Tuesday, August 11, 2015

GenCon 2015: Undercity Demo

Well, this past weekend, or rather two weekends ago because I contracted the GenCon cold and cannot relate what my life was like last week (or if I was even alive to live it) I went to fucking GenCon, for the first, and definitely not the last time. I played some games, one of which I'll blog about and pimp outrageously because the makers are super cool dudes who didn't make me hate a d20 system for once, but today's highlight (if you can't see pictures for some reason) is all about Privateer Press' The Undercity, a dungeon-crawly board game with watered-dow- you know what, I don't like calling Undercity's mechanics watered-down. Distilled. Undercity is a dungeon-crawl board game that's like a hybrid between the original HeroQuest (or any of it's spiritual-successor bastard spawn) and a finely distilled version of the core IKRPG ruleset.

I had the opportunity to play one 'mission' on the boardgame, and below are my thoughts, carefully separated into three categories to increase reading comprehension in this internet age.

What I Liked:

It's a HeroQuest-inspired IKRPG-lite board game that features a leveling system and persistent characters over a campaign that is touted to last (overall) for 14 hours (Thanks to TechRaptor for the paraphrase, and inspiration to write this blog post). Miniatures of a quality akin to the Iron Kingdoms Unleashed Starter Set are included, and to a greater amount than that box, so that's again, something to love. Some of the minis are either reposes or mods of existing WarmaHordes miniatures, and I don't see any reason why they can't be included as proxies for existing characters (Milo Boggs for Gorman Di Wulfe, Random...ogrun...for Ogrun Bokur, Croe's Cutthroats for....Croe's Cutthroats, Cephalyx for Cephalx. You Get what I'm saying here.)

On one hand when I first saw these all I could think of is that PP was being exceptionally lazy in designing original models, now I see how I can be cheap right back and include said models in my Warmahordes games. So there's that bit of silver lining.

Delving a bit deeper into the actual mechanics of the game, I enjoyed the round-table aspect of play, with enemy AI-esque things happening during and after each player's turn, in the sort of constant 'menace' that creates a decent enough facsimile of a GM. Essentially, each enemy is gambitized (think FFXII) into performing various actions on a player's turn, priority is given to either green or red foes, various foe 'action' cards dictate which enemies activate when, etc, etc. Like I said, it's a decent enough stand-in as an expy-GM, and it's refreshing to have a dungeon-crawl boardgame that eschews that usually-necessary antagonist-player in favor of full-on table cooperation (a la recent D&D boardgames - Drizzt, Ashardalon, Ravenloft).

The distillation of the standard IKRPG mechanics is also handled elegantly (rather than clunkily), and Privateer Press has indeed trimmed some of the fat that threatens to bloat standard IKRPG sessions, in a series of new definitions for existing terminology that is somewhat confusing for the first five minutes, but is easily incorporated afterwards. Statistics are boiled down from 13 main and derived values to 6, and the revamped Feat system is a fantastic hybrid between the original feat mechanic and character abilities from the RPG.

I didn't get a chance to experience the level system or the side-quest options in the demo, but I'm hoping those add depth in terms of loot and XP, and perhaps offer some kind of replayability to the boardgame.

What I Disliked:

That said, the changes made to the mechanical system are still jarring, even for a short time, and players more immersed in the RPG system might have a harder time adapting, specifically the 'always-right' rules lawyers who seem to enjoy bickering rules for the sake of bickering. I can see some stalling at the table when revised rules are rolled out and play grinds to a halt while someone reaches for a core book while the GM flips frantically to the index of the boardgame rules.

Another sticking point for me is the overall drabness of the finished product. The miniatures I already expected to be flat colors, and it's interesting to me to see that PP actually incorporated the base colors of miniatures into gameplay mechanics (and I cannot wait to see some of the finished painted models some PP-forumites are probably already mocking up), but after being blessed with the Unleashed starter box's absolute wealth of play tiles, I was hoping for something more expansive than just 36 tiles of grey, tan, and white cobblestone. Supposedly this monotony is broken up somewhat by modular individual tiles, but nothing in the online rules looks as visually engaging as WotC's efforts in their randomly-generated dungeon tiles. For a brief game, I can see this being all right, but seeing the same tiles repeated endlessly over the course of a 14 hour campaign...things might get tedious.

Lastly, and this is more of a minor issue, when I joined in the Demo I'm pretty sure I was joined by absolute novices to the IKRPG rules, and the only character left to play was the tank. This may have been an intentional choice by the guy running the demo, to leave the tank open for himself to potentially take over or for a drop-in to be able to easily pick up the mechanics after everyone had already gotten the basic gameplay spiel, but it seems like the more 'interesting' characters have highly-involved and specialized rules that might serve as a minor barrier to new players. The goblin comes with a steamjack, the alchemist has a limited number of bombs, and the gunmage player must adapt to the rune-shot mechanics. The troll fighter, though? Hit all the stuff. The disparity in important rules means there are a few places where a 'veteran' player of the game can help out a newbie who chooses a more difficult character to pick up.

What Concerns Me:

Grind concerns me. That may not make much sense at the outset, but just realize, Privateer Press attempted to create a boardgame from the IK franchise already, and it was called Grind, and it was a 2-player football/soccer-esque warjack game and...kind of tanked. Now, I love the concept of Grind. If it was approved as official lore of the IKRPG, I'd support that in an instant, because underground robot full-contact sporting leagues are basically the definition of awesome. However, it was a slog of a system, only 2 player, and just kind of meh. The main selling point of it nowadays is that you basically get free warjacks with the purchase.

This concerns me because I believe Undercity is a good product that has the capability of being fantastic...if Privateer Press supports it after release with further adventures/villains/tiles/PCs. As it stands, it seems very bare-bones for the advertised play time, and I think that the folks at boardgamegeek are going to have a hell of a fun time coming up with homebrew scenarios to keep things interesting.

The modularity, but not random tile placement means that every mission replay, at least aesthetically, is going to be identical. Sure, you might get a random different enemy on one particular draw, but overall most mission replays are going to feel similar. This means that, potentially, this is a fire-and-forget campaign, similar to Privateer's published scenarios, which are really one-time use for any game group (with the exception of the Noble's Tourney, which my friend Susan has utilized...three times? Is it three times now, Susan?).

All this really boils down to is my concern that Undercity will undersell, and Privateer won't want to drop any more money developing it further, leaving it to stagnate.

Undercity is a really promising product, and if it were published by Fantasy Flight games I'd say it would be destined for utter success and lots of cool expansions. My experience with Privateer Press boardgames (not RPGs or Wargames, just boardgames) means my usual IKRPG fervor is tempered by my buyer's remorse regarding Grind.

None of that is really important, though. What's really important is the question of 'hey Dave, are you actually going to throw money down on this?'

The answer to that is yes, and I would have probably even bought it at GenCon, had I ample space in my return luggage. Hashtag sadface.