September 6, 2012
“Well, we’re on our way.” – FDR upon learning that American troops had set sail for the invasion of North Africa
So here we are. After months of feverish activity, lots of late nights, and gallons of leaded coffee, our Kickstarter campaign for Specimen is now up and running. I would like to say that I’m relieved, but that just ain’t true. To paraphrase the tag line for Specimen, “When the Kickstarter starts, the terror begins.”
At least I had some semblance of control while we were preparing everything. Now, it’s up to you guys. Oh sure, Joe and I will be furiously tweeting, blogging, and posting on Facebook, basically doing everything we can to get people interested. But really, a board game like Specimen will either appeal to you or it won’t.
So, now begins 30 days of prodding, poking, and cajoling to everyone and anyone I can find to support this project.
That being said, visit www.kickstarter.com/projects/toxicbag/specimen-board-game to donate to the kickstarter.
Please, take a minute to check out the rewards we have for pledging at different levels. And if you think the project is as cool as we think it is, please consider pledging a few bucks. You can be part of the Specimen Community and help send this great, fun game out into the world!
Every little bit helps, and Joe and I will be very grateful.
Finally, I can’t express enough how proud I am of all the hard work and contributions I’ve gotten from everyone involved with Specimen. You guys listened to the crazy ramblings of wide eyed, obviously mentally impaired or over-medicated bald guy and somehow turned them into a really cool, slick looking game. And for that, I will be eternally grateful, whatever Specimen’s end.
YOU GUYS ROCK!
And so far in the first day, we’ve raised over one thousand dollars!
Well, we’re on our way!
Now, if we can just raise a million bucks…
‘Course, what do I know?
August 28, 2012
This past Saturday I had the pleasure (read ‘sheer terror’) to have my first board game design, “Specimen”, put through a blind playtest. What exactly is a blind playtest, you ask? A blind playtest is where the players play the game using just the rule book. There is no instruction from an experienced player. This type of playtest is actually a critical step on the path to releasing the game. Since I’m not planning on sending myself along with every copy of the game to teach people how to play, making sure that the rules are complete and make sense with minimal confusion is a really good idea. I should point out that I have never written an instruction manual before this, so while everything in it makes sense to me, to others, probably not so much.
Thanks to Eric Van Tassel (“Specimen’s” plucky Science Officer Franklin), we had two very experienced gamers arrive at Stately Cullom Manor at 11:30 AM. After brief introductions and a tour of my fanboy abode, I sat Alex Hunt and Jonathon Hagedorn down at the table with the board, several piles of counters, cards, dice and two copies of the rules and let them have at it. The three of us agreed that I wouldn’t tell them anything and they wouldn’t ask me any questions unless they were completely flummoxed.
Here is where the ‘pleasure’ began in earnest (mostly in my living room, but definitely earnest too). Alex and Jonathon began by reading the rule book cover to cover. Both were armed with post-it notes and pens and very quickly (Like page freaking one!) they began to make notes. It’s quite an experience to watch something you’ve spent basically the last three years of your life working on being picked apart and being powerless to intervene. It’s all for the greater good (the greater good), I kept telling myself. The game will only get better with this. So I sucked it up and went with it. I decided to try and distract myself from the vivisection going on at the table by watching the blu-ray of “The Thing” (the new version, not the Carpenter one.)
By the time the film came to its happy, upbeat conclusion, Jonathon and Alex were well into actually playing the game. Now I got the pleasure of hearing little snippets of their conversation as they confer on game play and rules. “I believe that attempting to damage the ship costs 2 action points, right?” and things like that. Of course, it seems to me that the only bits of the conversation that I can make out clearly are ones that indicate that my rule-writing skills hover somewhere between ‘awful’ and ‘second grader.’ I’m fairly certain that not once did I catch the phrase “This is brilliant. Whoever wrote it is clearly a genius and should be standing in some sort of sun-god robes on a pyramid with a thousand naked women screaming and throwing little pickles at him” (Why am I the only one who has that dream?).
As this torture rolled on, I became convinced that at any moment the guys were going to announce that the rules are a mess, the game is a failure and my sense of home decor is questionable at best.
Fortunately the whole affair ends quite well. They both enjoyed the game. The rules as I wrote them are serviceable. Jonathon and Alex both put forth a lot of good suggestions for improvement and a few GREAT ones. Several sections can be combined. Several should be expanded. And several new ones should be added.
So, I think that we’ve passed that step. Or at least, didn’t trip and break our freaking necks on it. I’m now in the process of implementing their suggestions, and hope to have a new draft of the rules soon.
After that, I guess I’ll take a serious look at my home decor…
‘Course, what do I know?
August 7, 2012
I have a confession to make. I am a faux-trailer maker. There, I said it. I admit it. What exactly is a faux-trailer maker, you ask? It’s a person who makes trailers for movies that don’t technically exist. And I’m one of them. I know, weird, right? What kind of a weirdo would spend the time, effort, and money to make a trailer for a movie that was never made?
This kind, I guess…
Anyway, it all started back in April when Joe and I released the “Ghost in the Graveyard” soundtrack. I got the crazy idea to cut together a trailer for the imaginary film that the soundtrack was written for. I thought it could allow the customer to hear the music used in a horror setting. Sooo, we called up an actor friend and put together a shot list and off we went. We shot the trailer, nobody got hurt (despite the bloody wound seen in the trailer!) and I had a blast.
I thought that it would be a one-time thing. I was just experimenting, you know, pushing my boundries. But I enjoyed the feeling. After we finished, I started to miss it. Then in May we did our big photo shoot for our new board game “Specimen.” I saw my chance. As we were running through our setups for the new card images, I had Joe shoot some video clips of our cast looking scared and what not. We’re currently putting the finishing touches on the trailer. The photo up above is me working on some state-of-the-art special effects for it. We should get it posted real soon.
So that will be two trailers and counting. I know, I know, I should stop. This can’t be healthy for me. If anybody knows about any support groups out there, please forward me the contact information. But I got to tell you, it’s so much fun, I don’t think I can stop. And I’m not sure I want too.
Gotta go, I just had a cool idea for a trailer for “The Girl with the Dagon Tattoo” project. It will be epic.
‘Course, what do I know?
-Editors note. Steve is currently ‘resting’ in the Miskatonic Home for Wayward Trailer Makers. He is making excellent progress and hopes to be rejoin society and enjoy watching real movies, and the trailers that advertise them very soon.
July 23, 2012
For the past few months we’ve been working feverishly to enhance the look of our new game, Specimen. Armed with gigabytes of new images from our photo shoot, we’re updating the graphics and design of every aspect of the game. Recently I’ve taken on the challenge of redoing the Attribute cards. Out of all the materials of our prototype, the Attribute cards were in the most dire need of a re-boot. Plain and un-imaginative, these cards were whipped out to be purely functional.
The original prototype version of an Attribute card
Since our specimen is part of Doctor Viktor’s research, it made sense to me that the attributes would be his findings. So I designed a display screen that has all the pertinent game info but also included some other cool window dressing as well.
First draft of the new look attribute card
I think that this new look is a step in the right direction.
What do you think?
The Specimen project moving on. You guys have been asking a lot of questions about the game and how it works. So, I decided to give you guys more of a feel for what this game is about, Enjoy! – Steve
Toxic Bag: Tell us about the new look for Specimen.
Steve: I have always conceived of the game as a film. I was actually imagining scenes from an imaginary sci-fi film as I was coming up with the game events. So I decided early on that instead of having artwork done for the events and characters, I wanted live actors posed with costumes and props. Once playtesting had progressed to a point that I was happy with the game design, Joe and I hired a costume director, a photographer, and six actors, and started building props. The end result was a nine-hour photo shoot that produced some amazing pictures. Joe and I are now in the process of manipulating the photos and we hope to start releasing them in the next few weeks. I’m very excited about how they’re coming out! Now if I can only find a place to store that flamethrower prop…
The Crew of the TCS Brown searches for the Specimen
Toxic Bag: How long does it generally take to play Specimen?
Steve: It was really important to me to make a game that can be played in one sitting. So far in play testing we’ve found that the game can be played as quickly as two hours, but three and a half hours seems to be the norm.
Toxic Bag: Is this a two-player game only? Can more than two people play?
Steve: I’ve been asked that question a lot during our open play tests. The current version of the game is for two players. I’ve explored optional rules that would make the game for 8 players (one person would control each crew member and the monster.) The biggest obstacles are distributing the cards and the fragile nature of the crew. I haven’t worked out a system that would give every crewmember a card or two to play each turn that I like. Also, crewmembers die very easily, and I’m not sure how excited I would be if my character died 15 minutes into a 3 and half hour game…
Toxic Bag: Could you compare this game to some of the other Card-driven games on the market?
Steve: I would say that Specimen uses a hybrid version of the CDG game systems that are out there. The biggest difference is game scale. Most of the other CDG games that I have seen are historical/strategic games that cover an entire campaign or war involving millions of men and equipment. Specimen focuses on the events taking place on one spaceship. There are seven astronauts and one monster. That’s it.
Since there are no reinforcements, each side has to be very careful not to waste the crew’s lives or Specimen’s wounds. I think that this limitation makes the game more intense in the mid to late stages. The players have to decide whether to play OPS and move or have an event happen. And that decision gets tougher when either the Crew is split up and alone or the Specimen only has one or two wounds left.
Toxic Bag: Please explain the Specimen attributes for us as well as how a player ‘builds’ their monster.
Steve: The current version of the game has 24 attributes to choose from. The Attributes can be broken down into three categories: offensive, defensive and special. Offensive attributes can be anything from a spikey tail (which gives a bonus die in combat) to razor-sharp talons (a +1drm for combat rolls). Defensive attributes help the monster negate the Crew attacks. Things like an armored exoskeleton (a -1drm for Crew combat rolls) to toxic blood (if wounded, there is a chance that the creature’s blood will get on the Crew and potentially kill them! The Special attributes are just that; special. Faster evolution (the monster gets bigger, quicker) and embryo implanter (the monster can reproduce!) are just a couple of examples.
Each attribute also has a point cost associated to it of zero to three points. The Specimen player has three points to spend on attributes and must take three attributes. So, whichever trio of cards they take, the total point cost can’t be more than three.
The rule of thumb is the higher the cost, the better the attribute. However, you can build a very nasty creature with three 0 or 1 point attributes.
Toxic Bag: I see that some of the crewmembers are officers. How does rank affect the game?
Steve: I wanted to make the crew makeup realistic. So it was obvious that there’d be a Captain of the ship. After that, I decided to have a first and second officer. One of my goals was to make this game have a horror flavor to it, and so rank only really enters play later in the game when the monster attacks. As the crew dwindles, the chances increase that the survivors will panic when the monster attacks. Having an officer present helps the rest of the Crew with their panic checks. ‘Course, that means you have to keep the officers alive too. (Laughs)
Toxic Bag: This is a CDG, so how important is hand management?
Steve: Like any CDG, there are certain cards that really should be played as the event. Specimen is no different. Crew events like the flamethrowers and the trackers are really important events and skipping them can be adverse to the Crew’s health. As for the monster, not playing the Air vent movement event really puts the monster in a bad spot. But for the most part, I tried to design the card events as things that you want to have happen, but you could probably win without. That’s where hand management comes in. Holding a card or two, waiting hand after hand to draw that one specific card to work out a sequence is not a winning strategy. You have to play the hand you’re dealt, not the hand you wanted.
Toxic Bag: How do you see the strategy challenge for a player in Specimen?
Steve: Both sides face big challenges in the game. The Crew holds the advantage in the early turns, but they have several choices facing them. Do they hunt down the monster while it’s tiny and weak or do they fix the ship so they don’t explode? Maybe they split up (always a great idea in horror!) and try to do both? The monster has to be careful in the beginning, this is when it is at its weakest. During the middle turns, things even out as the Monster evolves and gets stronger, and the Crew fatalities start to increase. The situation flips during the later turns when the monster has the advantage. But the Crew isn’t totally helpless, as they will be better armed (guns and flamethrowers) and can always abandon the ship.
October 15, 2011
Result: Minor Crew Victory
15 Space Monster Victories
7 Crew Victories
Play Tester Game Playing Level: High
Note – Italics indicate that a card was played as an event.
As Turn 1 began, the Space Monster moved to Cargo Hold One and successfully damaged it. The Captain moved to the Computer Room and Science Officer Cinder moved to the Infirmary. Cinder then discovered that the monster had a chameleon ability (One of the Monster Attributes). The Monster then emitted an EMP (another Monster attribute) which shut down all of the lights, monitors and the ship’s computer for the rest of the turn. Alarmed by this, the Crew decided to attempt to fix the ship and began moving to the damaged sections. The monster appeared in Corridor Two and attacked Second Officer Palance. Palance wounded the monster on the first combat roll, but was killed when the monster emitted a sonic screech (the third and final attribute of this monster). Both player decks would expand to 40 cards during the end phase.
Turn 2 started with the Crew arming themselves with guns. Next, they discovered that the Monster was using the vents to move around the ship. They quickly decided to hunt down and kill the monster immediately. The Monster avoided detection and managed to heal its wound. The Crew finally located the monster and attacked. During the melee, Britt was wounded and the Monster managed to get away.
At the beginning of turn 3, Navigator Hamm and Executive Officer Abel moved to the Bridge and began plotting the ship’s exact position. This would take the entire turn. The rest of the Crew headed towards the damaged sections. The Monster now attempted to evolve, but was unsuccessful. Cinder and SISTER turned up something useful to use against the Monster, resulting in the Monster losing a card from next turn’s hand. The Engine room suddenly lost pressure, making it uninhabitable for the rest of the turn. The Crew finished out the turn by quickly constructing a couple of electrical prods to combat the monster.
Turn 4 began with a bang as the cargo in both holds exploded. The Crew headed to the damaged sections to attempt repairs. Just then, the Captain and Science Officer Cinder moved to the Infirmary to look at something interesting. They would be forced to spend the rest of the turn there. The rest of the crew reached the damaged areas and managed to repair the damage in Cargo Hold One. New damage was detected in the Crew Mess. The Crew responded by splitting up again. The Monster appeared in the Cargo Hold Two and wounded Chief Engineer Milton before he was able to escape. The Monster again emitted an EMP, shutting down the ship’s system’s for the turn. During the End Phase, the Monster evolved to Stage One.
Turn 5 started with the Monster quickly evolving to Stage Two. To negate the monster’s sonic screech attack, three of the surviving Crew members put on EVA suits. New damage was detected in Corridor One. The Crew decided that in order to better fight the monster they would split into two teams. But this idea was immediately negated when they started bickering and fighting and not trusting each other. New damage was detected in the Escape Pod. The Crew was able to repair the damage in Corridor One.
At the beginning of Turn 6, the Crew moved to the Bridge and held a burial in Space for Palance. This forced the Crew player to randomly discard a card from his hand. The monster became distracted by the lights on a control panel and had to randomly discard a card. The Captain came up with a plan to deal with the situation and the Crew went into action. The Captain then attempted to activate the SISTER computer to gain an extra card for next turn’s hand. But SISTER was unable to elaborate. The monster attacked and killed Science Officer Cinder in the Crew mess.
Turn 7 began with the five surviving Crew members suddenly developing suspended animation sickness, resulting in all of their Crew cards being flipped to the wounded side for this turn. First aid was applied to Milton and Britt, so they would be back to full strength once the animation sickness wore off at the end of turn. The monster attempted to damage the ship while the Crew succeeded in repairing the damage in Cargo Hold Two. Knowing that the monster was going to become more powerful as the game progressed, the Crew constructed two incinerators to help fight it.
In Turn 8, machines repaired the damage in the Escape Pod. But just as that was taken care of, new damage was detected on the Bridge. The Crew spent the rest of the turn attempting to repair the damage, and one of the incinerators ran out of fuel and was removed from play. The Monster evolved to Stage Three at the end of turn.
Turn 9 began with Milton and Britt refusing to work unless they got some more money. The Captain went into the vents to try to force the monster out of the ship. His attempt failed, and he was killed at the third junction. Hamm was told to go take care of something by herself in Corridor One. The Monster appeared out of the shadows there and killed the hapless navigator. Now only three crew members were left alive.
Turn 10 started with Milton and Britt again refusing to work. Machines repaired the damage to the Bridge. The Monster attacked again and killed Engineer Milton. The two survivors, Abel and Britt, quickly moved to the Bridge to plot their next move.
Turn 11 began with action as the Monster managed to get into the Bridge undetected and kill Britt in the ensuing battle. Abel, armed with both pistols, managed to inflict three wounds and drive off the monster. But the respite was only temporary as the Monster again attacked. Abel’s aim was true, and he killed the Monster. The game had ended in a Minor Crew Victory.
Another exciting game, this one ending with the Crew winning! We got to see the Sonic Screech and the EMP attributes used together. They could be a deadly combination. The EMP will have to be tweaked. One suggestion by the players was to have a recharge roll during the end phase to see if the EMP is available again after it has been fired. I like that idea, and will put it into play for the next batch of playtesting. I was glad to see the Crew win a game, but they still need help to give them more of a shot!
October 13, 2011
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Rating System: 0 – 5 Bubbly Head Deaths with Zero being the lowest and five being the highest.
Contagion, hereafter referred to as Achu!, is a chilling story about a worldwide pandemic of a hybrid bat/pig flu. Achu! begins on day two of the outbreak as Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) is returning home to Minnesota from a business trip in China. Although already infected and suffering from a runny nose, cough and headache, Beth has time to stop at Chicago for a quickie with her lover. He too becomes infected, and starts to spread the disease himself. We also see in rapid succession other people that Beth came in contact with in China, all succumbing to the disease. This is a great, and frightening sequence letting us know how quickly a virus can be spread.
Once Beth gets home, she has a seizure and collapses. Her husband, Mitch (Matt Damon), rushes her to the hospital, where she quickly dies. Already stunned by this news, Mitch returns home to find that his son Clark (Griffin Kane) has also died from the virus. From here the story picks up all of its various threads and begins to tell the story from several perspectives.
Independent internet blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) picks up on the rising body count and starts posting about it; the World Health Organization sends Dr. Ornates (Marion Cotillard) to China to investigate. Prodded by the Department of Homeland Security, Dr. Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) of the CDC in Atlanta also starts to investigate.
The rest of the film shows us the spread of the virus and the medical community’s attempt to stop it. The multiple threads let the audience get to see the effects of the virus from different perspectives, from the ground level of Mitch Emhoff to the penthouse view of Dr. Cheever and the scientists at the CDC. Along the way we get to learn a lot of chilling concepts like what an r-not number is. The r-not of a virus, we learn, is a mathematical formula calculating the virus carrier and the number of people he or she will potentially infect. The flu, for example, has a normal r-not number of one. This means that a person infected with the flu is likely to infect one other person on average. The CDC soon estimates that the r-not of the film bug is more like 4, but it could be higher. The scary thing is, the r-not is a real thing, and it’s monitored by scientists every day!
Soderbergh and his cast and crew are pros, and they go about their business in a professional way. Overall, I enjoyed this movie. I especially loved the mid-movie montage of abandoned locations. We see in quick succession the gym, the mall, the bank and several other places that are usually teeming with people and noise, all dark and abandoned. There is something unsettling about seeing these familiar places in such unfamiliar conditions. The apocalypse fan in me also loved the scenes showing the breakdown of society. People looting and killing and being generally unpleasant with one another as soon as the power goes out shows us a scary concept: the idea that acting civilized and obeying the law goes out the window as soon as personal preservation kicks in. We see this demonstrated when Mitch witnesses some armed looters break in to a neighbor’s house. He promptly calls 911 to report the break in and gets an endless automated message. (“You have selected regicide. If you know the name of the king or queen being murdered…press one.”) Later on we see that Mitch himself is now looting his neighbor’s houses. Survival has trumped law and order. And to be fair, I don’t blame him; I would probably do the same thing. This concept of “where exactly is the line between obeying the rules of society and doing what you have to in order to survive” is a powerful one, and it would have been great to see more of it. The film makers could have shown us the moral struggle Mitch Emhoff experiences as he makes these decisions. And an actor like Damon has the chops to pull it off. But since there were so many other threads going on, the audience quickly got whisked away to another character’s storyline, and any drama about Mitch’s decision to rob and steal to survive was quickly dropped into the memory hole. The next time we see Mitch, the danger is pretty much over and power has definitely come back on.
This brings me to the movie’s main flaw. I felt that the film was a bit bloated. There were too many characters trying to tell too many stories. Especially the Dr. Ornates storyline in China. I wouldn’t have missed it if that whole bit had been dropped, and the pacing would have improved dramatically.
GAME INSPIRATIONS FROM THE MOVIE
By itself, Achu! doesn’t really fit into a workable game. Some serious re-working would have to be done. Something or someone causing all the unpleasantness would have to be added on. Call of Cthulhu has a lot of potential beasties that could be responsible for the outbreak, but any modern day rule set could work. It could also be re-worked for a fantasy setting as well. This could be a lot of fun, especially when you can throw in the medical knowledge and sensibilities of the period. Again, a lot of extra work for the GM, but it could be satisfying.
I loved the storyline involving the doomed Dr. Mears (Kate Winslet). One of my favorite scenes involves her interaction with the Minnesota Department of Health officials. She gives them a shopping list of what needs to be done; shelters, morgues, food, water and supplies. Their response was great. Instead of taking the steps needed to save as many lives as possible, they are more concerned with questioning how much her plan is going to cost and who’s budget it’s coming out of. It’s only a few exchanges, but the actors nail it. It felt real, and that was scary!
‘Course, what do I know?
You can check out this review as well as all the others at the Bloodwork blog on toxicbag.com.