Steveo Reviews the Worst Gaming Products of 2014

By Steveo, December 29, 2014

At this time of year, its customary for bloggers to post reviews of their favorite products. This year, I thought I would share, instead, 10 of the worst gaming products I've come across in 2014. Let me be clear, I'm not intending to mock any of the submissions here, I'm sure a lot of work went into them. These are, however, products which I've purchased over 2014 that, for one reason or another, failed completely to accomplish what they advertised they would do.

I hope you find a little information here to help you consider future purchases.

At this time of year, its customary for bloggers to post reviews of their favorite products. This year, I thought I would share, instead, 10 of the worst gaming products I've come across in 2014. Let me be clear, I'm not intending to mock any of the submissions here, I'm sure a lot of work went into them. These are, however, products which I've purchased over 2014 that, for one reason or another, failed completely to accomplish what they advertised they would do.

I hope you find a little information here to help you consider future purchases.

1. Steel Town Girls - Jumbo Red Games

Steel Town Girls Cover

Jumbo Red Games' third game opens with the tagline, "On the Ice Blue Line of Insanity!", promising a level of action-packed excitement that, frankly, I just didn't find in our three play test sessions.

I never played The Goo, Jumbo Red's controversial first game where all of the players control a giant single-celled alien entity that disguises itself as a desert topping in order to eat people from the inside out. I did, however, play in a GenCon session of their second game, Nightmare Merry-go-Round, where the characters are space clowns who use an array of cartoony tropes like giant squeaky hammers and squirt flowers to murder normal humans in increasingly gruesome ways. The setting for Nightmare Merry-go-Round was interesting, but the mechanics fell completely apart during actual play, particularly the balloon animal conflict resolution mechanic.

I mention this because Steel Town Girls, in which players take on the roles of steel mill employees who are also dancers, also suffers from poorly designed mechanics - in fact, Steel Town Girls is a system with no mechanics at all. This is both a liberation and a hindrance because while it provides 100% player-driven play, it also provides 0% guidance on what form that play should take. Our three play sessions all vacillated uneasily between steel mill vignettes and inter-party dance-offs. Perhaps the forthcoming Conservatory Admission Challenge adventure book will provide some much needed direction, but that material really should've been part of the base game book.

I gave this one bucket of water out of a possible five, but only because while the artwork featured muscular leggy women almost exclusively, they were all wearing baggy sweatshirts with the collars and sleeves cut off so they were mostly covered. It was refreshing to see artwork that focused on attractive women but avoided being sexist by reducing their bodies to only the most vague shapes.

2. Schläfli Six Dungeons - Toby's Tactics & Tools

TTT's Schalfli Six Dungeons Cover

Toby Schlosser has produced some excellent, well-received RPG tools and games during his 10 years as an indie developer. That's why I'm sad to see him produce or co-produce three products this year that were bad enough to rank on this year's Worst list.

Schläfli Six Dungeons is Schlosser's collection of digital artwork files meant for designers to use when creating their own dungeons. For $4.99 you get six-sided dungeon shapes in multiple sizes and border thicknesses. Toby has also included versions of each image in SVG, PNG, and WPG image formats so compatibility shouldn't be an issue regardless of which program you use.

However, Toby's Schläfli Four Dungeons set which revolutionized digital dungeon design when it came out in 2012, still meets the needs of 99% of dungeon designs. For the other 1%, a thriving community of fans have come up with multiple ways to layer the Schläfli Four images into room shapes with more than four sides. Schläfli Six saves you some of that layering work by providing pre-designed six-sided shapes, it doesn't do a damn thing when you need the occasional 8-, 10-, or 12-sided dungeon shape, and still does nothing to address the flaw in the entire line - namely the complete lack of shapes with an odd number of sides.

I give this product one triangle out of a possible five, but only because there are some folks who are either don't have the technical ability or are just plain too lazy use Schläfli Four's tiles properly, and those folks will be more than happy to shell out money for this.

3. Adventurer's Guide to Straya - Budgie Smuggler Games

Adventurer's Guide to Straya

Clearly Budgie Smuggler has spent a lot of time compiling this massive volume, and the layout work is top notch. So I'm not trying to knock their effort at all. Unfortunately, they seem to have focused so much on wedging in as many weird things as they could that they never stopped to wonder if any of it makes sense in the context of the rest of the book. Some of the things in this setting are simply too unbelievable to work in a non-magic setting, as Straya is described as being.

Straya is a massive continent meant to be dropped into your existing campaign (the writers recommend placing it on your world map in a vaguely "southward" direction from everything else that's interesting). For its enormous size, Budgie Smuggler seems to have focused on coastal towns and cities almost exclusively. The book opens with Melbin - a port city where new adventurers are expected to arrive first. There's also Brizbin, where the residents apparently go on and on about lions despite there not being a single dangerous lion in the area, Cambra, a lake town that the designers decided to make the capital despite it being nowhere near the largest city, Peth, whose most distinguishing feature, according to Budgie Smuggler, is that it's hot, and the peninsula city of Kenz, a town which seems to have been designed so that its most interesting points are somewhere else.

The coast is purposefully designed to let adventurers travel quickly by boat from city to city. When it's time to adventure, they head inland and that's where this book really starts to fall apart. The setting features inexplicable land features (a giant red mountain in the middle of a vast plain, pokey Martian stalagmite rocks surrounded by desert, a lake that for no reason it all is ridiculously pink, cliche sea cliffs which resemble giant columns, etc.), page after page of lazy fantasy creatures that are just two different real world creatures mashed together (beaver/ducks, badger/wolves, spotted deer/rats, and something called, I swear to the gods, a "flying fox"), and weather charts which are literally random tables.

I give this one returny stick out of a possible five. There's a lot of material that so close to being brilliantly original, but it all falls so short in the brilliant category and just ends up being original for originality's sake.

4. Take a Ride With Me : The Unauthorized Guide to the Light Rails of Shiritochi - Kancho Hakase Games

Take a Ride With Me

As a general rule, I don't care for attempts to fill in the little gaps and nooks in settings. Without empty spaces, there's no opportunity for players to explore or for game masters to surprise.

I'll admit that I was not familiar with Kancho Hakase, the nom-de-plume of Katelyn Cook, prior to picking up this guide; if I had been I probably would've known that her books are not my cup of tea. Hakase is a huge fan of the world of Shiritochi, F. Scott Larrabee's loving tribute to late-80's/early-90's fantasy anime tropes as seen in series such as Slayers, Record of Lodoss War, Those Who Hunt Elves, and Amazing Nurse Nanako. Since Shiritochi was created in a series of usenet posts in the late 90's, many people have taken a shot at expanding the world.

Kancho Hakase's books all follow the same pattern - take some small aspect of the world and define the crap out of it. That's not to say that Hakase's works are trivial in their content. On the contrary, they exhaustively cover such topics as the types of fish found in Lake Blue Girl, the farming techniques of the Kingdom of Marifana, and the migratory patterns of the panzer elephant birds of the celestial deserts.

Take a Ride With Me contains more than 200 train stations and time tables sorted both by route and by station. It also includes performance details on at least three dozen types of light engines, trolley systems, and electric bus designs, describes the electrical and magical systems that power all of them, and gives names and statistics on almost a hundred different conductors and ticket takers who work them.

Obviously, there's a value to this sort of information. A character should not be denied access to information on the rail system in their home kingdom. But if a player has access to the information for all of the kingdoms in Shiritochi, player knowledge is inevitably going to creep into character knowledge. And while I'm aware that many, many articles have been written by roleplaying experts decrying the use of quantum trains, I refuse to abandon the storytelling benefits of empowering the GM to decide if a route is running on time or not.

I give this book one token out of a possible five. So much of this material could've been better served as random tables which a game master could modify according to the needs of their own campaign.

5. 100 Random Items List Template - Toby's Tactics & Tools

TTT's 100 Random Items List Template

Toby Schlosser's second appearance on this year's list is the 100 Random Items List Template. Anyone who has game mastered has undoubtedly found themselves using a "100 random items" style list to generate objects in their games. Few of us, however, take the up front time to make our own lists, leaving us to pay for pre-written lists which may or may not adequately cover our needs. That's where TTT's template comes in.

The idea behind the 100 Random Items List Template is to make it easy for you to create your own list of 100 random items by providing a pre-formatted sheet of empty entry spaces, already numbered from 1 to 100 and arranged in an easy-to-read two column format. 100 Random Items List Template comes in a PDF format form, allowing you to either fill in the list on a computer or mobile device, or print out the sheet and fill in the template by hand.

Unfortunately, unless you have Adobe Reader Pro, you can't save your form entries digitally. And if you print off the page and fill it in by hand, there's no mechanism for getting it back into the digital realm. Because of these issues, 100 Random Items List Template is extremely limited in its usefulness. You're left with either hand-written, single copies (or lower resolution photocopies) or you have to leave the PDF open on your computer until you're done using it.

I give this one point out of one hundred, but I would definitely give it a higher rating if TTT were to go back and address some of the usability issues. The idea of a tool to help create random 100 lists appeals to me, I just don't think that TTT has quite cracked the code yet.

6. The Surrealist Dungeon - Kat o'Nine Flails

The Surrealist Dungeon

I admit I picked this one up based on the strength of the title alone (and a few G+ recommendations), so I was, literally, judging this book by its cover when I grabbed it during the last Lulu sale. There's a reason they tell you to never do that.

The Surrealist Dungeon is almost exactly what you're expecting from the title. Both the book and the dungeon are presented in bizarre, half-complete fashion. Encounters are designed to flout roleplaying conventions, puzzles force players to think ambiguously about traditional cause and effect, and many of the descriptions demand that the listener complete the text and then purposefully denies the listener the completion of seeing their expectations realized. The book's presentation, however, spends more time challenging the reader than it spends providing the tools for game masters to challenge players.

My excitement about the book stalled as soon as I opened it up and found the credits page upside down, the welcome page written in a mixture of pig-Latin, Klingon, and pig-Klingon, and the table of contents replaced with a recipe for condensed cream of mushroom soup.

Needless to say, this book is a challenge - less in a Herculean sense and more in a Sisyphean one.

But I persevered, hoping that the effort would be rewarded in the inspiration to be found in hidden meaning and symbolism. Unfortunately, this book is short on both hidden meaning and symbolism. The map of the dungeon is torn into pieces and then photocopied onto pages 12, 13, 25, and 42. The list of monsters makes frequent reference to Deerhoof lyrics, and the treasure tables require dice that don't even exist and contain items such as "the sound of material value".

The true tragedy of this book is that, for all of its bizarrely referential flavor and the amount of work required to decipher it, none of it is actually abstract or surreal in any fashion. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the dense art-school rigmarole exists only to deflect the reader from the book's almost complete lack actual content. This book is not surrealist at all, it's simply mislabeled impressionism.

I give this one curly mustache out of a possible five. I hope Kat reads up on her Andre Breton before attempting further surrealism.

7. Spray Dice - Zhong Fei Liao Products

Spray Dice

I admit to being a sucker for new gadgets to bring to the gaming table. So when I read about Spray Dice on io9, I knew I had to track down a can. I ordered two; they took four months to arrive and the postal carrier made me sign several chemical transportation forms to receive them, but they were well packaged if minimally labeled (the art seen in the ad to the left is replaced, instead, with a white label with black text).

As you can guess, Spray Dice are dice in a can. The can looks and feels just like a regular spray paint can (although the label cautions against shaking it as you do with spray paint and adds "the numbering many will become confused and deathly when shaking the can"). Instead of a push-to-spray nozzle, however, Spray Dice has a pre-loading mechanism that clicks when you push it, releasing the exact same amount of chemical each time.

Despite what the advertising artwork implies, however, Spray Dice does not, disappointingly, spray actual graphics of dice. What you actually get is a blob of goop that crystallizes into a flat shape with a random number of sides, 2 through 30. You simply spray a glob, wait 7-10 minutes for it to dry, then count the sides to find out what number you've rolled. It's clever, and and a few cans would probably replace my entire dice bag if not for a few serious flaws.

First, the crystals are always evenly numbered (apparently that's just a property of the crystals although the science is above my head). If you need an odd number, the label recommends that you "total the reduction from one for the finished odd derive" to get a number between 1 and 29.

Second, the smell is atrocious. After just a few rounds of combat at a recent game meet up, the Pokemon players at the table next to us all got up and left and the building owner asked me not to bring Spray Dice back ever again.

And third, you have to make sure the surface you spray your dice onto contains no previously dried Spray Dice - if you do the crystals will grow three-dimensionally into a jagged, dangerously sharp and surprisingly resilient spiky bushy structure. I ended up going through most of a spiral notebook's worth of paper spraying out numbers.

Spray Dice is a neat concept, don't get me wrong. But I have to give it one monkey out of a possible twelve because it's really a noxious, messy product that's not very good for the purpose it's intended to serve.

8. Terrible Things for a Cat to Say - Pantsless Wizard

Terrible Things for a Cat to Say

Terrible Things for a Cat to Say, for an exciting change of pace from the rest of this year's list, is exactly what it says on the tin. Inside the PDF (there's a PoD version available as well) you will find 11 pages of one, two, or three-sentence quotations to throw into your horror game any time the party encounters a talking cat. Each entry is also numbered so you can randomly roll a quotation on the fly during game play.

If you're expecting a product that's ready to use as is, however, you should know that the quotes are something of a mixed bag. Some of the quotes are actually creepy -

"If I could prevent what's going to happen to you tonight, I would."

but others are downright threatening

"I will eat your eyes."

And that's really this book's greatest shortcoming. Creepy is a subjective thing. When I give a player something I consider creepy, I expect "ooh, that gave me chills" as a response. Some of the entries in this book however will just get the players fighting mad and they're just as likely to attack the cat as they are to be creeped out. There are very few entries that I feel are 100% ready to drop into any horror game with a talking cat; most of the quotes in this book are going to need work before you can use them in your own game. (For instance, there's also a strange preoccupation among the cat quotes in this book to talk about "Big Martin". I don't have a Big Martin in my campaign, so these quotes wouldn't work for me at all).

I give this one cat nip mouse out of a possible five. It's worth reading if you want inspiration for the talking cats in your horror campaigns, but you can't rely on the random tables if you want to be certain the quotes fit with your story and setting.

9. Flora & Fauna, 1000 Individual Plants and Animals for your Campaigns - Coadu Nation

Flora & Fauna, 1000 Individual Plants and Animals for your Campaigns

While this book is not a Toby's Tactics & Tools product, TTT is a member company in the CoaduNation developer cooperative and Schlosser himself wrote 39 of the 1000 entries in this book so this makes this Toby's third appearance on this year's Worst list. As the title implies, Flora & Fauna is a massive collection of trees, shrubs, and animals which you can introduce at any point to your campaign to liven things up. There's even a numbered chart in the back of the book if you need a random encounter.

Ordinarily, I wholeheartedly approve of this sort of collection. In the case of Flora & Fauna, however, the entries are just too sparse to be useful. Most of what's contained in this book just isn't as thought out and fleshed out as it should be. Take for example the entry on page 103 -

Douglas Fir

This douglas fir is bright green in color, forty-seven feet tall, and thirty-nine feet in diameter at the base. It is the home to a solitary male chipmunk.

If you're all right dropping this particular douglas fir into your campaign then this is all good information to have, but it provides absolutely no information on how to make use of it once its there. How intelligent is the chipmunk? How old is the tree? If my campaign setting is a desert one, how did the douglas fir get there? Can it be an evil douglas fir?

And the douglas fir is just one example of the type of poorly defined entry in this book. There's a goat on page 244 whose only distinguishing feature is a perfectly hexagonal notch in its right ear, a pigeon on 270 who is perfectly white except for some grey feathers at the tips of his wings, and a hibiscus on page 378 which is noted as being of a blue variety in the first paragraph but then, inexplicably, is described as not having bloomed yet in the third paragraph.

Certainly, having someone else do the legwork of researching and compiling acceptable heights, weights, and colors for plants and animals and then writing up a description of a representative specimen can be a huge time saver. But without the tools to fit those objects within the context of the greater game world you can't make them work without doing almost as you'd just researched them yourself.

I can only give this one rhododendron out of a possible five because I would really have preferred to see more than just rote physical descriptions. The content works fine if you're specifically looking for a goat or a douglas fir, but for purely random encounters, it falls short of being a useful product.

10. Swords Named Todd - Gnome Driver Games / Systems

Swords Named Todd

You would think a book filled entirely with storied swords from throughout the ages would be packed with excitement, majesty and, most importantly, inspiration. That's what I thought when I picked up Gnome Driver's book, Swords Named Todd. I was sorely disappointed. (I'm also not sure if it's Gnome Driver Games or Gnome Driver Systems as both appear on the cover).

The book is pretty straightforward in its presentation - basic font, wide margins, numbers in the bottom outside corners. I mention this because it's both a help and a hindrance to the desing of the overall book. The layout is very plain. It's easy to read, but it's very boring. Graphics are limited to clipart culled from various sources, so the styles and quality vary considerably - you get a decent idea of what each sword named Todd looks like, but it's rarely artwork you would show your players.

The book is a collection of short stories, most two pages or less in length and each featuring a sword named Todd. Unfortunately, few of the stories involved acts of heroism; most of what's here are simply mundane tales that could feature any sword, named or not.

The book opens with the "Tale of Jeffrey Barandeon", which is a straightforward tale about a farmer who is the latest to inherit a sword named Todd - which he uses to kill a stoat that's been eating his chickens. It's not exactly gripping stuff. Another tale involves a prince who uses a sword named Todd to kill his fiancee and her lover. In another, the pirate John Raven is killed at sea and sinks to the ocean floor, still clutching his sword. A WWI-inspired story has Sgt. Dan leading his unit across a battle field when when a bullet deflects off the sword he carries and his life is saved. All of these are sensible, structurally sound stories, but stories which are almost completely lacking in any kind of wow.

There are one or two heroic stories in here - King Arture challenges a witch with his sword named Todd, Sir Garamond challenges a dragon (and loses), and the magical sword Todd leads a corrupt town guard to his comeuppance - but even among those, only the sword in the last one is, on its own, interesting at all. Most of the swords in this book are tools or weapons in the most basic sense with nothing beyond their name to set them apart.

I give this book 1 Todd out of a possible 53. It works as a collection of mediocre fiction, but completely fails to offer anything of inspiration to the roleplayer.

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Steel Town Girls Cover TTT's Schalfli Six Dungeons Cover Adventurer's Guide to Straya Take a Ride With Me TTT's 100 Random Items List Template The Surrealist Dungeon Spray Dice Terrible Things for a Cat to Say Flora & Fauna, 1000 Individual Plants and Animals for your Campaigns Swords Named Todd