Flicker flames and haunted faces
Shuffling feet find empty spaces
Moving shadows, someone's hurting
Huddle closer, campfire burning.

Monday, 23 January 2012

100 Minutes With . . . Monster Tale

Somewhere at the back of the toy room there’s a box of unwanted games.

Unlike the residents of the Raggy Dolls’ reject bin there’s nothing wrong with these games. They’re fun, capable of bringing great enjoyment to anyone who slots them into the console to which they belong . . . and therein lies the problem: so few gamers did slot them into a console--any console, even an old Vectrex case where they’d do nothing but make a pleasing rattle and catch fire when you plugged it in. They’re great games that would be fondly remembered if only people had given them a chance.

But you didn’t, did you? You bastards.

Monster Tale is the latest in a long line of handheld romps destined to be forgotten in the box at the back of the toy room. Quite why this is is a difficult case to crack It doesn’t have an over-sized Drill Dozer cartridge; it isn’t a spin-off from a niche RPG series a la Dragon Quest Heroes: Rocket Slime; it’s not as cutesy as The Legendary Starfy, dismissed as a ‘baby’s game’ and left to bulk out Game Stop shelves filled with Nickelodeon licenses, yet it never made it to Europe and remains relatively unknown.

So let me sell it to you, this game you’ve never heard of, this game you’ve never played. Let me sell it to you in a single sentence:

Monster Tale
is a Metroidvania platform game in which you raise a virtual pet to fight your enemies.

Yeah, I know--that’s the sentence that sold the game to me as well. It’s the dissonance between the two elements that intrigued me--the same thing that sold me Culdcept on the basis it was Monopoly meets Magic: The Gathering. How do those ideas fit together? How can they possibly gel? Why is my brain melting? This will never work.

This is how it works.

You play Ellie, a little girl who finds a bracelet in a forest which transports her to a magical kingdom where kids own monsters and make them fight one other. In a distinct stab at Pokémon, these Kid-Kings are cruel masters, the villains of the piece, and you, being of pure heart and filled with good intentions, have to put an end to their reign.

The Metroidvania aspects play out exactly as is de rigeur with power-ups and dotted about the map allowing you breach previously unreachable rooms. Enemies patrol the walls and floors, and fly about levels spitting fireballs--it’s all very familiar, humdrum even.

What isn’t humdrum is Chomp, your pet monster found hatching from an egg early on in the game. Vowing to return him to his mother you take him with you and soon discover he’s a lot more useful than he first seems. He attacks enemies, pushes platforms and does various other things to help you through the game. The longer you have him helping you, the more actions you have him perform and the more hits he takes, the more tired he becomes; sooner or later you’ll have to return him to his sanctuayt in the bottom screen to rest.

Here’s where things get interesting. Chomp, cute little bugger that he is, is a virtual pet similar to the A-life creatures found in Sonic Team’s games--in NiGHTS: Into Dreams and Sonic Adventure. Every so often a bad guy will drop an item for Chomp to play with, examine or devour. Sometimes these items will be weapons--a football, perhaps, that Chomp can kick about the screen--but they all boost at least one of Chomp’s stats or give him experience points. Raise his stats high enough and Chomp will gain a new ability, either passive feat or an action that can be triggered using the shoulder buttons. Raise them even higher and Chomp will evolve into a new form.

Each of Chomp’s forms has its own unique skill set. Crucially, Chomp can switch forms through a sub menu, meaning you can have a tricked out attack machine or a sleek, defensive speedster on hand as the situation demands. A grid displays progress towards Chomp’s various forms. He might be just the one pocket monster but Gotta Catch ‘Em All is a terribly appropriate catchphrase for Monster Tale.

Chomp is cute, you see: he’s adorable. He’s a swirly-headed idiot who floats about occasionally knocking barriers for six, but he’s full of character. I played the game in front of my sister-in-law’s kids; they soon gathered around in a sticky-sweet cloud, demanding to see Chomp gnaw another cookie to crumbs or drive another remote controlled car into his foes.

Although his skills can for the most part be ignored--bar dispelling the odd barrier, it’s possible to play Monster Tale through without using Chomp in combat--using them successfully is a thrill akin to pulling off a combo in a fighting game. While not especially deep, Monster Tale’s combat system is key to finding rare items and greater sums of money. The more hits you land on an enemy, the more stuff it drops. Get Chomp in on the act with some perfectly timed attacks and you can juggle bad guys long enough to get rich quick.

There’s some really smart stuff going on with regard to the DS’s duel screens as well. Don’t think just because you stashed Chomp on the second screen that he’s safe, in the first boss encounter you’ll have to switch Chomp from screen to screen, avoiding attacks while sending the wee beastie into battle. Seeing the boss’s heads extend across the screen right into what might as well be your inventory is one of gaming’s rare delights: something new. It mightn’t have the impact of, say, Psycho Mantis reading your memory card, but it’s the last thing you’d expect from a cheerful cartoon adventure, especially one so criminally overlooked.

Other monsters have other duel-screened attacked, from planting bullet-shooting seeds on the second screen to pink squid that send tentacles after you while hiding out of range. This oblique thinking to the DS’s two screens never quite fulfils its potential, but there are enough ideas there to keep combat fresh even late into the game.

Which is just as well. In melding RPG elements to a Metroidvania-style game developers Dreamrift have mated two of gaming’s worse crimes: back-tracking and grinding for XP. The off-spring is never as terrible as it might have been in less talented hands, but crossing the map back and forth becomes a slog at times--it feels like items and rooms have been deliberately spread out so you’d have ample opportunity to collect cash and items.

Even with so much footwork, it’s still not enough to ensure you’ll have everything you need when you get to the next location. I’d often find myself running through the same few rooms taking out the same handful of monsters, hoping to raise enough cash to buy a health or weapon upgrade so I could take on the boss that kept thwarting me.

Not that they’re difficult. The bosses are speed bumps on an otherwise smooth road. For some, the gentle difficulty curve will be too gentle; it’s generally an easy game, if not one you could play with your eyes closed.

As a game that’s destined to be forgotten it’s easy to espouse it as a hidden gem, a lost treasure, something that you have to play should you get the opportunity. And you should play it, because it’s fun, it’s fast, it has a smattering of originality--it’s the kind of game you spend too long playing, that you boot up for a quick blast when on the loo only to have someone knocking on the door telling you it’s been half an hour and are you dead or what?

It’s just not a great game. But that’s okay. Not every toy you’ve ever loved has been great. That teddy bear, Mr. Bloon, was he a great toy? His fur was matted! He only had one eye!

A good game, then; a perfectly enjoyable one. It has its flaws but let’s not consign it to the reject bin quite yet, okay?

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Opening the Pathfinder Beginner Box

There’s a kid--let’s not be coy about this, a boy--who’s going to want this box more than anything he’s ever wanted. He’ll see it on a shelf in Barnes & Noble and won’t know anything about it other than it says ‘PATHFINDER ROLE PLAYING GAME--BEGINNER BOX” on the front. Between the words are a couple of guys in funny clothes facing a dragon that looks like the shadow cast by the world’s largest knife rack.

That’ll be enough to grab his attention. That’ll be enough for him to take the box down from the shelf.

‘Adventure awaits!’ it says on the back. ‘Take your first step into an exciting world of fantasy adventure.’

The spiel on the back of the box is full of words like ‘adventure’ and ‘heroic’--it reads like the Middle Earth edition of the News of the World, breathlessly drumming its own insane ideals into the reader’s head. It should, perhaps be a warning against travellers treading carelessly: Here be dragons, it might read; just as likely: Here be geeks.

Because the Pathfinder Beginner Box is the kind of box that hasn’t been seen since the days of Pandora. Contained within are all the woes of the world, yes: all the beasts, villains and traps, all the sacrifices and hardships, all the horrors, all the pain. But beneath them all is hope, a hope that has never come so appealingly packaged.

We know the kid. We were the kid. Older, wiser, a little more secure in our geekiness (and hey, you wouldn’t be reading this if you hadn’t played a little D&D in the good old bad old days, would you?) opening this box is like playing with the Box of Delights. Open it and you might as well be a teen again, unhappy, unloved, pining for things he can never have, looking for a way out and finding this: a magic portal to another dimension.

I kid you not; when I opened the Pathfinder Beginner Box for the first time the vacuum caused by pulling apart its snugly interlocking parts stirred me like the breeze of another world. It ruffled my hair, whispered through my memories. I was there again, I was back, and though it wasn’t an especially pleasant place to be at the time at the bottom of everything there was hope.

It’s a chest filled with loot: a handful of ruby-red dice in all the shapes M.C. Escher could dream of; sheets of cardboard characters ready to be punched out; a map--a big map, stiff as a morning erection and equally difficult to lay flat. There are character sheets--blank ones and ones already filled out--that look like career advice pamphlets for the best jobs in the world. Do you want to blast your enemies with fire? Read magic scrolls? Know secrets about ancient lore? Why not be a wizard?

There are books that are actually magazines like the ones that once drew your eye before you moved onto shoplifting copies of Razzle. They’re glossy and slick and heavily illustrated with pictures of weapons and monsters--none of it quite makes sense yet, but on seeing them the kid’s mind races trying to figure out how they all fit together.

There are a couple of other sheets in the box, flyers sandwiching the content like credits in a movie. ‘Welcome to a world of adventure!’ reads the one on top; the other, buried beneath all the box’s treasures advertises further adventures into a realm the kid hadn’t hitherto known existed.

In some ways it doesn’t matter what the books say. When I was the kid I spent most of my time reading about things that weren’t applicable to me, that I loved anyway: reviews of 18-rated movies, features on DJs at top nightclubs--I had a couple issues of White Dwarf which I read ragged despite my army only ever amounting to two half-painted orks and a squished and splintered Rhino.

The kid will read the books over and over. He’ll follow the adventure in the Player’s Guide, learn how combat, skill checks and saving rolls--the rules of this new world, immutable as physics--work, then discover that Pathfinder’s physics can be made so pliable they drip through his fingers. One of the hardest jobs any RPG has is teaching the reader just what a role-playing game is. Though the kid’s never run into them, by the time he’s read the Game Master’s Guide he has a handle on it. He draws his own dungeons on the back of the map, and they expand, becoming cities, lands, worlds.

He plays Pathfinder with his friends. The first dungeon, spooled out step by step, blends pre-scripted blocks of text with general descriptions of each room, trap and treasure it contains. It introduces RPG concepts effortlessly, taking the kid through combat, through role-playing, showing when to give the party hints and when to give them a break.

If you want to be cynical about it the entire box is an advert for full-on Pathfinder, but once the beginner’s adventure is over there are enough monsters and ideas for the kid to take his players to fifth level. Do you want to visit mountains? Cities? Build worlds? Sure, there are source books you can buy to help you do those things--and the Beginner Box gives ample advice on how to scale down published adventures to work with its simplified rules--but you don’t need them. Role playing games play out on the stage of your imagination. If all the kid needs is a spark then this is a tinderbox.

With Pathfinder’s rule set condensed to around 150 pages the indexes and reference guides at the backs of both books are the bows topping the whole package. I’ve had some experience with so-called beginner’s boxes before (the less said about The New Easy To Master Dungeons & Dragons, the better) and it’s difficult to imagine a nicer looking, more concise, easier to use, downright friendlier introduction to fantasy role playing games than this--even the pre-made character sheets are annotated, describing each section and its use in the game. It’s a box in which memories are made; part toy, part time machine, if you dabbled with RPGs as a kid it’ll take you back to the heady days of hellish acne and being scared of girls, of rolling dice and kicking ass.

And if you’re the kid (who absolutely resents being called a kid, of course) then know that this box is everything it appears to be and more. You don’t need me to tell you it’s not easy being a teenager, so why not be a wizard instead?

Friday, 13 January 2012

Writing About Games, Swimming Against the Current

This morning--as happens every other morning, it would appear--there’s a debate running between various factions of gaming journalists about ‘The Craft’--that is, the craft of writing, and not the Fairuza Baulk movie about teenage witches.

See that last--for want of a better word--’joke’ in the paragraph above? That’s the shit I have a problem with. At no point in that sentence did you think I was talking about some tawdry goth-angst flick; chances are you’d forgotten the film had ever even existed. Mentioning pop culture--especially retro pop culture--has become a cheap way of adding ‘comedy’ to reviews and features and, oh, you know, the whole rigmarole of writing. It’s surprising anyone does it at all these days, but they do. It might be a bottom-feeding cliché but some of us are innately bottom-feeders, and regrettably bottom-feeders need love, too.

This is the point in the article at which I should sneer down upon those unpaid writers foraging in fish shit on the ocean bed, yes? Bottom-feeders, I called them: the scum at scale’s end. Unpaid, unloved, writing reviews on whatever website will have them in the hope that some day their talent will be recognised--and if it isn’t maybe some kind games company will send them free XBLA download codes to ease their pain. How tragic they are. How we higher-ups pity them.

Except I’m not a higher-up; far from it. I was--and perhaps still am--one of the bottom feeders: the most miserable shark there is, swimming because if it stops just for a moment, it dies.

The truth of the matter is that I’ve been writing for a very long time, without recognition and often--mostly--without readership. I wrote for the pleasure of seeing my thoughts spool out before me. I think in type, in sentence and simile. I’ve spent a lot of time inside my own head without anyone to talk to; like many lonely souls I used the Internet as a crutch, a friend with multiple personalities, who were real people like me, but so distant, faceless and anonymous behind their screen names, they might as well have been ghosts in a desktop machine. I’ve surely typed more words than I’ve ever said aloud. If you were to talk to me in the real world you might notice a disconnection between us as if I’m lagging behind. It’s frustration at being unable to communicate over such a clumsy medium, a seething barrier of self doubt, lack of confidence and all the other mannerisms that make a person unpleasant to be around.

If my writing’s worth anything--and I’m not saying it is, mind you, although I do have my moments--it’s because of this: years of repression, uncorked, spilt and making a dreadful mess on the tablecloth.

That’s the story of my life. I expect you have one of your own, maybe even one that compels you to write whether or not you’re being paid. Good for you. Cash should never be an incentive to write, only one to write for other people.

I started writing for other people mid-way through 2010. I asked if anyone on Twitter would be kind enough to let me write a few words of ‘unpaid freelance’ for them and a couple gaming websites responded. One was an entirely amateur affair run by fans for the thrill--or hell--of it. The other was slightly more upmarket, what I think of as ‘a semi-pro’ website, staffed by people who are or were professional writers and are now eking out a living on the Internet.

The first of these sites was a blank canvas without any expectations of the kind of art I should be practising. Unfortunately whatever my art was didn’t lend itself to their canvas; with pretentious ideas of what gaming should be I never felt I fit in with people who preferred to think of games as, well, games.

The second site was what most aspiring games journalists might see as a leg up into the industry. For my first assignment I was sent an entire game--a collector’s edition at that--and without any further advice told to deliver some words to the editor by a certain date.

My words came in late; I know this now. They arrived well before the deadline but being fresh into the ocean I saw the deadline as the final reef before the drop-off, not as a marker some distance inland; I approached it as I might have approached a truck in a game of Chicken. You might have seen J. Jonah Jameson yelling at his staff that he wants a story written up ‘yesterday’; if you can complete and hand in your copy before your editor’s finished asking for it, you’ll have a happy boss on your hands.

There were a few sentences that needed re-writing, a few clarifications that needed to be made. After writing for myself for so long I’d forgotten how to write for others. I fretted over the returned copy but rewrote it, made it work, sent it back and a few weeks later it was published.

In time, the editor sent me another game and asked for a few words on that one, too.

This was The Dream: playing free games before anyone else and having the world listen to what you think of them.

Except dreams never play out quite so neatly, do they? There’s always a Freudian nuance spoiling the sexy ones, a forgotten childhood horror spoiling the pleasant.

When writing about games to a deadline for other people, you play them differently. You rush through them looking for faults. Ingesting a game in such large quantities--caned for hours, maybe days at a time--leaves it lumpen in your digestive tract. The sweetest parts dazzle your taste-buds while the slightest disagreeable morsel on your tongue tastes like the foulest shit you can imagine. Those websites rewarding big games with endless ten-out-of-tens don’t do so because they’re being bribed, but because when playing a game you quite like for ten, twelve, eighteen hours at a time, if you can play it for so long without feeling bored it becomes a game you love.

That’s what happened with Dragon Age 2. I’m not saying I’d have reviewed the game any differently if it fell on my plate tomorrow, but in my non-stop run through to deliver one of the first reviews of the game onto the Internet, the half-finished, identikit dungeons and limited locations didn’t have time to become an issue for me. There was so much about the game that I liked, so much that felt different to every other epic RPG out there that I enjoyed it in a way I mightn’t have if given time to reflect upon it. It’s easy to gorge one’s self on chocolate ice cream in a single sitting, but have it every meal for a month and you might come to loathe it.

This is only a small part of the dim reality of playing video games as a profession. One of my favourite gaming stories read when I was young concerns the testers testing (I think) Time Scanner on the Spectrum, who spent hour upon hour launching the pinball and recording the angle at which it hit the first flipper. As a kid to whom play-testing was something St. Michael might reward you with in Heaven, this story of a beleaguered QA department forever put me off moving into the play-testing field. As someone who likes games, the idea that the joy in playing them might be wrung drop by drop from me is terrifying.

So it’s not the dream job some people think it is. But then, it’s not exactly my job, either.

When describing my occupation I say I’m a freelance writer. When pressed, I go on to say I largely write about games. I know games, you see: video games and board games and a few other kinds in between. Given the chance, I’ll write about TV, books, movies--and stuff that actually matters. I spent a year penning articles daily with the soft proviso I didn’t resort to talking about the media I was in the process of consuming. I’m glad I did it; you might say this article--the one you’re currently reading--is an extension of that. I mean, it concerns games in a roundabout way, but it’s not 1,500 words about why Shenmue is the best.

Strictly speaking, it’s not my occupation. Strictly speaking I’m unemployed; as soon as I have a social security card I’ll be looking for proper work stocking shelves or serving coffee. But I have been paid for writing about games and I’m not quite sure how that happened.

Affecting a pseudonym might have helped. Campfire Burning might be one of those silly names everyone uses on the Internet but it’s also brand recognition. Nobody ever confused me for another Daniel or another Englishman because I’m known by an appellation I gave myself, one that perfectly describes my narrative style. It’s a calling card as much as it’s a name: a description of what I do, where I can be found and who I am.

Writing for free might also have helped get my name out there, as it were, but having a Twitter account certainly did. @campfireburning, updated several times a day, served as a hub for anyone who wanted to reach me, as well as a place to disseminate my work and make contacts. It’s what got me my first regular--though still unpaid--column, with a podcast that was starting to make waves in the world of board games. I got a handful of free games out of that. Life was good.

Except life doesn’t revolve around board games: you can’t pay your TV license with a copy of Axis & Allies. The best reason I can see as to why I was offered money for my writing is that there just aren’t many people writing about board games. We tabletop gamers have little identity; we have little journalistic history. Things are starting to turn around now with likes of Rob Florence and Quintin Smith blogging about how brilliant board games can be, but they’re still small flounders in an endless ocean. Nobody outside the hobby gives a shit about them; it’s only until you force them to watch Shut Up & Sit Down or read Cardboard Children that they might say “Hey, that game sounds fun”. Even then, never will it cross their minds that it’s the writers that made the game sound fun, who conveyed their experience playing it so well it made the reader want to play it, too.

Here’s the kicker: nobody wants to admit they’re swayed by reviews, podcasts, writers, whatever. I asked my Twitter followers if they were influenced by these outside factors and their responses varied from ‘No’ to ‘Hell, no.” They are, of course--they have to be. I suspect the factor most likely to make someone play a game is good word of mouth, but with gaming media casting its net ever wider to find hidden treasure, somewhere along the line that obscure J-romance title you’ve just started playing was discovered and written about by someone who was paid to do so, and not your mate Trev who told you it existed.

The operative phrase in that last paragraph was ‘paid to do so’. Unpaid writers don’t have the resources big websites with healthy salaries do. I think people overestimate the amount of free stuff writers are given, and a lot of what they are given is awful: it’s all the stuff you and your friends never hear about because you ignore any review that scores a game under a five.

“Oh, what hard lives gaming journalists have. Cry me a river.”

If we have to use the phrase, a lot of the best ‘gaming journalism’ hasn’t required much in the way of playing games at all. Aside from a few cases concerning faulty hardware and publishing colossi, there isn’t much serious journalism to be done in the field of games. After all, we’re talking about games here: Israeli athletes are never going to murdered at Mario & Sonic at the 2012 Olympics. The stories that stand out for me are those like the rediscovery of Soviet-era arcade machines, painting an alternate gaming universe bunkered in concrete playrooms. A trip to play the latest Call of Duty could have read like a preview with a load of fawning slap on it; as it was, Simon Parkin viewed the media event aslant as an exercise in marketing spun wildly out of control.

Such stories don’t fall pre-written into writer’s laps; they take a fair amount of talent and dedication to get to the heart of the matter.

Should Parkin et al’s undeniable talent be taken for granted, just because we’re jealous they got to play Mass Effect 3 a month before release?

Good writing is worth paying for. If you’re writing for free and you think your writing’s up to scratch, don’t you think you should be paid for doing so?

Or think of it another way: if you’re not being paid and you are good enough, why should the person you’re writing for make money off your talent?

I feel a lot of unpaid writers are disgruntled they don’t get the pay or opportunities those in the business do. Paid writers, on the other hand, are disgruntled that there are people willing to do their jobs for free in the hope it’ll lead to bigger and better things--or, just as likely, access to the latest games.

Not everyone can be a writer, just as not everyone can be a professional sports person. Maybe you’d love to join your favourite team on field for a kickabout, but do you really want to do it week in, week out, for free when all the players around you are paid? More than that, what if you can’t kick a ball to save your life? What if--even if you all love playing footie--everyone else on the team is just as inept as you are, because the manager sacked Zidane, Giggs and the others in order to keep all the cash your team makes to himself? As a fan, is that the kind of football you’d want to watch at home: you and your mates arsing about on pitch like Subbuteo pieces in an earthquake?

You know if you’re good enough to write professionally, and if there’s someone willing to hire you with the means to pay for your work, don’t you deserve to be paid?

Don’t let people take advantage of your talent, don’t eat their shit and don’t be a bottom-feeder.

Because if I can swim, so can you.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

The Legend of Drizzt (and other stories)

Another wife story (are we really all so friendless?). Even though she's not particularly fond of my latest obsession she's declared that Wednesday night is and always will be game night--I think she sees it as a family activity preferably to living in thrall of the Xbox or television, a state in which my sister-in-law and her kids (whom we're currently living with) find themselves 97% of the time.

Working in reverse, our second game of the night was Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer, at which she soundly thrashed me. She doesn't like deck-builders at all--she downright hates Dominion and I haven't had the courage to try Thunderstone on the table--because they're 'too stressful' and she's always worried she'll do something wrong. By contrast, I love them, but I'm shit at them. I wasn't paying attention to whatever she was doing on her side of the table so by the end of the night she had a wall of constructs so impressive it was probably visible from space. Collecting so many gems instead of a handful of Provinces gave her the time to set up a decent engine. In Dominion I charge in with a modified Big Money while she's trying to show off her deck-building side--for someone who claims not to 'get' deck-builders, it certainly came to the fore last night.

First game of the night was The Legend of Drizzt, in which we attempted the second scenario using Drizzt and Regis the Halfling thief. She has a role-playing background and was probably a little disappointed the game's all strategic use of combat skills and lucky card-pulls/die-rolls, but at least she wasn't put off by the setting.

Much of the game played out in the pull tile/play monster/kill monster sequence typical of D&D adventure games. We had some unlucky encounters which had chipped away at our hit points but were otherwise doing okay. One encounter with a Feral Troll mid-way through the game was hairy, but after much discussion of the possibility of maneuvering it into a cramped tunnel to reduce its armour class, I smacked it in the chops with my Daily special.

It was only toward the end that things took a serious nosedive. Regis had been poisoned by a nest of spiders and the only way my wife could cure him was to defeat a monster in combat. I, being a testosterone-deafened idiot, didn't realise this; no matter how many times she told me I didn't listen, assuming the only way of healing was to die and Christ-like, be resurrected free of life's pain. She was waiting for me to draw a monster she was capable of killing on a couple hit points while I was pretty much saying "Fear not, my halfling friend--I will protect you!" and killing anything that happened her way.

Finally we drew the Broken Door tile and the Throne Room beyond that. To win we had to retrieve the crown rested on the throne and kill the assassin Artemis Entreri who was hunting Regis for not returning his library books on time. Artemis has two weapons: a sword and a Vampire Dagger, which hits for two damage but, crucially, heals Artemis for one hit point if it hits. But he can only use the dagger if he's adjacent to only one Hero, meaning if we stuck together he'd never be able to heal himself.

So we stood together. Regis used some hypnotic trinket to keep pushing him away from us, damaging him one point at a time in the process, but with every other turn he moved a tile closer, and still poisoned, Regis's life was ebbing fast.

My wife and I concocted a grand scheme. After pushing Artemis back as far as she could, she'd make a break for the throne room and grab the crown while I attacked the relentless assassin and hope not to be stabbed. By this point we had no healing surgest left and while I still had health from using the final surge Regis was down to one hit point--another hit and the game would be over.

For most of the game The Legend of Drizzt feels like a board game more than a role-playing adventure. It plays quickly, cleanly; there's little in the way of flavour beyond the art, the figurines and the occasional line or paragraph to read when something happens. It's difficult not to feel intimidated when you're up against a troll four times the size of your wee plastic man, but for all his heft he goes down like every other monster, on a lucky roll of the die. We pulled tiles, played monsters and killed them: that's how you play the game.

Except in these final moments something magical happened. For the first time in the game--or the first time when doing so carried a greater meaning--we split the group. It goes against the second adventurer's law (the first being to always carry a clean pair of underthings) but at that point we didn't have any other choice left to us other than inaction, and inaction would get us killed in two turns. Besides, we were heroes. We were pointy-eared fella with skin the colour of midnight and his half-pint companion, battling dimly-seen monstrosities to reach a Dwarven crown. If we hadn't done what what we did then, clean pants or no clean pants, with our dying breaths wouldn't have been able to call ourselves adventurers.

Regis ran across the broken door to the Underdark to retrieve the crown from its throne. Drizzt stood fast, one sword held across his chest for defense, the other--Icing death--pointing like lodestone at Artemis's black heart. "Artemis!" I cried. "Your journey ends here!"

Then I counted the squares to his wee man, moved my figurine forward . . . and attacked.

The last drawn encounter card--or the last that made any difference--was 'Bad Air', which attacks all Heroes for one point of damage. That was enough to kill Regis thus ending the game, except, [i]except[/i] even without healing surges Regis, who still held the crown, wouldn't be declared until the start of my wife's next turn. I still had a full turn ahead of me, and though I was beaten up, Artemis was in worse shape. He had three hit points left.

"We've lost," my wife moaned.

My mind scampered about, looking for the highest point on a ship nearly sunk. Then I realised something: we could win this.

"We can win this!" I said. I double-checked my maths. "My God," I said. "We can win this."

And we could have. I didn't have any attacks capable of killing Artemis outright--I'd used my daily on the troll some half-hour earlier--but with Drizzt having two attacks and one of those attacks getting +1 to damage should I roll an eighteen or over, if luck was on my side I could do all the damage I needed to and win us the game.

I rolled a seventeen and hissed through my teeth.

"Close," I said. "That's one damage." Artemis now stood at two hit points and the entire game came down to this final roll. The graveyard of plastic monsters we'd already slain watched from the table's edge, breathless.

My wife blew on the die for luck. Our eyes met. I rolled . . .

I rolled a twelve. Not such a bad roll under ordinary circumstances, but these were extraordinary circumstances. I did Artemis a single point of damage, he attacked and missed in return. I forget which encounter card I drew. Regis expired on the Dwarven throne, still clutching the crown in his small, cooling hands.

As we dismantled the board and put away the pieces I left Artemis and Drizzt on their tile until last. Lit by volcanic vents, the distant chittering of spiders filling their ears, they remained there until finally I popped them back into the box, sealing Artemis in a ziploc baggy with the game's other villains, saying: "I really thought we'd do it. I really thought we'd win."

In the end my wife declared the game a draw. Though we hadn't beaten the game, we hadn't beaten each other either. She doesn't like losing but draws she doesn't mind.

Wednesday night is game night, as it is, as it will always be. I can't wait to see what next Wednesday's game will bring.