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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Playtest: Zeppelin Armada - Phase 2 (Game 1)

Monday night I, my 11 year old daughter, Fiona, and 13 year old son, Ian, sat down and played a full game of Zeppelin Armada.  We decided to add an additional 10 damage counters to our supply (I had started with 20) based on Ian's experience when he yoiked the game the other night.  Our experience was different, however, and we did not need them all.  We had few wounded Zeppelins, but lots that got just blown out of the sky.  Also, we added a coin for a coin toss as well as the miniature golf arcade token, which we used as an indicator of a bonus a particular Zeppelin flagship could apply.

Every player starts with a flagship, and each flag ship is commanded by one of the pulp villains in Evil Hat's Spirit of the Century (SotC) RPG univerese (two male characters, Dr. Methuselah and Der Blitzmann; two female characters, Rocket Red and Princess Cyclone; and one non-human, Gorilla Khan(!!!)).

So, with our full kit assembled, we set to play.  We randomly dealt our flagship cards and Ian got Dr. Methuselah, Fiona got Princess Cyclone, and I got Rocket Red.  As a quick diversion, we consulted one of my copies of SotC and checked out the stats and pictures of Dr. Methuselah and Rocket Red.  Princess Cyclone appears to be a new creations, and had no picture we could find.  However, Fiona set to remedy this, splitting time between the game and drawing her own illustration of her Martial Weather Witch.

We each got to draw our starting Zeppelins, and Fiona and I each had very fast fleets, which put us on top for the card capturing mechanic of "yoinking."  We rolled to see who started first, and Ian started us off.  Position and order are important in this game, as, for one thing, it determines who can attack whom and when.  Clockwise around the table, there was Ian, then me, then Fiona.  I could attack Ian with my right (he could retaliate with his left).  I could attack Fiona with my left and she attack me with her right.  Her left was posed against Ian's right.

We began with good natured table talk and helpful advice to each other as cards were getting played for the first time.  Ian, after having carefully absorbed the game already, was the clear person to beat.  Fiona and I had a lot of tit for tat attacks against each other, especially after Ian got an early card that blocked all attacks from my right against his left.  Strategically then, I made the fateful decision to try to take out Fiona (yes, picking on my little girl) to try to get to Ian).  Fiona, concentrated a lot of attacks on me, although she also split and hit Ian too.  All in all, though, the battle was one sided from the beginning, because as Fiona and I blew each other out of the sky, and Ian jumped in and caused us problems, Ian built a bigger and bigger armada.

Strategically, I would have done better to try to encourage non-aggression with Fiona, and in fact should have figured out how to support her as a proxy against Ian, since he was immune pretty much to my attacks.  Well, it was fun just blasting away with big Zeppelins and explosive, electrical, kinetic, etc. attacks, and to pull out Events and Reactions that helped frustrate and confound your opponents.  Late in the game, we started seeing some Characters (basically special "crew" that can get placed on Zeppelins, though not all are actually helpful (and you can play them on your opponents)) appear.  Too late for me.  Between Ian and Fiona, I was crushed a little over an hour into the game.  However, I had crippled Fiona pretty bad, and Ian, as Dr. Methuselah seemed triumphant.

Then, the fact that it was after 9 pm and a brother and sister faced off against each other began to show.  This is a very personally competitive game.  There are no abstract winning of tricks or lucky cards.  You decide to do things (like attack) to specific opponents.  Tired and grumpy kids turn out to be frustrated by the course of such a game, and Fiona felt that her brother was smugly unbeatable, and decided, after a couple of turns of playing with me as advisor, that she no longer was interested (and that Ian was mean, and he always wins games, etc. (she is, after all, 11)). 

So, I took over Princess Cyclone.  I gave Ian a run for his cards.  I even made his flagship "flip" first.  This is another mechanic where instead of being destroyed, the first time a flagship takes a certain amount of damage, it transforms into a weaker version of itself, but keeps on fighting and commanding the fleet.  Despite this satisfying outcome, Ian had my, now borrowed, flagship flipped the next turn, and soon, my defenses were spent and he blew me out of the sky.

So, this write up is not about the formal technical aspects of the playtest, though I have hit upon a few points.  This is more about how things went and what social (and emotional) impressions we had.  In general, everyone had fun.  Ian, as winner, had a lot of fun.  I had fun, despite being the biggest loser.  Fiona, had some fun.  She liked the theme, and early on, when it was anyone's game, she enjoyed it.  However, there is a lot to keep track of, and as the game grew to be one sided, with things falling Ian's way again and again, she had less fun.  This was, of course, impacted by the fact that she was tired and the game was going late.  Normally, she would not walk away from the table, but, as you all probably know, siblings are often simultaneously best friends and bitter rivals.  This is true for my kids.  They have a lot of congruent interests and can get along incredibly well.  They also can fight like cats and dogs, use inappropriate words and inappropriate force with each other, and generally drive each other (and their parents) crazy.

So, mixing that with a new and highly competative game, was a little explosive.

That aside, the test went well.  The game proved to be very playable and fun.  The theme is imaginative and goofy and exciting.  The mechanics work well.  There are important mechanical and social issues to consider in building your tactics and strategy in the game.  We have a few observations to share with the designers, and hopefully, our thoughts, with those of the other testers, will make it an even better, polished and exciting game.

Now, my next planned test would be to include my dad, who arrives with my mom tomorrow, in a test this weekend.

We shall see.


  1. Sounds like a lot of fun, despite high tempers.

    How would you describe the impact of "player elimination", since that's always something I find problematic in games.

  2. Like with many other competative "attack and destroy" the other player games (Magic the Gatehring, Risk, etc., this game has the downside of having one or more people (gameplay is for 3 to 5) sit out for part of the game (which can still take a while) because they have been eliminated. Because of the theme and the entertaining cards, it can still be fun to watch up to a point. However, probably only up to a point. Even though this did not exactly happen, I can imagine that if your brother or sister eliminates you first and then goes for the other players (and say you are 11 or 13), no moment from the point in which your elimination became inevitable through the end of the game is fun.

    That is a marketing and age grading issue as much as anything. Lots of games have being eliminated as part of the play. I think that it is a design choice that would not be easily changed (I mean the theme is all out battle for supremacy of the skies).

    I can imagine that people might seek to create variations from this game, such as everyone competing to engage some heroic organization (sabotage and treachery among alies) such that you have to cooperate to a certain extent, but also to get stuff to be the best, so that you are the ultimate supervillain in the final round against, for example, The Century Club. This would be some kind of cross between the current game with an Arkham Horror style close.

    Also, I can think of another variation that someone (like probably my son) could work out, where defeated villains still have some participation in play as forcibly recruited lieutenants in the armadas of those who defeated them. Would have to think the balancing of that through.

    Anyway, these thoughts are too unformed to go anywhere but the internet, but despite player elimination (and maybe for some, becuase of it) Zeppelin Armada is a very solid and fun game.