[Actual Play Review] Near & Far (Red Raven Games)

Erin and Katy (former housemates and would-be roleplayers of yore) have spent New Year’s Eve at the Castle von Von. As is their custom, they brought with them games, of a variety not often seen in these hallowed halls.

I’m not a big board game person. I like the idea of board gaming a lot more than I like most board games. They tend toward the ‘too abstract for me’ (most worker-placement/commodity-management Eurogames) or the ‘too clunky for me’ (the Fantasy Flight style franchise games).

But we persevere, because I do like getting people around a table and playing something that doesn’t have the prep requirement of an RPG, and because every so often, I stumble dick-first into actually liking one of these.

So, this week I’m shamelessly ripping off Erin’s review format and posting about five board games I’ve encountered over the New Year. Deal.

Near & Far

Finally! I can talk about a game I almost unequivocally like. I am committed to Near & Far, for several reasons, and I am aching to get on to those reasons, but first I must slide two small but detailed grievances over the table to get them out of my system and indicate that absolutely nothing in this world is perfect.

Firstly, I found it weirdly hard to build and maintain momentum in this game. That is absolutely a problem I have with most games (it’s telling, for instance, that my most successful wargaming is done with ‘undead’ themed forces whose ‘attrition and restore’ style allows for compensation should the controlling player lose tempo), but it was a minor sticking point, like a puddle of salty caramel ‘neath the remorseless boot of progress. If you’re the kind of person who gets frustrated when other people charge across the map and you’re plodding away taking three turns to reach all the good shit they’ve hoovered up – that might be a concern for you.

Secondly, the ‘bad guy’ options – the specific artefacts which demand that you accumulate negative Reputation in order to purchase them – are sometimes weirdly expensive for what they can do. The little utility ones are fine, but big fuckers like the flaming crossbow and the iron crown are punishingly expensive for very little payout, especially when you’re taking an overall score hit by being unpopular enough to use them.

I came into this game thinking that there was a way to make crime pay, a viable reason to choose Being Bad. Now I think those artefacts are in there as a sort of consolation prize for people who’ve had to be Bad and would otherwise be shut out of the game. If you come at this like it’s an RPG, think of it firmly in terms of old D&D where being an evil character was an accident you made the best of, rather than a balanced alternative to being a goodie.

Right. That’s that done. Let’s talk about how fucking great Near & Far is.

Image from Red Raven Games’ website.

Near & Far is a really really good, competitive-but-not story/exploration game. It has a lot of the trappings of the Eurogame – multiple resources which are generally harvested one or two at a time, random asset drawing, token placement, abstract victory points system – but it couples them to a delightfully soft-aesthetic pseudo-RPG.

Players pick a character and set off on either a map-based sandbox campaign or a personal storyline campaign. (Those of us who have played Shadow of Mordor give a thousand thanks that Near & Far doesn’t have those concepts squatting cheek by jowl throughout the entire fucking experience.)

In either case the ultimate goal is to locate and explore the Lost Ruin, a sprawling city full of perils and risks and potential (though as we discovered, often hollow) rewards. Play cycles between going on adventures and time spent in town.

The length of adventures is governed by limited rates of movement, bonuses to skills/combat and searching, a renewable modifier resource (hearts) and a non-renewable ‘worker placement’ resource (tents).

All of these, except the tents, can be extended by hiring henchmen and purchasing items, which demands the accumulation of reputation, gold, gems, food and faction prestige. There are multiple ways to scoop up these resources – mining or farming in the town, settling in the wilderness, or accumulating them as quest rewards – but exchanging them and hiring henchmen has to be done in town, and the almost-exclusive way to replenish hearts is to come back to town and leave again.

As characters complete quests, they acquire simple ‘colour this in when you’ve earned it and black it out when you’ve spent it’ experience, which can be spent on talents – generally simple modifiers to things you already do, or straightforward resource generators, rather than entirely new ‘skills’ and ‘spells’, which come into play on the next map.

The net result of all this is a pleasant tempo where sooner or later, even the most fully optimised of characters will have to come home for a breather, and although some people might be able to get further across the map, nobody’s mucking around taking three turns on the trot and zooming ahead while you wait for them to stop winning.

Remember what I said about Brass, and not confusing depth with complexity? This has depth. It’s not simple or easy by any means, but it’s elegant enough in its design and intimate enough in its scale that it teaches itself rather than dumping a huge map and forty possible decisions on you and making you get on with it. There’s town. Do you want to leave town? Better not – you can’t settle anywhere. You’d best hire a henchman. Hit the saloon. That’s what I mean about elegance. No need to come back here and tell people the best way to start playing, no sir.

The glorious strength of Near & Far is that its opportunity costs are generally well balanced. You may be a great duellist but your Reputation’s probably sunk through the floor and you’ll have spent your quest completions on being good in town instead of good at adventuring. It does seem like Meditation plus something that auto-generates Food plus Gem Trading is a bit too powerful, but this… isn’t really a game about winning, as such.

I’m sure you could play Near & Far like a total cockbag and aggressively hunt points, hoover up quest tokens from the map so nobody else gets any, but – in character mode, at least – there’s no real incentive to do that.

If you must bully other players, reading out their quest descriptions from the book-o-quests (a sort of choose-your-own-adventure kind of affair, generally presenting two choices – an easy way and a hard way, a way with a hidden cost and a way with a resource drain, that kind of thing) gives a little flicker of Schadenfreude without you actually having to be a cut-throat little shit.

During this week I’ve talked about the importance of player agency and about multiple rewards, ways to ‘win’ even if you haven’t scored the most points. Near & Far does both of these things really, really well. 

The storyline through which your character moves may be pre-defined, but the kind of person you are isn’t. I ran through three maps as Vera, the guard captain tangled up in a revolution against a corrupt governor – on my first one I felt honourable but bemused, on my second I’d gone full outlaw, swaggering around town with a duelling pistol and a Reputation score as low as it could go, on my third I’d built a strong team of robot pals and actually felt like my last choice meant something – personal glory and conquest or the humility to aid the revolution before setting off for the Lost Ruin?

While the storylines run off some pretty simple tropes – it all felt quite young adult JRPG, particularly the storyline for the robot character Grear – they all deliver on those archetypes and hit the right resonances.

(I’m not sure the others agree – Katy in particular felt like I was the only person who got a ‘good’ ending, even if I personally regretted not staying full bastard, but I’d argue that the endings are dramatically and thematically satisfying, even if they all feel like qualified victories. It’s all quite mature really.)

I didn’t actually win a single round on points, and at least once I screwed myself by eating the penalties for low Reputation and discovering there wasn’t much payoff to doing so, but I didn’t ever felt like I’d lost – only, perhaps, that I’d lagged behind.

Bottom line: Near & Far is great.

It’s like low-prep modular D&D for people who aren’t into D&D – like Katy, who I suspect would make a really good DM if she was working off a decent module (and I hadn’t thought that about her before, so this game wins out on ‘learning things about your mates’ too).

It’s rewarding to explore in multiple ways with different priorities, and it’s brave enough to let you go about things your own way.

Highly recommended. Check it out.

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[Actual Play Review] Lords of Waterdeep (Wizards of the Coast)

Erin and Katy (former housemates and would-be roleplayers of yore) have spent New Year’s Eve at the Castle von Von. As is their custom, they brought with them games, of a variety not often seen in these hallowed halls.

I’m not a big board game person. I like the idea of board gaming a lot more than I like most board games. They tend toward the ‘too abstract for me’ (most worker-placement/commodity-management Eurogames) or the ‘too clunky for me’ (the Fantasy Flight style franchise games).

But we persevere, because I do like getting people around a table and playing something that doesn’t have the prep requirement of an RPG, and because every so often, I stumble dick-first into actually liking one of these.

So, this week I’m shamelessly ripping off Erin’s review format and posting about five board games I’ve encountered over the New Year. Deal.

Lords of Waterdeep

Basically, this is a worker recruitment Eurogame, under the D&D licence, which inverts the usual process of D&D. Now you get to play the quest givers – the movers and shakers of Waterdeep, sending your agents out into the city to a) read the word on the street, finding out what quest-like activities can be done to serve your agenda, b) recruit adventurers to fulfil said quest-like activities and c) screw around with the other Lords through a little thing called Intrigue.

All of this is done by taking meeple and assigning them to buildings. Some buildings let you buy other buildings, drawn at random from a stack. Some let you collect quests, drawn at random from a stack. Some let you draw Intrigue cards. At random. From a stack. There are four different kinds of quest. Your Lord will benefit from pursuing two of them. Your Lord is drawn. At random. From a stack.

I… don’t know if I like this game. We played it twice. The first run was fine, although I didn’t do well. The second left me feeling a little salty, and I suspect the salt levels would only rise with repeated playthroughs. I wanted to like it, and I didn’t hate it, but I’m not sure it deserves the amount of effort that liking it required me to put in.

Quite often, the D&D trappings are just trappings. The Harpers make an appearance, but there’s no reward for playing them Neutral Good; they’re just a colour of token. I ended up playing the City Guard as a pious den of thieves run by a moneylender Lord because of how the game shook down, and that felt slightly off to me – just arbitrary, I suppose.

As I type it out I nod sagely and start homebrewing an explanation for that, which is fine, but if I think like the kind of person who’s super-into the Forgotten Realms, the potentially inappropriate combinations may bother me a lot more, because that’s not the lore. Being a homebrew kind of guy whose contact with the Realms came through a bunch of turn-of-the-millennium computer games, I was able to recognise some things and go “oh hey, neat, it’s that” but still (mostly) back off and accept that they’re just green meeples and victory conditions and it doesn’t really matter who’s who.

The real problem with all the random drawing isn’t faith to the setting, though. It’s more a matter of agency.

Firstly, Lords of Waterdeep can straight out disengage players who aren’t into the theme of the Lord they drew. This happened in my second run, and while I was able to roll with it, it kind of seasoned all the other ways in which I could feel the game pushing me this way and that.

From the pure Eurogamer perspective it doesn’t matter that the quests are called Warfare and the orange cubes are called Warriors (Katy just calls them all ‘cubes’), but Lords of Waterdeep is going out of its way to attract roleplayers to Eurogaming by invoking themes and yet not affording the agency that I think most of us want. I’m fine with pre-generated characters but I still want to pick which pre-generated character I get, y’know?

Secondly, some of the quest types really struggle for resources unless particular buildings come out early on. In our second run I found my turns becoming very samey. I’ll try to model the reason why.

My Lord wanted to complete Commerce and Piety quests. Hardly any Commerce quests came out, so I had to bed in on Piety. Most Piety quests require at least two Clerics. Clerics were slow to recruit – the base board only provides one per turn, and there weren’t many Cleric-friendly buildings coming out, and the Plot quest that converts other adventurers into Clerics didn’t show its face until near the end.

What this all meant in practical terms was that every turn I’d have to a) hope I was still going first, because otherwise I could be locked out of a quest completion by not having access to two Clerics every turn, b) recruit two Clerics from the same two buildings and c) make sure I had a Piety quest to complete, which locked me in to visiting the tavern. At least I was generating Warriors and Rogues aplenty from the available buildings, so I generally had the other adventuring resources I needed, but if something needed a lot of gold I was generally taking two turns to ramp up to one quest.

It worked, in so far as I came a solid second, but it was a) demanding in order-of-execution terms and b) too easy to derail if one other player happened to want a Cleric this turn. If there hadn’t been a building that let me hijack other buildings I’d have been gimped.

This combination of scarcity and randomness makes the game feel self-solving, in a way that doubles down on the arbitrary assignation of objectives. If particular quests or buildings don’t show themselves, and if one player happens to be the only person who needs to pursue a particular kind of quest, it’s easy for some players to be stuck in a resource war while someone else can bed in on stuff for which there’s no competition.

The game tells me who I am and what my priorities are and, as particular cards and buildings come up (or don’t) how I’ll have to get there. It’s like the difference between solving chess puzzles and actually playing a whole game of chess, and I don’t know if there’s a way out.

If I’m competing with someone for Commerce and someone else for Piety, and if someone else is establishing a clear lead because they’re the only person going for Arcane, then can I win by abandoning the contest (and my victory point bonuses) and bedding in on Warfare instead? I’m not sure.

On top of that… because the game’s assigned me a character, a role to play, I found it harder to do what I did with The Castles of Mad King Ludwig and tell it where to get off because screw the win conditions, I’m in this for the aesthetic.

Ultimately I think Lords of Waterdeep imposes a little bit too much – it’s able to screw you in three different ways and you’re stuck going along with it. I suspect I’d like it a lot more if we could pick or at least draft our Lords rather than just picking one out of the bag. That would restore a measure of control, and make the arbitrary scarcity of objectives and resources during play a lot more bearable: if we end up in a bad place it would at least be one of our own choosing.

The next game I’m going to discuss doesn’t have any of this roleplaying baggage – indeed, it’s the most ‘pure Eurogame’ of the titles we played together – but I found it the most alienating and intimidating of the lot. Stay tuned for fun and frolics with Brass. In the meantime, here’s the true Lord of Waterdeep.


Erin took many wonderful photos of our kittens but this one is my favourite.

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a peek past the masquerade

tfw a new persona just charges out of nowhere, wears you like a skin suit, and has you delivering their manifesto in the shower.

roleplaying has always had the smell of ritual about it for me, occupying the place that religious observance and enthusiasm should do (not for nothing do we recall that ‘enthusiasm’ originated as a term for a kind of madness, brought on by profound love of God). it’s always been a kind of magic.

at this time of year, seven years ago, i wrote about how running a particular kind of game has always felt like inviting people to inhabit my soul for a while. i lost that feeling, for a good long while. i let myself be swept up by other schools of play and thought, by ironic distance and delusions of literary adequacy, by troubles of agency and mechanic. and it was all just a game.

but this shit is what it’s all about, mates, when something steps into you and speaks through you and scares the bollocks off you because you’re sure it didn’t come from you.

once or twice, i’ve drained myself while roleplaying, left myself empty and scared because that Victorian knife killer or traumatised WWI vet or feverish street preacher was so real and so full-on. once or twice, people have felt obliged to apologise for me. i still recall the time Ben said “you realise Jon was roleplaying there, right?” after one scene, and the relieved nods, and how i wanted to shake them all by the collars and say “no, you fucking idiots, that was what happen when i stop“.

i didn’t. i nodded and smiled, and when Dave said “i couldn’t do that” i didn’t say “yes you can mate, anyone can, you just… let go. you let your mind wander and you don’t stop what it brings back.”

maybe not everyone can.

anyway, there’s something magical about all this. i turn up my sneer even now at the thought of speaking the pre-game prayer out loud, but that’s how this works, how i think, even if i keep it secret for the sake of not being outed as a total woo-woo merchant (or worse, a total fruitbat).

i do a lot of roleplaying with myself, playing through half-conversations with real people or with their characters, because i get bored easily and because rehearsing conversations always helps me actually know what to say.

so in retrospect, it shouldn’t surprise me when a new character concept surfaces in a manner not a million miles away from possession.

one deranged Lasombra street preacher, full of ego-darwinist fury and disappointment at the lies we tell ourselves, tearing down false humanity and institutions of privilege coming to a WoD game near me.

and to think all this started because i randomly thought about how pooling blood to share Disciplines is an innately Sabbat concept, part of their ritual praxis and political ideology, whereas the Camarilla uses blood oaths as part of its hierarchy and disciplinary proceedings, so you wouldn’t expect to see people sipping on each other so freely. and that got me on to the sort of communal resource-mongering of the Sabbat and its balance between absolute freedom of individual expression and absolute sect loyalty, which got me on to egoist communism… and… the rants just write themselves.

he talks like Top Dollar as played by Dennis Hopper, or rather by a pissed up Englishman doing a rubbish Dennis Hopper impression.

anyway, this has been a glimpse into where my mind goes when i’m all ‘unique people don’t use capitals’. cringe if you will, but there it is.

happy new year, motherfuckers.

i’m off to play Near And Far until my eyes fall out.

back to what passes for normal around here in 2018.