann had their gun battle. I explained that one extra Fortune card among 5 players should not imbalance the game. The British had a character with the "Deductive" advantage, too.

The French league nabs a plot point, discovering that Brother Virigi has left for the mainland mission station. His journal with maps and drawings was left behind in the church Chancery, though (major plot point)!
 So, what happened? All four archeological teams moved fairly steadily towards the closest Minor Plot point (the monk nearest them) and took control of it. The Order of the Fire Coral focused its attacks on the British and German teams, harassing them with attempted attacks on its weaker characters. They seemed to focus less to the French and American leagues. All the players got into the act of trying to zap each other with Challenges as characters entered perilous areas. None of the sidekicks or leaders went down and out, but the German Otto Tulmann was knocked out momentarily. The Order of the Fire Coral lost the most agents, but its characters were weaker (9 total characters vs. 4-5 for the Westerners).

Brother Malachi points Von Jaeger towards the major plot point, Brother Virigi's journal inside the church Chancery...
That brings me to the next issue with a five player game. I think we had too many characters on the board. A few of the players commented that the game moved a little slowly, although part of that is probably due to the too-large board. Another part could be that it was our first time with the rules. I may experiment with smaller leagues (less than the normal 10 slots) in games with 5+ players. I can't imagine what it would have been like if I'd had my 6th player had shown up with the Bandits and their 11 character league! Perhaps I'll trim down the two most excessively-sized leagues (Fire Coral at 9 & Bandits, 11), giving them tougher characters, which may make play go quicker. I think a smaller board would help, too.

 The players said the rules were "interesting" and seemed willing to give them another go. They understood it was our first time playing the game. Everyone seemed to have fun, well, except for the German player. And he seemed to be having a good time until his league got pinned down. There are a lot of subtleties -- especially in the use of Challenges -- that we need to wrap our head around. Tom, the French player, did the best. He seemed most attuned and goal-oriented of the archeologists. His leader, Pierre Fournereau, was the only European to enter the church, though he never made it to the Chancery.

And all five leagues come together in the middle! The French had an advantage, and were able to elude the concentrated attacks of the others. Of course...I *have* to say it: "Tom's winning!"
 So, the game ended up with a massive-sized scrum and logjam at the entrance to the church. The leaders of all five leagues were present in the donnybrook. The Americans blocked the Germans from entering the church, the French got in via clever use of Dodge moves, and the British and Americans appeared like they'd need to take a number. The carnage of so many figures in such tight quarters would have been interesting to play out. It was 11:20 pm, though, and most of us had to work the next day. We had played the six turns in about 3 hours (once rules explanation was done). That is not bad for a 5-player game that no one had played before. As I said, most seemed willing to give it another go and learn the system better.

Sorry this is more of an analysis than straight-up, after action report. I did not take notes on the nitty gritty. I did snap some close up shots of the action, so I hope you enjoy those. Next game will see them follow the trail of Brother Virigi to the mainland and the Portuguese mission station in the Ta-bo Hills. Feel free to comment on my thoughts about larger games, or make suggestions.

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