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Do Not Taunt Cthulhu

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In Which I Discuss Fun vs. Competitiveness

Charles Simon
United States
Ashley
Pennsylvania
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Just this last weekend we finished our second campaign of Descent: Journeys in the Dark second edition (referred to as just Descent from this point on, but I am talking about the second edition). It was a three player affair with me as the Overlord. My wife played two Heroes and my friend Mike played two heroes. We also had the 1st Edition Conversion Kit as well to add a lot of possibilities for me as the Overlord.

Anyhow, as per anyone else who has played a bunch of encounters of the new Descent, some rules questions came up. Nothing too bad and even the wonky line-of-sight doesn't bother me as long as it is applied consistently.

The biggest rules question we had arise was from the Overlord's card "Reinforce" during the second half of "The Frozen Spire" scenario. Basically, the card lets me bring units from off the map onto the map anywhere as long as they are at least three spaces from a Hero. The Overlord's objective in the scenario is to either two small creatures or one large base creature to the exit square to cover the two exit spaces.

So with this card in my hand, I could automatically win the scenario. It wouldn't have been quite as bad if it was the first half of the scenario, I suppose, but it was for the second half. I played the card from my hand thinking about dropping a few goblin archers down near one of the heroes, but when I looked at the board, I saw I could win with the card play. I could place the goblins directly on the exit spaces and automatically win. In fact, by the card's reading, I could have done this on my first turn with the Open Group I had in may play area that did not start on the board.

I told the other players to see if they interpreted the card differently. They did not. However, I asked to take the card play back and I did not play the card. It felt "cheaty" and "dirty" to win like that.

The other players let me take another card into my hand in its place. The end result was that the Heroes won the scenario.

But the experience made me think about a few things.

First of all, Fantasy Flight really needs to amend their playtesting. Seriously, a required FAQ within a week of release is standard practice for their game releases.

But second of all, it made me consider the balance between fun and competitiveness in games that I play. Granted, I'm an old school D&D DM and am running a Call of Cthulhu campaign right now, so I'm used to that balance. Sure, the players could make 1st level characters and I could send a red dragon after them and then laugh in their faces and run a victory lap around the table. But that isn't fun. Challenge needs to be there, but not winning at all costs. Similarly, nothing bores me more than overly gamey players who take up so much time trying to maximize everything that they can do to win in a minor encounter that if they just played straight would have saved 45 minutes in rules look-ups and they might have taken 10 more points of damage.

But board games are different than roleplaying games, right? Should I be merciless and fully competitive? Well, that depends.

In Mansions of Madness, the Keeper needs to be the story teller. He needs to set the pace. In most games, I probably could unload fully on the players and win my objective. But it isn't fun for me or for the players. So I need to balance story and fun with competitiveness. I don't necessarily play cutthroat to win, but I play thematically competitive.

I mean, when I am dealt a Cylon card in Battlestar Galactica I am overjoyed. I know I'll have fun. I'll remain hidden until I can reveal at the point which might not be the best strategically, but rather the point where it will betray my ally's trust the most. Honestly, if I am dealt the Cylon card right off, if I was playing to win and not playing for story, theme and fun, I should probably reveal and spam the Cylon ship movement. It'll result in a boring game for all players, but I'll probably get a win in my win column.

But this isn't always the case in games. Let me play Dune and I'll be as ruthless as possible throughout. If I play coy or ally with someone, it is solely for my benefit.

I suppose, however, that Dune sets all the players to set the pacing equally, wherein the pace of Galactica and Mansions are set by the Cylons and Keeper respectively.

So that leads me to Descent. The story is there and it doesn't necessarily require the Overlord to hold back for pacing like in Mansions. However, I suppose it still does because of "broken" aspects of the game. With my player's consent, I traded out my "Reinforce" card for another 3 XP card because I wasn't comfortable with the possible applications of it. I also played Kolbolds against them in one scenario and saw that they were overpowered. I could have thrown them into every scenario that I could, but I want to balance competitiveness with fun.

Honestly, if I put Kobolds out at every opportunity, I may have won more encounters. But I don't think anyone would have had fun.

So, does this make me a "bad" player? I mean, I'm not throwing a game. But I suppose that I am not always using the most effective strategy, but rather the most thematic. I suppose that's just the Dungeon Master in me.
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