This was one I stumbled onto on Kickstarter — Dante Lauretta, an planetary scientist at University of Arizona and the head of the OSIRIS-REx mission, while doing the massive amounts of waiting that come with the space program, and some of the members of his team decided to build a game based on their experiences in rocketry. The game hit its goal with little issue, and arrived today, only a few months behind the initial expected date (which is pretty good for most Kickstarters.)

Xtronaut: The Game of Solar System Exploration is a board game for 2-4 players. Each player attempts to build a launch vehicle, choose a good payload for the mission they’ve drawn — be it a lander, orbiter, or rover — and attempt to get the necessary delta-v to reach their goal. Each mission gives you “data points”. Reach 10 data points first, and you win.

It’s a simple concept and execution, and has a nice educational aspect to it, which is why a bunch of education and space science-related groups have gone gaga for the game. But how is it as the game? Turns out, pretty good.

I tried two games with just myself and my five-year old daughter (the minimum suggested age is 7.) She was able to grasp the basic concept — pull a mission card that give you the necessary delta-v, and the number of data points received for the size of the spacecraft for the mission; build a launch vehicle with a first stage booster (and possibly extra boosters), a second stage lifter, the payload spacecraft, the fairings to protect the same, and using gravity assist. These elements are drawn from a player hand of five cards, drawn from a deck of cards that include other “action cards” that allow you to salvage parts (dig through the discard pile), draw extra cards, or financial audit another player to steal their cards. There are also cards where you lose pieces for “national security” (the result of the Air Force commandeering one of OSIRIS-REx’s boosters) and Government Shutdown. These add a nice sense of the bureaucracy surrounding trying to get your robot into space. The rocket you build and its mission go on a simple gameboard — one per player — where you track your build, your data points, and the delta-v you have. Once you have enough to go, you discard all the cards, draw a new mission, and start over (unless you have SpaceX’s Falcon booster…that’s reusable.)

The two-person game was fun, but adding another player really brings it to life. With the kiddo and wife, we had a very competitive game  that lasted about 45 minutes. We all really enjoyed the game and I’m hoping some of the stretch goals expansions hit the market soon.

Is it worth it? Oh, yeah.

Style: 3 out of 5. While the cards and boards look nice, and are purposefully simple in their graphics, the cards could have been of better stock. They’re a bit flimsy after the cards for the Thunderbirds game, but that’s hardly fair…Modiphius does superb production value on their stuff.

Substance: 5 out of 5 — the game is deceptively easy, but there’s a lot of strategy to it. Have a high energy mission? You really want NASA’s SLS booster system, but there are many cards for it, as it is still a rare launch platform. Want to get ahead for your next launch? SpaceX’s Falcon is the way to go. Maybe auditing that guy next to you to hopefully nab that Atlas second stage is a good idea. Maybe a trade for that right fairing is the way to go. the rules are simple; the game play can be hard.

It’s worth it.

Here’s the Xtronaut website highlighting space outreach and the OSIRIS-REx probe, and here’s the just-posted link to buy the game through Amazon.

Okay, I’ve loved my Thruxton since the first time I rode it on the Sandia Crest road here in New Mexico. (That’s a road about 10 miles long with a 120 turns, ranging from long sweepers, to good chicanes, to hard switchback, with an altitude climb of about a mile. It’s like PIke’s Peak, but less deadly.) I’ve ridden the hell out of Trixie — named for Speed Racer’s girlfriend — putting almost 30,000 miles on her in 4 years.

So, of course I’m interested in the new Thruxton, the green one which is now officially approved by my five-year old daughter:

13686660_10154376451392082_6440553930231374092_nSo at a birthday party for the 13th year of the local Triumph shop, I got to be the first to ride the white one behind her for about half an hour.

It’s powerful. It’s not Panigale or Aprilia sportbike powerful, but it’s easily pulling no punches. I popped the front tire up coming out of the parking lot into a right hand turn because I treated it like my old Thruxton.

Don’t do that.

The 1200cc water-cooled mill churns out 112 ft-lbs of torque at 4500rpm…which is right where it seems most comfortable. The 97hp hits about 6500. This thing moves. I was doing 60mph in second gear before i realized it. Getting it out onto old Route 66, I played with throttle response and it is sharp, brisk, and the bike wants to run. Normal secondary highway speeds are easily acquired in third or fourth gear. I only got into sixth on the interstate, where I got up to 115mph in a stretch with no traffic. At that point, the Thruxton got pretty light up front. I suspect the top end is somewhere close to the indicated 140. It does, however, get a bit finicky at 4500rpm, and feels like it can’t decide it it wants to go faster, or slower. It disappears if you back off a tad, or hit it just a bit harder. Fuel map, I suspect, and the fly-by-wire clutch.

Handling is very smooth, immediate, and the bike turns very well. The seating position is slightly forward, and my arms (I’m 5’9″, so averagey) drop straight to the bars, the pegs leave more legroom than my 2010, and I never got close to scraping anything. It’s about the same weight as my bike, but feels lighter; the weight must be lower.

The brakes are good. Not Ducati stop right now! great, but very quick and responsive, without the Ducati desire to have you do an Olympic-level sitting long jump.

So is it any good? No — it’s tremendous. It looks great, the clutch is very light, the bike does what you want when you want it, but no more — just like every Triumph, it’s polite. Is it worth $12k? Yes.

We started the evening with a flashback to Lady Zara sneaking back into her home with her Uncle Trevor waiting up. She’s just wrecked her new car racing in nighttime London. One of these days, he predicted, she and her fast friends were going to get into a situation they could not recover from…

That leads her to wake under a pile of bodies in the wreckage of the war saucer Aruna. Gus Hassenfedlt had already been awake for a while, triaging the dead and wounded from the crash. Of the 14 “Atlanteans”, only 8 survived, including Lord Amon and Shria, the pilot. The other characters were pretty banged up, and with Gould giving him instruction, Gus bandaged and treated most of the wounded, while the doctor tended to the party.

Afterward, Shria sounded the ship and found one of the “power crystals” that ran the motor that malfunctioned had shattered — she’s never seen anything like it! There’s damage to the forward propulsion units, as well. The ship isn’t going anywhere.

Gus, Hunter, and Amon set a watch around the saucer, only to aggressed by a herd or pack of allosaurus. In the fray, Hunter is badly injured, but Gus and the others in the fight manage to kill the four towering carnivores. At least now they have plenty to eat.

After a few days, they are discovered by a dozen people in riotous clothing — brightly colored (although the theme of white and red-striped canvas pants, shirts, etc. seems to recur) and adorned with bits of junk and widgets. Led by Zoppo, a brave but stupid man, they learn they are from “the Sanctuary” — only a day’s travel away on the coast. They had come to give offerings and the welcome the Atlanteans in their sky craft! Eventually, they discover they all speak English, the holy language of their “Captain.”

With no other options, they set out to find the Sanctuary, which turns out to be a settlement that adorns the sides of a wrecked two-stack ocean liner, the SS Grand Pacific. The front is opened like a toothed maw, the back is obviously broken, and there are boats tied around the keel. Overhead, a red and white-striped blimp is moored to one of the stacks.

But the real shocker is what’s out to see — a mountain of rock with a city on top, floating over the water. This, they learn from Amon, is the Aerie…the home of the “hawk people.”

Taken aboard Sanctuary, they meet the “Captain”, the last remaining crew member of the vessel, which launched from Liverpool for Melbourne in June 1893. Evan Hollander is the captain, and he is very pleased to receive the Vril/ Gould suddenly realizes they’ve been  played…these are not Atlanteans, but the people that the pirate king, Trihn, had tried to sell him to!

We left off for the night there, with the characters surrounded by cargo cultists, in their hulk of a home, and their Atlantean friends exposed as fakes.

In the course of play last night, the players encountered a flying saucer from Atlantis. This vessel, the War Saucer Aruna, is too much fun not to share —


War Saucer Aruna

Size: 8   Def: 8   Strc: 18   Spd: 350   Han: +2   Crew: 1   Pass: 16; Weaponry: Dual Heat Ray Turret — Size: 1, Damage: 10L, Range: 500′   Rate: Beam** Speed: A

** The “beam” rate is the same as autofire; the turret can sweep targets with a steady beam of death. The ray guns will work as long as Aruna has power.

Aruna‘s power crystals are sensitive to power foci that effect magical ability.

Image copyright Dimitar Marinov and used without permission. No infringement is intended, so if you want it pulled, D, just say so. SCR


So the characters return to Lhasa and the Eye of Shambala. We had a lot of character interaction with the 13th Dalai Lama and his prime minister, as well as a bunch of descriptive stuff about the night sky. Our inner world has no night, so they drank in the Milky Way in all its glory, as one can at 15,000 feet.

They managed to negotiate the use of five mules for the trip and gear up, ready for a big scientific expedition. Coming through the Eye, they almost immediately are set upon. The mouth of the cave where the Eye resides is blocked by a log-weighed net, and a dozen armed and armor-wearing men dash out of the trees. They’re carry strange-looking rifles, and are backed by a large flying saucer!

The commander of the flying machine is a “Lord Amon” — a Vril, although he’s claiming to be Atlantean. (Are they the same? We don’t know yet!) The characters pleasantly surprised me by not fighting or running — what I had planned for — but patiently trying to communicate. Hunter, the Terra Arcanum overseer, managed to get a great Linguistics test that allowed him to use his Trait Atlantean Language — he’d only read the language, never heard it spoken, but was able to quickly make himself understood.

Amon seemed pleased to have found Gould, whom they identified with some kind of crystal that would glow when in proximity to an Atlantean. (So shouldn’t it have been glowing while Amon was holding it..?) After some cordial talk, an invitation to them to come with him to Atlantis is rendered and they all hop in the “war saucer Aruna.”

The craft is amazingly futuristic, with a metal skin that allows them to see out as if it were glass from the inside. The controls are different, seemingly easy, and the woman flying it, knows her stuff. But in short order, they realize there is a problem. The one engine is kicking out way too much power! Gus Hassenfeldt, the big game hunter, quickly surmises it is Olga’s ability to amplify psychic or magical power that is messing with the ship. They attempt to mover her away from the offending engine, and this causes instability. A botched roll by another character leads to the pilot being distracted and jostled just enough that she biffed the control test, and Aruna spins out of control!

The characters all get tossed about at the flying saucer comes out of the sky at high speed, and crash lands in the jungles! With that, we ended for the night, with a cliffhanger (as one should in a pulp game.)

So, we’re on the Modiphius playtest for the upcoming John Carter of Mars RPG, and finally got a chance to play the packet of rules they’d sent to us. My interest and hopes for the game were quickly dashed by an absolutely disastrous experience.

Straight off, the packet did not specify how the main core die mechanic worked; I had to open the Conan quickstart file, which — while indisputably beautiful — is a monstrously large file due to this and was absolutely killing the iPad, speed-wise. I thought I had that simply basic rule down, but the players were continually asking the same question about it, so I second-guessed myself and that was that. What had started out at a good clip quicklyy bogged down to my flipping back and forth and trying to read through the dense colors of the highlighting the design team had throughout the playtest file.

Professional tip for developers/editors of any type #1: when sending something to a group of people, keep the highlighting colors as low contrast as possible. It’s damned near impossible, for instance, to read black type through a deep red highlight.

Professional tip #2: When describing a process, be specific, be simple, and assume congenital idiocy. No, most of your audience isn’t stupid, but they might be busy, as many of us are, or they’re former PhD students who no longer can stomach reading after 400 books in 3 months, and they’ve only skimmed the file. “That’s their fault!” you cry. Nope. Be simple, direct, and specific. How does the die mechanic work, in this case.

So, 2d20 is actually relatively simple, but describing it might be hard. In the case of this game you add two stats and try to get below their total. If you do, it’s a success; if you’re below the highest attribute on any die (or is it on all dice — this is where they fell down) you gain two successes; below the lowest stat, three successes. Say you need four successes (which they did not bother to explain was what D4 meant), you roll two dice and hope you get low enough on one or both dice to get four successes. So you could, in theory, get upwards of six successes on 2d20, or more with use of “momentum” (More on that in a moment.)

Really not that complicated. Any extra over what you need is “momentum”, which can be spent for yet another d20 on a following action, on damage, or a number of other things. Damage comes off of the attribute/stats you used to defend. The mechanics aren’t that bad, but the packet was a hot mess to read through. You should not have to go to another playtest book on another related game to understand what you’re doing. (Yes, it’s a work in progress, but assume no one has read your other stuff.)

Strangely, my five year old immediately grasped the rules. She wanted to play desperately, but when things bogged down, she got bored and wandered off. Shortly after, I pulled the plug on continuing and we pivoted to Hollow Earth Expedition for the rest of the night.

Which bring me to a sidenote, as I am working through product development, myself: Conan, both the Quickstart packet and the book in development are beautiful. A lot of the new RPG books are full-color, loaded with graphics, art, and high-quality layout work. They really are gorgeous. But they are 1) expensive, 2) staggeringly heavy on the pdf file sizes, and 3) for all this is supposed to help set the tone for players…I’m not so certain this isn’t working against some of the publishers.

The expense of making these books is high. The art costs, the layout costs, the fine paper and full color costs, the hardcover costs, and they’re often bloated 300+ things of late, so they’re heavy — which makes shipping (especially international) cost-prohibitive in the extreme. (Drop over to Fred Hick’s blog to read more on how shipping can crush a successful Kckstarter.) I love to love and feel of these books, as well as others…but part of me wonders if this focus on the aesthetic over the substance isn’t becoming a problem.

Some of these fancy products mean counter-productive color choices where contrast between text and background color or patterns interrupt the ability to read the rules. The focus on sounding appropriate to the setting (Firefly was a good example of this) can help set the mood, but make understanding how the hell the rules work difficult. You don’t want to sound repetitive or boring to the reader, but you are also describing a process — it’s technical writing, really — and clarity, brevity, and simplicity rule the day when teaching something to a person.

So I suppose my question is — do we need all these gorgeous books, or do we need a return to more simple layouts, good clear writing that cuts the size of a game book from a 300 page, $60 tome to something more in lines of 150 pages and $25-30? Maybe grayscale will do. Maybe black and white, save for a few color plates, will do. (It would certainly make the pdfs easier to use!) Maybe softcover will do.

August has been RPGaDay month for the last few years. Autocratik started this three years ago, and the Black Campbell’s friend Runeslinger picked up the baton for this year. Starting in August, a collection RPG bloggers, podcasters, video bloggers around the net will be answering the following questions…


Let’s talk games.


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