Category Archives: Fantasy

Legend of the Five Rings LCG review

Back in August, I volunteered to act as a presenter for the Legend of the Five Rings Living Card game at my friendly local game store. Throughout the afternoon, I was only able to demo two games but this offered me the opportunity to read through the cards and the rules a few times. People were more interested in the larger group games or more popular card games like Pokemon, Yugioh or Magic: the Gathering.

I used to be very fond of the game. My first exposure was through the 1st edition of the RPG. We played a very long campaign started in my late teens until my early adulthood. At one point we had up to 6 players, 2 more than our regular table. We played through many of the published adventures and the City of Lies boxed set. One of my proudest moments in gaming was no scoping the source of the thefts in the city based purely on speculation. The GM was stunned when I exclaimed to him: “It’s a monkey!”

I played a bit of the original CCG in Jade but only got into it during Gold and the start of Diamond editions. While I enjoyed the parody work of Rich Wulf, his work as the main writer along with Shawn Carman was atrocious. I really loathed the changes and the direction of the story. The release of the 2nd edition made the game very boring for starting players who would struggle to accomplish anything. Combat was even worse as whomever lost initiative would simply go full defensive and nearly make themselves entirely impervious to attacks because opponents would flail helplessly against the increased target number unless they got a lucky roll.

My friends and I both abandoned the game and its horrible story. Although my best friend later purchased the 4th edition of the game based on positive reviews of the gameplay mechanics. When I read the news of the purchase of the game by Fantasy Flight Games(FFG) from Alderac Entertainment Group (AEG), I went back and read the metaplot… it’s no wonder the game slowly died. It read like a Wikipedia article on ongoing comic book stories. Lots of things seem to happen but little of it makes any sense to someone going in blind.

Thankfully FFG had the presence of mind to retcon all the nonsense away and revert back to the 1st edition’s time period pre-CCG. However, this was not done entirely without some changes. The Unicorn clan’s foreign aspect appears to be played up while its Kolat connections appear to have been removed with the change of the clan champion for an entirely new character in that role. The Crane clan champion was “gender bended” in what appears to be a transparent attempt to even out the male/female clan daimyo and also throw in some wank material for guys because they kept in a romance with another character to now have it be a homosexual (read lesbian) relationship. When I told my friend who is into hentai and stuff about the change, he immediately approved of the idea because of the raciness. I am not opposed to the inclusion of homosexual relationships in fiction (in fact I invite it) but it removes a subplot centered around their son from the original story line and could have easily been accomplished by making a completely different character or characters fulfill the role of inclusion. Other minor changes are a recent typhoon devastating the Crane clan’s lands along with the consequences and the rise of a religious cult. Overall, I like the changes.

CONTENT

The game comes with base cards for each of the 7 great clans or factions you can play in the game, with some neutral cards that can be used in all decks. Thus, you are forced to buy multiple boxes to do so. This is counter to the whole concept of the Living Card Game genre. It should allow you to be able to actually play from the onset with future expansions granting different play styles or inevitable power creep into the game. This wouldn’t be too bad if the game didn’t come with a slew of additional tokens and some status cards. It feels like a waste of cardboard. I’d rather they charge a more expensive price to include enough in the base  box than the waste we currently have to deal with. Thankfully, there are game rules for playing with just the cards available in a single starter deck for one and two players.

I do appreciate all the clans inclusion in the box so players can pick and experiment with the different cards and play styles to find which clan suits their preferences.

ARTWORK

The game’s artwork, with a few exceptions, is fantastic. Each clan seems to have its own art direction. The Scorpion clan characters are often dimly lit or drawn at night to give a very sinister aesthetic. The Unicorn on the other hand are often in movement, or shot from afar with a bit of an impressionist painting style. It gives a lot of personality to each and I think most inexperienced players to card games or the setting in general will easily find one or more clans appealing based on the art alone.

The artists are also far more progressive than previous iterations of the game. There are no overly gratuitous hints at nudity or ridiculous situations where women are wearing lacquered armour directly over their large exposed breasts.

hida_o-ushi
Samurai women in previous editions were so stoic they ignored nipple chafing.

Sadly, one of the elements that gave the previous versions of the game flavour were quotes or descriptions on cards as flavour text. Very few cards contain this and it isn’t for lack of space. Simple and straightforward cards will have large blank spaces below the description of their game play effect. While not part of the artwork, it definitely lacks in the presentation departments.

 

GAMEPLAY

In comparison to the CCG, the game is far more interactive between players. The interval where you are the active player is much shorter. Back then, I would play my full turn, then my opponent(s) in order. Now, both players take turns playing a card, activating a card in play or resolving an action. This is a definite improvement and makes the game feel more vibrant. I never felt bored or became distracted while playing which can sometimes happen while you wait your turn. Here, the most you might wait is half a minute to a minute depending on the skill and knowledge of the opponent. The mid to late game remains quick because cards put in play are removed at the end of each turn unless players pay additional resources (thus limiting them in playing more cards) for more than a couple of turns. Unless players use a lot of cheap (and usually weak) cards, it doesn’t seem there is any true incentive to have more than 5-6 cards in play.

One of the more rewarding aspects of the original game was the number of different victory conditions available. It’s been stripped down slightly to three: military, honour, and dishonour. Military victories are achieved by crushing your opponents, driving them into the ground and hearing the lamentation of their women. Unlike the CCG, this seems to be the easiest method to win as even clans who are more known for their political acumen can “attack” your provinces using political might as opposed to force of arms. Both games I played, we were nowhere close to achieving a non-military victory.

Honour victories involve raising your honour to 25. the average starting honour is about 10 but making up that 15 appears quite difficult. I am certain it will change once more expansions are released and more cards become available. Dishonour victories involve disgracing your opponent by reducing his honour counter to 0 and thus forcing him to lose the game. Only one clan has this as a viable strategy although we didn’t have a chance to test them out to see if it works in practice.

Each clan does appear to have its own theme to make them very distinct. The Lion clan remain the military powerhouse they were. The Crane are a political power. The Unicorn seem to be built around moving cards in and out of confrontations and being very fluid and unpredictable. Conversely, the Crab are very much a defensive lot and will make you pay for taking aggressive stances against them.

 

CONCLUSION

Overall, I am cautiously optimistic about the game. The designers seem to have done an excellent job of making each clan distinct. The mechanics are solid, fast, and fun. The art direction and artwork is superb. If FFG can continue in this vein while addressing the issue of flavour text and continue to have solid writing, I think this game has a lot of potential.

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Game of Thrones Season 5 finale review

Full disclosure before I begin. I read the Song of Ice and Fire books prior to the TV series being announced. The first three books are pretty much my favourite book series. I even liked most of A Feast for Crows and everything not taking place in Mereen in A Dance with Dragons. So obviously, this will be heavily spoiler-laden post. You have been warned. Normally, I look forward to every episode. The day after each one, I’d be bombarded with questions from friends and coworkers who know I read the books. This time, it was different. Going into the finale, I was already in a foul mood for reasons I will explain below. So if you liked the previous episode and this one… to each their own.

Thanks for stopping by! Wait, I need to elaborate further? Fine.

Previously on GoT

The source of my discontent was a growing malaise throughout the rest of the season. The tipping point was of course Stannis sacrificing Shireen to R’hollor or the Lord of Light for those of you unfamiliar with the fictional god’s name. The series rarely used the former but I can understand them fearing people wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. It took several seasons for many to understand Khaleesi was a title and not a proper name. I digress. From a narrative stand point this sacrifice made no sense whatsoever. The author and TV producers built up the Boltons as villains for a significant amount of time. Their comeuppance was at hand. Ruining Stannis’ character and motivations removed all rooting interest. Your choices were the guy who betrayed and killed Robb Stark, his mother, wife, unborn child, and his deranged son who raped Sansa, tortured Theon, flayed prisoners who surrendered, killed one of his psycho bitches for pleasure, and basically being more competent than Joffrey. On the other hand, you have a guy who just needlessly killed his loveable daughter who the audience was conditioned to be invested (in through incredibly cheap tactics I might add). It’s like rooting that your STD is crabs instead of Herpes. No wait, I forget that we could root for Littlefinger now. Throw in the Clap as option 3.

Stannis Baratheon

What was galling was the terrible characterization and plot holes in this story. Stannis is the premiere commander remaining in Westeros. I’d throw in Randyll Tarly, the Blackfish and maybe Victarion into the mix. Yet, he makes horrible mistakes any green officer would make. He can’t fucking hear half his army leave during the night with all the horses? So is it cannon that Stannis snores? He doesn’t realize Selyse was not only missing but hanged herself? Is he that obtuse? There was fear of starvation even though they had horses? Guess what, you can eat horse meat! 20 “good men” could sneak into a camp of thousands, destroy the camps food supplies and run away without being captured or killed because… they know the land better? Forbes magazine eloquently put it:

All I can say, to HBO and to the showrunners, is good grief what a monstrosity of a writing decision. What a horrible, no-good, very bad, infuriating way to ruin Stannis as a character and to twist the events of these stories beyond recognition in such a grotesque manner. It’s one thing to get rid of Jeyne Poole and place Sansa in her plight instead—at least it furthers the story of Sansa and saves a bit character from a horrible fate. But killing off Shireen this way absolutely decimates Stannis as a character (the show already ruined Barristan Selmy, and now it’s ruined Stannis, too.) It renders his passionate, moving speech to his daughter meaningless. It makes him not so much a hard-to-like good guy struggling against the villains, but a villain himself and one of the worst we’ve seen. Even the ever-deplorable Cersei would never stoop so low. Even Roose Bolton treats his horrible, sadistic son better than this. It’s also a bait-and-switch. We finally see Stannis’s softer side, we finally warm a bit to his character, and then he kills his daughter. It’s terrible storytelling. Surprisingly bad.

I believe all this stems from the producers not understanding the character. When we are first introduced to Stannis, they are quick to go on their Inside the Episode videos and explain Stannis would be a terrible king. This is the same guy Ned Stark was willing to back had he not been betrayed. This is a failure of understanding the context written out by Martin. The individuals who argue Stannis would be a terrible king are doing so for their own reasons and motivations:

  • Robert Baratheon: Although not explicitly stated, Robert treated Stannis unfairly because he didn’t like his younger brother. He and Stannis are quite polar opposites in temperament. Robert didn’t care about ruling; only living his hedonistic lifestyle and extinguishing the Targaryens to avenge Lyanna. How is he a good judge on who is right for the job when he was about to name Jaime fucking Lannister as Hand of the King and Warden of the East before Ned agreed to the job.
  • Renly Baratheon: He tries to convince Ned to back him instead of Stannis. Certainly, he is one of the few who makes any point: No one likes Stannis, therefore he is horrible king material. One could argue popularity can be important; particularly in a democracy. However, Westeros is a feudal society. Popularity is useful to keep people in line, but brute force, respect and fear can serve too. Machiavelli would approve.
  • Littlefinger: Littlefinger knows he will be displaced should Stannis take the throne. Thus losing status, wealth, power and prestige. He’s also the mastermind behind the events which leads to the crisis to follow. He wants and craves power. He demanded to be one of the two powers behind the throne and was denied. He knows he could never rise so high with Stannis in charge.
  • Varys: Varys despises sorcery. He’s also somewhat of a gray character and one that isn’t without pity. Stannis’ association with Melisandre earns his loathing. His absolutism does as well. As no doubt Varys’ head would be next on the chopping block as we learn in the books Stannis wanted Robert to scour the Small council clean. He also fears him. “There is nothing more terrifying than a truly righteous man”.
  • Cersei Lannister: Incestuous, adulterer, conspirator in the murder of Robert Baratheon, etc. No shit would she not want Stannis in power!
  • Tyrion Lannister: As Stannis’ rival commander in the Battle of  Blackwater, and member of House Lannister, he is obviously an enemy. Tyrion’s fondness for whores and brothels, which are outlawed under Stannis, also taint his perspective.

Don’t believe the above arguments make me believe he would be a good ruler. Some of his stances I don’t agree with in real life. I’m a progressive and liberal when it comes to social policy. But again, the context here is a medieval feudal society This misinterpretation further leads them to cut out most of Stannis’ best and profound lines from the source material. He doesn’t get Lightbringer. He rather send Davos away than face him when he is about to sacrifice his daughter. He nearly always defers to Melisandre’s judgement. Is this the man who kept Tywin Lannister up at night? The answer is obviously and resoundingly no. All we got were some scenes of him killing random extras. This episode he killed guys with speaking lines before his lame demise. While his finest moment was his intervention to save the Night’s Watch, the pacing was absolutely terrible as it was not only foreshadowed but laid out explicitly.

Brienne of Tarth

So the pay off of Brienne chasing down Sansa and holding vigil for half the season was her leaving to get revenge on Stannis the moment Sansa called out for help. The showrunners wanted a strong female character who could fight. However, her portrayal in the books was far different. Killing was hard for Brienne. She has not shown any remorse on HBO. She is largely mean and dismissive to Podrick until he admits to killing a Kingsguard which finally leads to a bonding moment. So the way to earn Brienne’s respect is killing. Good to know. As a character, she was the victim of being bullied growing up. In the show, not only does she not seem to acknowledge this but in some ways bullies Podrick by demeaning him.

Jamie Fucking Lannister

AAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!

The chapters in Dorne were some of the weakest in the series in my opinion. The plot is slow, plodding, and one of the two point of view characters is as interesting as watching pain dry.

You would think being a POV character would make him interesting. You would be mistaken.

Despite injecting two mostly likable characters, they somehow made this whole plot-line worse! There is so much fail in this plot cul-de-sac, it would be worthy of an entire blog post in itself. What a waste of Alexander Siddig, an excellent actor who I fondly remember from Star Trek DS:9. Maybe he and Stephane Dillane can start a “Our characters were horribly written but well acted” alumni club. I would subscribe to their newsletter.

While the actors for Jaime and Bronn did what they could to inject some skill in their craft, there is only so much they could do with the horrible material and fight choreography. The many missteps of characterization from the direction and writing has made Jamie a significantly different character from the books but not one totally beyond the pale of redemption. Until then, I will nickname him Jim Bob Lannister. Jaime Lannister is too awesome a character to have been involved in this shitstorm.

Daenerys Targaeryen

Ok, confession time. She is my second least favourite POV character from the books. Hardly anyone gives a shit about Mereen and most of the fandom wants her to go back to Westeros. Instead, the last book seemed hellbent on dragging other better characters into her story. However, I prefer the show version. Partially because I find it less difficult to my sensibilities reading about her very active sex life as a 15 year old. More so because the author is a 60+ year old man. I would add her carnal lusts are thoroughly described towards:

He is actually described to look like this. Yet, I find his characterization to make him even more difficult to take seriously.

The culmination of the “Mereenese knot” in the books, the only bright spot in her plot and character throughout Dance with Dragons was actually her confrontation with Drogon. You see, in the books the dragon is the real threat in the arena and not the Sons of the Harpy. Drogon arrives and begins roasting people indiscriminately. Daenerys boldly acts to intervene and save the people from the draconic menace. Instead, we are treated with her holding Missandei’s hand seeking comfort in the face of death but being saved by her pet dragon in what is only a deus ex machina save. It’s so saccharine as to make a diabetic reach for his insulin. To further portray the character as weak, it’s heavily implied she needs to be saved by wacky unlikely travelling companions #2324 of the show, Daario and Jorah Mormont.

Saint Tyrion Lannister

While the common theme I’ve described has railed against putting good characters through shitty characterization or diminishing their contributions or qualities, Tyrion instead is glorified in the show. Tyrion is arguably my favourite character in the books (Davos and Jon Snow round out the top 3). He is a flawed character. Many readers have criticized the tone of his journey in the 5th book. He spends a much longer time being depressed. He faces far more obstacles and trials than the show. Even in previous seasons, many of his flaws are whitewashed away. He is far more vindictive in the books. His big mouth occasionally gets him in trouble. In the show, he’s far more sympathetic and his inner turmoil is somewhat skipped as he meets Daenerys quite quickly. The huge buildup for their encounter in the books was a big deal at the time.

And install an anarcho-communist society! Or not and just rule because I have dragons.

When all is said and done, his problems are quickly skimmed past in the final scene when everyone in Meereen goes out of their way to praise him. The cherry on the shit sundae is the appearance of Varys and a cutesy conversation only a 12 year old would find witty. My impression of the exchange was the screenwriters having the characters fellate them for their “amazing witty dialogue”.

Shireen Baratheon

We rarely spend much time with her in the novels. However, Martin does portray her as a sweet girl who was afflicted with a horrible disease. We rarely see her parents interact with her. The show uses her as a way to humanize her parents, before her death and posthumously. There are only two hints which could foreshadow her demise in the books. The first, is tied to the fate of her father should he fall. The second comes from the Wildlings and their fear of her disease. This has lead some of the community to debate what might transpire should she relapse. As opposed to her father’s wishes in the show, Stannis orders one of his knights to fight for Shireen’s claim to the throne in the event of his death.

One could argue, her death’s purpose could have been used to show Melisandre is mistaken in her faith in Stannis. Had the showrunners repeated the story of Azhor Azai, the “chosen one” of her religion and him killing his wife to forge the sword Lightbringer, at least there might be context. Instead, it was a long forgotten line back in episode 1, season 2 uttered by Salladhor San in a dismissive (but well acted) manner. The books do this in a subtle way. The show takes the audience for fools or has too many constraints for time they must be more heavy-handed in their approach.

The sacrifice was rather done for shock value. The show has reached legendary levels for its high profile and gruesome deaths. However, many of these are warranted in the plot. Ned Stark died because he showed mercy when he should have been more ruthless. Robb Stark died because he placed more value on his personal honour than that of his House and those of his allies/subjects. Oberyn Martell died because he was showboating and lost focus. Shireen died… because it would make for headlines on TV. Stannis died because he supposedly dies in the upcoming books. The defense of “we only care because we ‘knew’ her as opposed to Daenerys who also burned people alive” is an interesting one. What the producers ironically fail to realize is their own framing of the scene. Daenerys is shown in a more heroic light and does not get penalized for the act so far. She has little remorse for what might have been a gross act against an innocent.

It strikes me that they wanted to up the ante to provoke discussion and eyeballs. It wasn’t enough to murder beloved characters. Robb Stark also had to lose an unborn child and his wife even though the former does not exist and the second is still alive in the books as far as we know. They say there is no such thing as bad publicity. I disagree. They lost me as a viewer.