Saturday, 29 December 2007

The 2007 Trashies!

OK, get your tuxes ready everybody…it’s time for the 2007 Trashies! Now, I have to admit, that I wasn’t going to do Trashies this year…mainly because they were really about BGG and the culture over there more than anything else. But when edit-monger Bill Abner tasked me with doing a year-end list for, I started writing and I realized that I was basically writing the 2007 Trashies Awards. And since I didn’t want Bill and Co. over there to get hit with lawsuits or anything like that I decided to send them the “good guy” version. F:AT gets the uncensored, Renegade Version- yes, just like HIGHLANDER. Now, if you don’t like what you see here or you don’t feel like something was represented that you feel that ought to be, by all means add it in the talkback.

I think it really does say a lot that being away from BGG has made these awarda more about games and less about the bankrupt “culture” over there.

Anyway, I think I see Matt Thrower’s 1986 white Lamborghini Countach pulling up to the red carpet so let's do this thing.

The 2007 PT Barnum Sucker Prize for Excellence in Board Game Marketing


BATTLELORE came out last Christmas with the promise of hordes of expansions that would somehow (according to the ad copy) bring old D&D players and fans of MASTER OF MAGIC into the hobby along with providing the total newbie with a great entry point in the form of a $80 retail game with a 80+ page rulebook and the need to purchase further components. The game as shipped was certainly beautifully appointed with great production and a proven system and it looked like 2007 was going to be the year of BATTLELORE. But then, early this year, the expansions started to come out and it didn’t take long for me and many others to realize that they added very little to the game and what’s worse, some felt that the game wasn’t complete in the box and that Days of Wonder simply broke off chunks to extend the sale date, so to speak. What’s more, with the “missing” pieces in place the game was still several notches below the vastly superior COMMANDS AND COLORS: ANCIENTS, which uses the exact same system but somehow provides a much, much better game. But hey, hats off to Days of Wonder for getting folks who turn their noses up at miniature gaming and collectible card games to engage in the same buying practices.

The “At Least It Ain’t Rush” Award for Best Board Game Soundtrack

Every Board Game Ever Released With the Exception of LAST NIGHT ON EARTH

A shocker! Somehow, the _only_ board game released with a soundtrack this year didn’t get the nod- instead, the tabletalk, color commentary, bad language, and rules explanations that serve as the aural environment we generally play games in wins the award. It’s definitely better than the amateurish, embarrassing, and totally un-zombieish CD gimmick that jacked LAST NIGHT ON EARTH’s retail price up $5-10. The funny thing is that if they had included Fabio Frizzi’s soundtrack to ZOMBI it would have worked a hell of a lot better and I wouldn’t be bitching.

The Big Board Game Stink ’07

TIE- Mayfair Games Announces "Price Fixing"/Alliance with Satan and DUEL IN THE DARK

Of course, if you’ve ever read any of the popular (not as in the “cool” or “attractive to girls” sense) boardgaming webpages out there, you’ve probably gathered that it doesn’t take much to send hobby gamers into a state of extreme underwear unction. There were a couple of things that went down this year, like the time I told a glorified webmaster that he was “full of crap” that caused seismic shockwaves throughout the boardgaming community, but nothing made boardgamers lose their minds quite like Mayfair’s announcement that it would protect the endangered mom-and-pop, brick-and-mortar retail stores that have supported the hobby for decades by enforcing a policy that would limit deep discounting by online retailers. The sheer thought of having to pay $3-4 more for a board game sent many into fits of absolute lunacy and I’m sure there was at least one suicide. Of course, online boardgaming wisdom tells us that dirty ol’ Mayfair doesn’t produce any games worth playing anyway- the entire SETTLERS OF CATAN series for example. But this one is a tie, because opening the mold-encrusted copies of Z-Man Games’ otherwise pretty good DUEL IN THE DARK made me really kind of scared, like I should call someone to have the game abated or something. It smelled like a combination of death, Waffle House, and China.

Biggest Jumped-Up Piece of Shit That I Played All Year


Good gravy, Days of Wonder scores again in another category they ought not be trying to win. COLESSEUM was pretty close to the worst game I played all year, a completely enervating exercise in all the worst excesses (if you can call them that) of European board game design. Now, I do have to say that this game is freaking beautiful when it’s laid out and the production is just fantastic. I was genuinely excited to play it because I liked the theme (you’re show promoters in Ancient Rome) and I thought the mechanics sounded familiar but they might be fun with the right setting. So what you get is nothing more than GERMAN AUCTION GAME TEMPLATE B with a bunch of bells and whistles. Call ‘em wheezes and grunts, because this dog isn’t fit for show. Days of Wonder’s strategy of making games so pretty that no one realizes how shallow and boring they are hits the jackpot once again- or did it? Has anyone in the world played this game since September?

The Bloody Listern Knife for the Best 2007 Family Game About Eviscerating Hookers


Nothing says family fun like a game with cutie-pie artwork about Jack The Ripper- but you throw cocaine addict Sherlock Holmes into the mix and you’ve got a recipe for wackiness! So while Holmes is doped up over by the wrong street lamp, Saucy Jack turns another victim inside out. “Pretty sneaky, sis!” MR. JACK won this one by default, but rumor has it that at least five other Eurogamer designers are rushing to design their own Ripper games using mechanics such as blind bidding, card drafting, and role selection to recreate in an extremely abstract fashion the events of 1888.

The Mother Theresa Blue Veil Chastity Prize for the Game with the Tightest Box


Last year’s blowout winner was of course MISSION: RED PLANET which caused much consternation among quick-to-shoot, angry BGGers who demand smooth opening, easy-access boxes that don’t even require a glass of wine to pry apart. This year, DUST, a really cool game that is getting almost no publicity whatsoever rather than the “World Map=RISK” notices takes the prize. Using carefully calibrated scientific equipment designed in response to the MRP Box Crisis of ’06, I gauged that it took me nearly 200 PSI of force to remove the box and it required 4.3 seconds. Somebody page Randy Cox and get him to come up with a statistics table so we can accurately track this growing problem. Note to board game publishers- please continue to make those sticky, slick boxes with bottoms slightly larger than the tops. I love that.

Board Gaming Event of the Year


Why so sad? You didn’t get invited? Tough shit. You missed out, and I’m not even going to tell you what games we played because it’s MEMBERS ONLY, thank you very much. You’ve got to go on BGG and rate MILCH UND GHERKIN through the roof and continually kiss my ass online and in blogposts, podcasts, and to the high heavens in order to get an invitation. Next year, we’ll be joined by none other than STEVE WEEKS.


Mac Gerdt’s “Rondel” System

Ho ho! Including F:AT whipping boy HAMBURGUM, that’s score _three_ for Mr. Gerdts! Whodathunk that simply taking the arrow off a spinner and letting folks choose to spend a couple of ducats or whatever to pick the spot they want would turn out to be such a beloved and “innovative” mechanic? I’m convinced that Mac secretly just wanted to get a bunch of stick-in-the-mud snobs like Clearclaw to play games with spinners.

Most Softball Board Game Review by Someone regarded as and Authority on the Subject


If there’s anything people like Rick Thornquist (R.I.P.?), Tom Vasel, and Greg Schloesser have brought to the field of board game criticism and evaluation it’s the amazing ability to generate not only repeatable, soft-touch platitudes but also the ability to say absolutely nothing interesting about a game whatsoever in the space of a review. Mr. Schloesser has made an art of the confusingly noncommittal review, and his review of CUBA (really just a prĂ©cis of the rules with a vague “it was OK” sort of statement) had me wondering if “Greg Schloesser” is really a codename for a piece of boardgame review-generating software. Here’s an example of the hard-hitting, cut-to-the-quick insight this titan of boardgaming discourse offers us:

“Whether one needs another game of that breed in their collection is a matter of choice that some will answer in the affirmative, while others will decline. For now, I fall on the “affirmative” side of this question.”


The Jimmy Carter Commemorative Peanut Cup for Pan-Euro/Ameritrash Friendship Outreach and Understanding


From his stunning performance as an Australian on Steve Week’s ULTIMATE PODCAST to his willingness to share intimate details of his sex life with doomed pop debutante Britney Spears, no one did more to promote the healing of wounds this accursed civil war has caused between Ameritrash fans and Eurosnoots and like a boardgaming Martin Luther King, Jr. “The Man” keeps trying to shut him down through a rotating series of bans from the Leading Board Game Site. Much like the famous song by Chumbawamba, he gets banned, but he gets on again. Mr. Skeletor’s efforts have helped many gamers weed out the cool Eurogamers (like Chappy) and the wankers (like Drew) and his unwavering commitment to being a skull-faced antagonist of cartoonishly sensitive post-teenage males is truly remarkable.

The Lifetime Achievement Award for Excellence in the Area of Fun Murdering


This is a very special award folks. It’s the first time I’ve handed out a Lifetime Achievment Award but I think this special someone deserves not only the award for Excellence in the Area of Fun Murdering but heretofore this award will be officially called “The Clearclaw”. JC Lawrence, or “Clearclaw” as he’s known the boardgaming world has taken funmurdering to entirely new heights- from his faux-academic prosletyzing to his bizarro-world insistence on playing games like EL GRANDE without the tower and leaving Christmas presents unwrapped to avoid unexpected drama and surprise. Games to this man are just mathematical equations transferred to cardboard, he hates movies, and his moving narrative of a game of THROUGH THE DESERT showed the world that stories don’t have to be any fun whatsoever. He’s the Charlie Manson and Adolf Hitler of fun murdering. Of course, since these awards are fun, I’m sure he’ll decline to accept it.

The Robert Martin Memorial Award for F:ATtie of the Year


Folks, I gotta tell you…the stuff Tom and Brady are doing for F:AT is just fucking amazing. I mean, it is literally the best boardgame writing I’ve ever read and it really has set the bar unrealistically high for the rest of us. Who can forget that amazing roundtable discussion Tom had with Reiner Knizia, Rudiger Dorn, and Wolfgang Kramer where Knizia broke down in tears over the admission that he really does just pull themes out of his ass and Dorn wound up punching Kramer in the stomach after the latter called the former a “god damned copycat”. Brady’s behind-the-scenes expose on how German games are being used to distribute subliminal neofascist messages of compliance and conformity was truly shocking and I really can’t believe that child labor is still being used to hand-paint those boards. It’s really too bad that most of you can’t read these articles because you haven’t accrued enough F:ATbucks to gain access to the members-only EXCLUSIVE areas of the site. Remember this next time we have a supporter drive.



I’m sure the milquetoasts were “concerned” when they cracked open the rulebook to one of the sleeper Euro hits of 2007- the pretty good Polish game NEUROSHIMA HEX. Here’s a few excerpts from this R-rated masterpiece:

“…Screams and howls of the wounded mixed with overwhelming roar of cannons were the Jingle Bells of 2052. Fuck Christmas.”

“Motherfucker was blasting off full auto like a machine gun, punching holes with the massive cannons. Was it really happening? Was that thing real?” When you’re fucked, you’d believe in the weirdest shit. And that was weird shit.”

“But I was alive, and no fucking robot was going to get me now.”

Funny thing is, I’ve never seen anyone else comment on it…and remembering the scandal last year where PARTHENON showed Poseidon’s penis on one of the most famous statues of the Classical era, I’m kind of surprised.

And now…the 2007 Trashie Award for the Best Game of the Year


I haven’t played it, but man, it must be great, right? I figured selecting AGRICOLA would be the best for the community and since it has such a high rating on BGG it’s obviously good. It’s the best game since sliced bread, I’m told, and I think you even get to slice bread in the game. I’ll be sending a stack of 2007 Trashies stickers to Hanno to label future editions of the game featuring the slogan “It’s dying-while-eating-shit good. Tell your ma!”

That’s it for 2007- barring Armageddon we’ll do it again in 2008!

Thursday, 20 December 2007

The 2007 Cracked LCD Awards

Yes, it's time. Over at I've posted my year-end awards list. For my part, I will say that this is probably the only list you won't see AGRICOLA, RACE FOR THE GALAXY, or AGE OF EMPIRES III on when all is said and done. But hey, go look and come back here to argue. But Mike, say you, what about the 2007 Trashies? That's next week, and they're a F:AT exclusive. Gotta protect Bill Abner and co. from any litigation.

Monday, 17 December 2007

Guest Report--Behind Enemy Lines

F:AT reader Jonathan Yonce sent us a great after-action report of his Ameritrash-fueled invasion of a very snooty-sounding "EuroQuest". What follows is a tale of plastic, beer, tears, and a distressing lack of nutrition during his stay.


Behind Enemy Lines
EuroQuest V

I'm no solider. I have no training. I'm getting back into board games after four beer-soaked years of collegiate neglect. Axis & Allies, Magic, Settlers, Ameritrash-- That's my story. What makes them think *I* have the fortitude for this mission? Reconnaissance deep behind the arid trenches into one of the main outposts of euro games, where themes lie asphyxiated by gas and cubes march stoically in lockstep. What makes those chuckle heads at F:AT think that such a neophyte should venture so close to Mount Doom just to see what the Burning Eye is up to? Oh, wait. That's right. I volunteered. But I was lucky enough to recruit a good friend and gaming buddy, Greg who would serve as my wingman. We were supposed to head up that night to rendezvous with Agent Malloc, but sadly my wingman was detained and didn't get to my place til late. We did however end up going out for drinks with old friends in town - the perfect conditioning for dealing with dry games.

Here follows my pieced together recollection of my encounters in Timonium, MD (which, surprisingly, is *not* on the periodic table of elements) November 11th and 12th - home of EuroQuest V.

SUNDAY Morning:

0700 – Alarm goes off. Why is Maryland so far away?

0745 – Leave.

0800 – Leave again. This time with directions. My wingman proves his worth.

0815 – Gas up and find out how effective a 7-11 Bacon, Egg, Cheese Croissant is against a slight hangover. Not very. Bacon bits do *not* equal bacon in my book. Like "combat" in a euro, these bacon bits were a sad substitute for real meat.

0950 – Arrive at Days Hotel. As far as the rooms go – it turns out that I *can* in fact judge a book by its cover. Serviceable, though, and economical. No matter - I'm here to game.

0955 – Get pre-registration badges. Discover I traveled 120 miles to be there. Nothing compared to the eventual Puerto Rico tournament winner who came all the way from California. (You'd HAVE to win for that trip to be worth it!) There are free snacks and drinks – most impressive.

1000 – Not wanting to rouse suspicions, Wingman Greg and I try to fit in with the euro-natives by cracking open Shogun (which we found in the MASSIVE game library there). Armed with memories of playing Wallenstein in high school, we cobble together our two player variant. I crush him. I revel in the victory only long enough to discover that had one action been different, he would have won. Good start. I mean, we're playing with cubes, right? Who'd suspect us (unless of course, they spotted me eyeing the library's untouched copy of Twilight Imperium)?

1230 – Meet Zev of Z-Man Games. Very nice and impressive businessman. Wish I could produce and sell board games for a living. Buy Prophecy.

1300 – First heat for Settlers of Catan tournament. The format here is interesting and used to speed things up: your second placement is a city and you get TWO resources for each bordering hex. I play against two former 2006 finalists and some nice kid. Take the lead with around 5 VP and one player takes it upon herself to inform everyone of my slight lead. She plays her robber on me. I bite my tongue – biding my time. She builds her fifth connecting road but conveniently forgets to claim the 2 VP Longest Road tile so I kindly remind her and point out that *she* is now the new target. She's at 9 VP and the trade embargo ensues. I come back because no one's trading with her. I steal her longest road for the win.
Wingman Greg loses. I taunt him so he can better channel his rage into victory.

1440 – Rendezvous with Agent Malloc, who dared enter the belly of the beast with a small child in tow. I could only assume the little tyke served as a canary in the euro-mines. All too soon I see first hand the deadly effects of cube confusion as the small one goes limp. Malloc doesn't have much time. He introduces me to Phil and King "Caylus" Putman who is apparently decimating all euronerds in his path. Malloc reports of missed Arkham Horror and describes TI3 (which I've yet to play). I question my fortitude as I see him depart.

1445 – Check in at front desk. Overhear a phone conversation between the front deskman and a woman who wanted to know the following: Where was the Days Hotel? Was there a bar? Could she have as many drinks as she wanted? Hmmm… Another Ameritrasher coming to EuroQuest?

1500 – Regroup with WMG at Chili's. Eat one of the only two *real* meals I consume on my journey.

1615 – Scout out an appealing game demo. Play Amazing Space Venture with WMG and the designer, Steven LaShay. One of the best games I've played in a while. Read a more detailed debriefing here:

1830 – STARCRAFT! Holy Hell in a hand basket had I been wanting to play this! Let's just say the game topped my own secret agenda at EuroQuest. A gentleman was setting up a game with 4 players already seated and asked if WMG and I would like to play. Immediately, I answered in the affirmative. The game had already been set up with starting units, cards, and orders placed so we could learn the rules. It was great fun playing though - despite the obvious euro gamer at the table who couldn't get past some timing issue when resolving combat. I tried to explain to him that Zerglings rush, kill, and die - there are no timing issues.
Serious hats off to our teacher, who turned out to be none other than Doug Epperson-- BGG profile: "I play games to have fun!" He wasn't lying. Doug created this Brood War scenario ( just to teach others how to play. A guy who loves games, clearly.

2030 – Second Settlers Heat. With WMG this time. One guy (William, I think) runs away with the game and we finish in about 40 minutes. Considering about 15 of those minutes were spent setting up and placing – that's one fast game. I place second. I chat with my "friendly competitors" a while, then wander away, consumed by thoughts of die rolls and theories about how a game that uses soldiers needs rules for attacking.

2130 – Mosey back into the main hall and see WMG sitting down to a game of God-knows-what with two other guys. I sit and listen in on the rules. The game turns out to be Battue. First, it's a gorgeous game. Simple rules of moving onto city tiles and rolling 2D6 + number of your barbarians versus 2D6 + tile defense. Get loot, conquer city tiles, card play to boost attacks and mess with others, but overall pretty simple – too simple. I take out the big palace objective in the center of the city and hold it while I lost other tiles. Eventually I strike out to try to just end the game. Ugh.

2400 – One guy from the Battue game and one of his friends are interested in playing another game. He tells me and WMG to pick something out of the library. WMG picks Thebes. We lay it out and I worry about the board. It looks boring. Just a handful of European and Mediterranean cities with dotted lines connecting. There's a scoring track around the board and a damn stupid looking hatted-meeple man. The rule explanation begins.


0045 – After deciphering three long, colorful pages of rules, we're just about to start. Turns out our score isn't being measured by times around the board– we're actually fighting for the title of in-game time spent. Clearly, this is not a game about time travel-- but that mechanic would make this game immeasurably cooler. All in all I had Starcraft's rules explained to me more quickly...

0315 – Playing an extra 1/3 of the game (we find out later) has us all feeling as though Thebes might have worn out its welcome. Eye my F:AT-issued cyanide tablets more than once. Overall a nice euro but when I'm an explorer and I *can't* jump my fellow archeologist to steal his loot but I *can* transport from London to Israel instantly with a zeppelin – something's gone wrong. I never *did* get my hands on this magic, time-warping zeppelin either.

0330 – Up to our room to sleep off the day's *real* excitement: Seeing Cuba, Agricola, and Race for the Galaxy all played in one room. Yippee?

0745 – Alarm goes off.

0815 – Walk around the abysmal continental breakfast bar. Scoff at the sad display of cereal, coffee, honey buns, and bagels. Think back to the guy at the front desk who only yesterday informed me of the hotel's "fabulous continental breakfast." Clearly he has crap for standards.

0820 – Wander around until someone unlocks the main hall doors.

0830 – Realize that WMG and I roused ourselves a half an hour earlier than necessary. Apparently, the third heat wasn't scheduled to begin until 0900.

0831 – Break out my beat to Hell copy of Magblast. Win two games to WMG's one game.

0900 – Heat Three. With WMG once more – I come from behind to win putting me in the top six with eight advancing.

1100 – Semis with top two from each game advancing. Game saving moment: Two other players orchestrate a six for one trade so one can build enough roads to steal the Longest Road VPs from the fourth player who would've won that turn (confirmed by him later). End up jumping out and pulling down the win. Sweet. WMG is taking another crack at Thebes and wins.

1230 – Finals. Based on points thus far I'm second. We switch now to playing vanilla Settlers and apparently my brain can't cope, leaving me to score a paltry 5 VP's to my opponents' 7, 7, and 10. I learn later that the winner helped program AI for Settlers on Xbox. Super.

1400 - Quick, tear-soaked burger from Chili's does nothing to ease the sting of defeat. Seeing a beautifully presented game of Descent (3-D dungeon, painted figures, the works) that I can't stay for does little to help.

1430 - Back on the road to make it home before the traffic gets bad. Still alive after dodging some close calls and no worse for wear - ready to write up my surveillance and report back to the Fortress (uh, eventually).

Thursday, 13 December 2007

Mass Market Games Featuring Sea Monsters

No, silly...I'm talkin' 'bout SURVIVE! over at this week. But I did have the game above when I was a kid and thought it was pretty cool. Look, it was the 70s, OK?

It's a good time to bring up SURVIVE! because we've been talking a lot about types of interaction and the game features my favorite kind of interaction- where you do bad things to other players and they respond in like coin.

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

Fischer's Law

My reading material at the moment is Daniel Dennett’s book on evolution – Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. It’s a fantastic book dealing with both the philosophical and scientific aspects of Darwinism and ought to be mandatory reading for anyone obtuse enough to doubt the very real fact of evolution, or to try and substitute some form of creationsim. But enough politics; in a footnote in the book I found, oddly enough, a very interesting gaming reference.

The author claims (with what veracity I do not know) that a popular tactic of the famous US chess Grandmaster Bobby Fischer was to deliberately make moves with no clear purpose in order to confuse and bamboozle his opponent. His hope was that by doing this, the other player would take much longer than normal in making his move whilst he puzzled over the meaning of Fischer’s’ play. This would eventually tell on the chess clock, either forcing rushed moves later in the game or even potentially run them out of time completely. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that for those of us who play chess at a less rarefied level, pulling off a stunt like this has the potential to yield rewards without having to rely on the artificial limitation of the clock.

What struck me about this particular piece of unorthodox genius is that there are a wide range of modern games in which this particular tactic wouldn’t work. Interestingly enough there is also an ancient game where it would have little or no application either – Go. Since many, many moves in a Go game have no obvious and apparent purpose anyway – I have been told that a good Go player should “feel” his moves as much as he thinks about them – trying to confuse an opponent with a random play is just wasting a stone.

On further reflection it occurred to me that allowing for the deliberate confusion tactics in the mechanics might actually be a worthwhile marker of what I would consider a game worth playing. I call this formulation “Fischer’s Law of Game Quality”. It can be crudely summarised thus – “Good games are those which allow a player to gain an advantage through making suboptimal moves by confusing his opponent(s)”. So what does it actually mean if a game doesn’t meet the rather rough specification of Fischer’s Law?

Firstly it means that the game has little, if any, social interaction associated with the game itself. Any game which has social elements combined with hidden information has set up bluffing as a viable strategy, and as long as bluffing is a viable strategy then the game obviously comes under auspices of Fischer’s Law. After all, what was Fischer attempting to pull off in his games if not a gigantic bluff?

Secondly it means that the game has to have limited player interaction. The definition of player interaction itself is pretty vague but for my purposes it usually means that a game has to have pieces on a board which manoeuvre and can contest control of board space with pieces from another player. The manoeuvre bit is important – Chess would qualify but Go would not – because without it it’s possible to be placing things on a board that don’t interact with those of your opponents. The vague definition of “control” is also important because it widens the definition beyond just direct confrontation combat games to include other mechanics such as area control and area majority.

Thirdly it means that the game cannot be one in which making optimal moves at every turn is important for play balance. If that deliberately provocative move is obviously deliberately provocative or if, in a multiplayer scenario, it hands a clear advantage to another player down the line then you’re just going to end up loosing and looking like an idiot. There are various ways for a game not to end up breaking this knock-on prediction of the law. One of them, clearly, is for the game to have enough random elements in it to make your sub-par move look like a gamble or an honest mistake instead of the clever sucker-punch it really is. Another is for the game to have a complex enough decision tree to make the analysis of whether it was really a poor move rather difficult and this of course is where chess falls in to line.

As I write this it’s suddenly occurred to me that what I’ve done is simply taken the three things I’ve previously identified as the markers which can differentiate a good Euro from a poor Euro and turned them on their head, identifying them from the other direction. However, Fischer’s law still serves a wider purpose. Firstly it encapsulates those principles much more neatly since from a one-line statement you can deduce the marginally more complex thoughts I had on the subject. Second it allows me to cast my net wider and identify bad Ameritrash games. The reason for this is that the law has a fourth aspect which I’ve yet to touch on – games with excessive random factors will fall foul of it because too much chaos means lack of meaningful strategy. And without a meaningful strategy it’s not possible to make a deliberately non-strategic move for the express purpose of confusing everyone else at the table. And of course, as I’ve long lamented, over-reliance on random factors is the biggest bane of the genre that we love.

There are also very important exceptions to Fischer’s Law. Dexterity games ought to be exempt, as should party games and games based almost entirely on gambling. We should recognise this because these sorts of games are often awesomely entertaining! The other exception is to recognise that there are certain games which can fail to meet the demands of Fischer’s Law and still be excellent games – Puerto Rico is a great example which escapes by virtue of it having made the branches of its fairly simple decision tree fiendishly difficult to pick and choose between (and that’s the unique virtue of the game if you ask me). But there’s always an exception that proves the rule.

At this point I probably ought to point out that I’ve taken a vague notion that occurred to me while reading a complicated book late at night after too much wine and spun it out to a quite ridiculous degree. There are obvious problems with it not covered by my exceptions above, such as the fact that it in no way relates to the way in which the inclusion of an appropriate level of randomness can vastly improve an otherwise dull game. So have I wasted blog space? I hope not. I think that even if the idea is fundamentally fairly unsound it’s kicked up a few issues worth mulling over.

So. Chess, anyone?

Monday, 10 December 2007

Ultimate Podcast with Mr. Skeletor!

So Steve Weeks has finally gotten around to interviewing the elusive Mr. Skeletor. Hear all the fun at Steve's website:

The F:AT bloggers are sort of like Pokemon...soon Steve will have collected 'em all. Say, Steve, any chance you could post a special wing on the league-radio website devoted to the F:AT interviews you've done? I was a blockhead and didn't save mine.

Anyway, be sure to check it out--Frank is outspoken on the web and he doesn't disappoint here. Great interview and worth a listen.

Friday, 7 December 2007

Interview with a Game Publisher: Kevin Nesbitt (Valley Games)

I have been a little busy with the typical end of the year stuff that tends to get in the way of my normal slacker self at work. As a result this post took a lot longer to come together, but finally i had some time to post this interview I conducted with Kevin Nesbitt of Valley Games.


Malloc: Lets start this with the usual questions about your formative years. How did you get into gaming?

Kevin: Like most kids, I started out with some classic children's games. I can remember playing "Pay Day" with my siblings, for example. When I was still quite young, my uncle bought me a copy of "Panzergruppe Guderian" which I loved to play. It was then that I knew boardgames
were for me.

Malloc : What types of games do you currently enjoy playing? Any favorite titles, or game you think.. "man I wish we had been able to do this."?

Kevin: It's a bit funny; since Valley Games began, I've found my boardgaming time reduced to a large degree. Often when I do have time to play, it will be for playtesting or trying out a new prototype.

Of the games that I do get to play, I'd have to say that I like Card-Driven Games most. Specifically, I enjoy 1960: The Making of the President (Z-Man), Barbarossa to Berlin (GMT), and Liberte (formerly Warfrog, soon to be reprinted by Valley Games!). Yes, Liberte isn't generally considered a card-driven game, but I consider it a somewhat "euroized" version of the same mechanic.

I would have liked to have seen Valley Games do "1960: The Making of the President". Z-Man did a wonderful job producing that game. Overall, I think that's a very pleasing game from both a production and design standpoint, and your readers should consider purchasing the game if they enjoy the CDG's as much as I do.

Malloc: Who are the folks involved with Valley Games? How did you get involved with them?

Kevin: The other two guys at Valley Games are Rik Falch and Torben Sherwood, also known as the "Hardest-working-guys-in-the-game-business". How I became involved is actually a very interesting story. Rik and Torben owned a game store before opening Valley Games. One day I called in looking to purchase a *lot* of games for my game group, and I spoke to Rik. After several months of purchasing games, I suggested to Rik that they should consider printing games as well, and I knew of one such game worthy of a reprint: Die Macher. It just so happened that a friend of mine in Germany was a friend of Karl-Heinz Schmiel (the designer of Die Macher), so the situation was a somewhat favourable one. Honestly, I have no idea why Rik and Torben listened to advice from a person they had never met, but within a few weeks Die Macher had been secured and Valley Games Inc. was born. Rik and Torben requested that I help out with some of the details of the print run, and I was happy to assist.

In starting Valley Games, it was important to us that it needed to be a company run by gamers. Because of this, our attention has always been focused on quality: both in production and design. It simply followed logic then, that we wanted to seek out games that had a proven track record for quality in design.

Malloc: What games does Valley Games Currently have in production?

Kevin: At the time of this answer we have 3 of our own products for sale: Hannibal, Die Macher, and Container, though Container is technically a week or two away. In production we have more than a half dozen, each at varying stages of production. The four that are the closest to "finished" are Titan, Municipium, Big City, and Such a Thing.

Malloc: What process does Valley Games follow when making the decision about what games to produce?

Kevin: This is the really fun part; there are no set rules for production. The general principle is that if all three of us like a game, it will be produced. This is true of both our reprints and our new games. Of course, it doesn't hurt that our reprints are already popular with gamers. That makes our decisions much easier, generally.

Malloc: Valley Games separates their products into a few different "lines", please talk about these lines and what the reasons for the separation are.

We have three basic lines: Modern, Classic, and Tactics. There's no real secret formula here; if a game is a reprint it goes into the "Classic Line". If it's a new game, or a game that was only available in extremely limited quantity previously, it goes into the "Modern Line". If the game is generally considered a wargame, or has elements of a wargame, it goes into our "Tactics Line".
The reason we split our games up like this is to allow our customers to differentiate our games for our customers. Certainly there will be some people who simply want our products regardless of their designated line. But for customers who want to find a way to quickly sort through what will eventually become a plethora of different titles, these line designations are meant to make finding that perfect game a little bit easier. Plus, because the games in each series are bookshelf-numbered, it's an easy way to track just which games you're missing.

Malloc: Your company is publishing older reprinted games in addition to new titles. How does the development process differ when reissuing a game compared to doing development for a new game.

Kevin: It's not all that different. In both cases, we have to put in the same amount of production effort and time. The only real difference is that the expectations for a reprint game are higher, especially from fans of the original edition(s). Because of this, we do need to research the previous editions, and then make certain that we make a product that we feel is better than the original, whether that be higher production values, or even a ruleset that benefits from years of critique from veteran players.

Malloc: What are some common challenges that VG confronts when it starts a new project?

Kevin: The biggest challenge is time. We have to make sure that we have room on our calendar to make the project happen. The next biggest is simply logistics: Who will do the artwork? Which factory will print the game? How will we get it from the factory to our customers? These questions all seem easy to answer, until you actually have to answer them yourself. In our experience, the "grand vision" for the project is actually the easiest thing to accomplish. Making it all happen is another matter.

Malloc: Valley Games has made a name for itself in obtaining the rights to reprint games that were thought unobtainable. Describe how you managed to get a hold of the license for Hannibal.

Kevin: Hannibal was a tricky game to obtain. As many people know, Hannibal was seemingly lost to the "sands of time" because of some issues with the company it was formerly licensed to.
When we first looked at this problem, we ran into the same stone wall that I'm certain other companies did; a flat out "NO!" from the previous publisher. It wasn't that they were dead set against the project necessarily, just that there were some legal barriers that appeared unbridgeable. But we went back and did our research, consulted some professional advice, and found out that a loophole existed which allowed for us to go ahead with the licensing. In the end, it was a real joy and privelege for us to be able to inform the designer that we could print his game, rather than the other way around. By comparison to Die Macher, well, there simply is no comparison. Karl-Heinz Schmiel welcomed our reprint and went out of his way to make it happen for us. It just goes to show that there's no one way to license a game, I guess.

Malloc: Can you Give me more info about the loophole that let you reprint Hannibal? Was this some sort of legal lawyering, or a unexplored contract provision... blackmail, extortion... anything?

Kevin : Unfortunately, there's not a whole lot that I can talk about here. Let's just say that perhaps Valley Games was willing to be a little bit more aggressive in our pursuit of Hannibal than other companies may have been in the past.

Malloc: How have the customers reacted to the game? Does VG consider it a success?

Kevin: Absolutely, we're thrilled the way Hannibal has turned out and is being received. We've received many happy emails from people that have the game, or have seen it at their local store, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive. In fact, the game has received so much attention that we're already very nearly sold out (a little "inside information" for your readers)!. Who knew a game could go back out of print so fast?

Malloc: Valley Games has promised to supply a set of plastic Generals to use instead of the stand up cardboard generals that come in Hannibal to all the gamers who per-ordered the game. Any updates on when these generals will be available?

Kevin: Yes, our latest report from our factory tells us that we should have them to our customers in January. This has slipped just a little bit, unfortunately, but we're confident that the generals themselves will justify the added wait.

The first thing I'd like to point out is that the version the customer's receive will not be in green. They will be a more neutral color. In addition, this sample picture does not include the stickers for the base, which will be one "wrap" sticker for the bottom, and two smaller stickers for the general's stats on the small square placards at his feet.

Also, as is evident from the picture, yes, there is some assembly required. The headdress of one of the Roman generals needs to be put in place (and glued), and each general needs to be mounted onto his base by gluing his feet onto the respective pegs of the base. The only things that will be needed to complete this assembly is some glue and a few minutes of time. The assembly of these figures was a production necessity, as the figures are very complex in their creation. It is very unusual to have a figure with a base that visually overlaps the feet of the figure, and this was what created the need for the separate base production.

I think our customers will love these generals. The chess-like look of the generals was important to us, because it conveys the scale and importance of the topic and gives a "grand strategy" feel to the game.

Malloc: Can we comment a bit on the whole Essen/Shipping controversy that blew up on BGG. Personally I feel you did the right thing, but I think I would be missing something if i didn't ask about it. If you would rather skip this, thats fine too.

Kevin : There has been a lot said about this issue, so I won't go into too great of detail here.

It is important that our customers understand that Valley Games is a small company. Because we are such a small company, each expenditure we make needs to be done with careful consideration. In planning our Essen show (back in January 2007) we expected that our copies of Container and Hannibal would be done and already delivered to our preorder customers before the Essen show. When this proved to be unlikely, we faced a decision: Sell the games and cover the cost of our Essen show, or don't sell the games and take our chances financially. In the end, we had to make the small company decision and sell our games. Our company has always been about being "gamers first", but to make the decison not to sell our product at the show would have been the same as making the decision to close our doors. Certainly in this context I'm sure our customers would agree that we made the right choice.

Malloc: What has the process of development for Titan been like. Are there lessons learned from doing Die Macher/Hannibal that you are deploying for the release of Titan?

Kevin: Titan has been a little bit more slow-and-steady in the development stage. The reason is that the game is quite old, and so we are forced to ask ourselves what we can improve on without damaging the classic Titan that everyone knows and loves. Additionally, some comments from "veterans" of the game gives us pause while we think about the validity and practicality of the advice. Of course, just the fact that we're reprinting TITAN is enough to ensure that we take very careful steps in the development stage.

But our lessons from Hannibal have been learned in regards to the production process itself, and this is where Titan should pick up a lot of time savings. We've worked with our printing facilities to streamline and improve the way we interact, meaning that the delays from Hannibal should be largely a thing of the past. Chalk it up to a little more experience on our part, I guess.

Malloc: How do you guys go about establishing relationships with Game Designers and Artists.. How did you get together with Mike Doyle/Kurt Miller. What about the relationship with WarFrog and Martin Wallace?

Kevin: It's quite a mixed bag of experiences. Often designers will approach us, and sometimes we will approach them. It's really like any other business in that regard, I think. It just depends who knows who, and just how willing they are to talk to us. In my experience in talking with designers and artists, though, these are some of the nicest people you could hope to meet.

We met Mike Doyle after seeing his Die Macher box he posted online. I pointed it out to Rik and Torben, and Rik contacted him immediately. It was a pretty funny situation; Mike felt bad about posting alternate artwork for a game that we had just published, and we were wanting to ask him to do some artwork for our future projects. Despite the unusual situation, Mike was more than happy to take on many of our projects, and has been invaluable in offering us creative and challenging ideas for our artwork.

Kurt Miller has been a real workhorse for us. We contacted him after seeing some of his earlier work, and we liked what we saw immediately. He is able to do some pretty amazing things, and I can't even begin to understand how he produces some of the images that he does; they're simply awesome.

Martin Wallace has been a good friend to Valley Games since the start. We formally met him when we sent Torben to the Essen show in 2006, and he helped us out a great deal. Agreeing to reprint Liberte has been personally very satisfying for me. In my opinion, it's one of the finest games ever made, so to be allowed to print it again is a real treat.

Malloc: What about finding a printing company? Are there lots to choose from, or is it a small set of companies that do this type of thing?

There are lots of printing companies to pick from, with more breaking into the business each year. Generally speaking, we ask for the printer to show us what they can do before we accomodate them with a print run. In the end, it's Valley Games who receives the criticism if something has gone wrong, so we are very careful when going somewhere new.

Malloc: How does the process go after a product returns from the printer? Who assembles the games, shrink wraps them and ships them all of the world?

Kevin: When we get a product shipped from our factories, it goes straight to our fulfillment company in Stone Mountain, Georgia (USA). They unpack everything and dispatch a small shipment of the game to us here in Canada, so that we can serve our Canadian preorder customers. Then, with exceptional efficiency, our fulfillment company begins shipping to all of our preorder customers wordwide, except for European-produced games which are shipped from within Europe.

Once all this is complete, we begin shipping the games to our distribution partners, and then on to retail stores from there.

Assembly, shrinkwrapping, and all our other production-based concerns are normally taken care of at our factories.

Malloc: Is there any news about future VG titles that you would like the F:AT readers to hear?

Kevin: Despite all the attention we've generated over the last few months from our signings of hard-to-find classics, Valley Games will remain committed to seeking out titles that are in demand by fellow gamers. Expect to see a couple more big announcements in the coming weeks!

Malloc: Kevin, thank you very much for your time.

Thursday, 6 December 2007

In Space, No One Can Hear You Do Anything

In honor of Yehuda Berlinger and all this high-minded art talk that's invaded F:AT lately, the art image to the left depicts my visual representation of the fun player interaction you can experience in a game of RACE FOR THE GALAXY. I hope it along with this week's Gameshark column touches your soul and makes you contemplate the foibles of human nature. Because the game sure as hell won't.

Imagine if Captain Kirk & Co. never had a chance to frolic with any green skinned ladies or tussle with Khan on their five year voyage. Or if the NOSTROMO never landed on LV-426 and the Colonial Marines showed up just to secure the colony's output of novelty goods. Think about what would have happened if the Rebels and the Empire quietly did their own thing and never bothered each other with all those Star Wars. Or what if WARHAMMER 40K was about the economic administration of the empire and you never got to see Space Marines hosing down greenskins with heavy bolter fire. Yep, that's pretty much the sum of RACE FOR THE GALAXY.

It's a damn shame, because it's actually not a half bad Euro-style card game that could have been a really cool, streamlined 4X style space exploration game...but since the designer didn't bother to evolve the PR system any further by making it something fun, dynamic, and interactive it turns out that this much ballyhooed, hotly anticipated game is just another disposable title worth about two plays before heading out the airlock and on to Ebay.

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Fortress: Ameritrash Super Happy Fun Time 200th Blog Post

Sorry, I don't have any confetti to mark the occasion. Feel free to tear some Post-Its with great vigor and toss them in the air about you. Make gutteral noises when your co-workers stop to stare at you.

So we've made it to post 200 of Fortress: Ameritrash. A lot of folks said we'd flame out in a month, and to be honest we all attacked this thing in the beginning as though we were on pace to do just that. Matt had the prescience to make this a team effort; a lot of gaming/hobbyist bloggers take off into the blogosphere on their own only to burn out for a short period of time...during which their readership promptly forgets about the blog entirely. Fortunately for us, we tend to take things in waves, covering for each other when some of us are burned out or just mulling over what our next blog entry should be. And we've had a lot of great reader contributions (like the "mostly" weekly Snapshots) that also keep things hoppin' around here.

Personally, I'm at a weird equilibrium right now...that burning ember to keep acquiring games has subdued, and I'm left staring at a pile of games that I really ought to get to know better. I've got some holiday vacation time coming up and I intend to do just that...the guys have vowed to fit in a massive Twilight Imperium session the week after Christmas, and we'll have our traditional Mall of Horror game at my brother's Christmas party. Mall of Horror is just one of those games that seems to be a hit with everyone we've played it with. It's a great combination of plastic, theme, backstabbing, and yet nicely approachable rules that don't take half an hour to explain. Of course, we've talked that one to death on this blog already, so we'll just leave it at that...but if you don't have a copy of this, get Santa to bring you a copy.

Speaking of "Santa", one of the local stores just got Starcraft in, and it taunts me. I'll have to get this very soon. I'm so behind on 2007 it's really crazy. Then again, I try to think of how far just a fraction of the games I own now would have carried us through high school. Hell, even first year college where we played Nightmare (aka Atmosfear) almost weekly.

It is really weird when you hit that "collecting plateu" sort of 'shut the door' so to speak and really take inventory of what you've gotten yourself into. Then you open your War of the Ring, pour plastic figures all over you, get drunk on cheap rum and then start calling all of your ex-girlfriends in alphabetical order, telling them how you'd like some of their "Lembas Bread".

The holidays are always a crazy time, so I don't expect to post too much during this month. I'll keep posting Snapshots if you guys and gals send them (fortressat at gmail dot com). I wanted to put together some web comics, but after taking blurry picture after blurry picture of Ameritrash game bits in various compromising positions, I had a newfound respect for those folks who take those crystal clear photos you find on BGG. Turns out it ain't as easy as it looks! I've also got another interview or two that are taking forever to wrap up, so maybe after a gaming-heavy Christmas break I'll be back in the saddle again.

So Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, Groovy Hannukah, Krazy Kwaanza, and whatever to all you'uns. And here's a tip: stepping on a War Sun with your bare foot HURTS LIKE A MOFO.

Friday, 30 November 2007

The Fun Murderers

Sometimes, the stars just line up.

Today, the erstwhile Ken B. posted that image of CUBICOLA which of course pretty much sums up the arbeit macht frei ethos of the Eurogame design paradigm. Then I read this post over on where Yehuda Berlinger offers his eloquent yet completely preposterous thoughts that games, somehow, aren't "supposed" to be fun, that the medium itself does not specifically require fun although every definition in the entire world in every language indicates that games are an amusement device. I've already ranted about this in the CUBICOLA post but it dovetails nicely into the sad events that transpired last night at my usual gaming get-together. But first, let's frame the story.

There's been this new guy coming around recently...I'll call him F. F is a middle-aged guy, probably has some kind of IT job but I don't know. He's the kind of guy who wears white Reeboks and would likely make fashion guru Tim Gunn throw up in his mouth. Probably lives alone and does well enough without a man or woman in his life. Definitely a longtime gamer, a veteran of who knows how many wars and auctions. Now, I usually have a strict policy that I'll never play games with somebody I don't know except under very specific circumstances- running a retail store with in-store gaming teaches you a lot of hard lessons that way. But a couple of weeks ago, I let F in on a game of STARCRAFT which included my best gaming buddies Duke, Billy Motion, and the elusive Robert Martin. What I didn't know at the time was that F was a Fun Murderer.

F spent the whole game, which he had played once before, informing us all of what our best moves were and how we should proceed with our turn. When I placed an order on top of a giant pile of Billy and Robert's orders, he notified me with impeccable elan that I was making a stupid and suboptimal move. I politely replied that I was simply fucking with Billy and Robert simultaneously and therefore I considered myself to be the winner of the game prior to any actual decision. We're talking a nearly constant steam of condescending rules lawyering, folks. To top it off, F happens to have one of those voices that is somehow louder than everything else at all times. Kind of like a Motorhead song.

So the next week, it was time for STARCRAFT again. I'm setting it up to play with a family that I've been gaming with for a couple of years that folks affectionately call the Rock n' Roll family for a number of reasons that don't matter here. Billy was promised seat #6 in this game. So I'm setting it up and F immediately inculcates himself into our game. So I very politely tell him that Billy is slated for the very seat he has taken command of and I even told him that if we play a second game I'd let him in on it. I lied.

So now we have a context for how F, one of the Fun Murderers out there who will stop at nothing until all fun is exterminated from gaming, and I ended our brief relationship last night over a game of WAR ON TERROR. When I arrived, the Rock n' Roll family was already there (and had brought REVOLUTION, a game that I really like but never get to play) and I pulled out my new copy of the now-domestically-available WAR ON TERROR, one of the silliest, stupidest, nastiest, and just plain fun games of recent years. I knew they'd dig it because they like big map, kill-em-all sorts of games with lots of negotiation. Me too. It really needs six, so when F came running up to once again insinuate himself at our table I didn't resist even though I knew I should have.

It actually went pretty well for the first 3/4 of the game despite F's repeat performance as a bar-approved rules lawyer. It was his first game, but he was no shrinking violet about telling everyone else how to play the game or what their best moves were. I told him at least five times that you can't make a terrorist attack with a "War" card yet he continually told everyone that they could. I refused to defer to his innate understanding of the rules which he had never read. F turned terrorist at that 3/4 point and then declared that the game was pretty much over- which is, in a game of outrageous fortune like WAR ON TERROR, very far from the truth.

Things came to a head when F decided to throw a fit directed at the youngest member of the Rock n' Roll family. He's a great kid, very smart and a pretty damn good gamer but he's very loud, outspoken, and he's well, a kid. So The Kid asks a rules question and F, in a very unfriendly and uncomfortably loud tone responds "Maybe if you'd pay attention to the game you'd know what you were doing. You're sitting there yelling the whole time it's no wonder you don't know what's going on."

Now, let me point a few things out here. One, this is a middle-aged man yelling at a child. Two, this is a middle-aged man yelling at a child while he's sitting next to the child's father, brothers, and a friend. Three, this is a middle-aged man yelling at a child while he's sitting next to the child's father, brothers, and friend while playing a board game that has no other purpose in life than to entertain us, make us laugh, and give us a fun social experience. And to top it off, this guy is louder than the voice of god and he's calling this kid out for yelling?

So the garrulous, goofy tone of the game was suddenly replaced by awkwardness, weirdness, and silent, Chuck Norris-level silent rage. The father, hoping to maintain an air of dignity, said nothing but his smile spoke volumes of wickedness and imagined cruelties. F just kept on, narrating every turn and completely oblivious to his gross social malfeasance. The kid played a card to steal something from F and we were, once again, treated to a monologue about how it was a suboptimal move and so forth and I said "You know, he probably did it because he thought pissing you off would be fun, which is the point of this game in the first place." We passed around a secret message and all agreed to turn terrorist just to end the game, which was no longer fun despite any number of nukes.

I know it's a long story, but it's leading up to something larger. I start packing the game up, and F gets up and grabs the rulebook. He thumbs through it and then says- in reference to a rules question that happened like an hour prior and that was already corrected- "Look here it, it says blah blah blah blah blah." At that, I was beyond the breaking point- which I have never, in all my years of gaming been at because I never take games that seriously and if I'm not having a good time then I know I just need to pack it up and do something else. I snapped at him, saying "I'm sick of your rules lawyering and aside from that you're not going to sit here and yell at my friends. We come here to have fun and enjoy ourselves and you've completely ruined that with your attitude so you're not ever going to play another game with me again." He was shocked. I kind of was too, because I've never had to just put the boot down like that.

He sheepishly started helping to pack up the game and I just said "No. I don't want your help, just fucking leave now."

In retrospect, it was kind of harsh and I do actually feel kind of bad about it. But the problem is that our styles of play simply didn't match up, and it took a volatile situation to get past the politeness and "hey, we're all gamers here" folderol to get to that truth.

And the truth is, that some people just murder all the fun out of gaming. It doesn't matter if you're playing the best game ever published or something like WAR ON TERROR that's specifically designed to be a fun, light affair if you've got one of these Fun Murderers on board then the game is in trouble. I've played the most dirt-dry Eurogames with fun loving people and had a great time even if the game sucked. And I've played really awesome games with fun hating people and had the worst gaming experiences of my life.

So who are these Fun Murderers? They're people like Yehuda Berlinger, who argues that games aren't meant to be fun for whatever pompous and psuedo-intellectual reason he argues (I'd love to see him follow up the article with "Fish Aren't Meant to Swim" using that same tenuous connection to a Woody Allen quote about Ingmar Bergman). They're the people who want to tell us that playing EL GRANDE is somehow a fundamentally different activity than playing CANDYLAND. They're the people that tell us games and toys are mutually exclusive. They're the rules lawyers like F who turn even the loosest, simplest rules into a nightmare of logic and overinterpretation. They're the designers who have thrown out fun in favor of "elegance" and "efficiency". They're the people who play ARKHAM HORROR but don't read the adventure cards out loud. They're the people who got into gaming to satisfy some other unfulfilled need, dream, ambition, or missing quality in their lives. They're the folks who have changed the definition of games to include things like "systems", "mathematics", "balance", and "mechanics". They're the ones who think playing games about elves and robots is below playing a game about farmers and builders. They're the gamers who think that playing TICKET TO RIDE somehow demonstrates a degree of intellectual superiority to the "Sheeples" having a great time playing MONOPOLY. They're the ones who take this hobby way too seriously and make every type of gaming look like the refuge for awkward, anal, socially inept, borderline Asperger Syndrome suffers that are into it for something other than amusement.

I guess it comes down to taking this hobby too seriously. And you know, I think that I've realized that the ultimate reason why hobby gaming will neither ever be mainstream nor grow beyond certain parameters is that there are, for whatever reasons, a high population of Fun Murderers involved in it at any given time that take everything way too seriously. The world, outside of Yehuda Berlinger and the Fun Murderers, play games to have fun. When outsiders to the hobby see people taking games of any description seriously, they automatically want to have nothing to do with it because it really demonstrates a lack of perspective as to how games fit into our larger lives and a disconnection from, well, reality. And I can't blame them. It's just like how when I see football fans taking things so seriously, I immediately don't want to be in the same room with them. I love BATTLESTAR GALACTICA but when somebody starts talking to me about minute fan crap I immediately want to put the DVDs up on Ebay.

I know what the chief counterargument here is- that people's idea of what "fun" is varies from person to person and I completely agree. If your idea of "fun" is playing a game like CAYLUS and figuring out how to squeeze the most points out, then that's fantastic and I completely stand by your enjoyment of the game even though I despise it and can't find a lick of fun in it beyond making fun of it ad infinitum. But if you're playing CAYLUS for any other reason than to entertain yourself then you are a Fun Murderer and should be subject to the death penalty where applicable. Even if by "fun" you mean digging around in the ASL rulebook or playing one of those accounting exercises packaged as 18xx games, there is simply no other justifiable or valid reason to play games.

The punchline to all this is that the next table over was playing a nice, quiet game of AGRICOLA. And having fun.

The Weekly AT Snapshot, 11/30/07--Now with 100% More Games About Dull Professions!

"Cubicula where you have to work in a cubicle making white cubes (paper) into grey cubes (reports) then give them to impress your boss for VP's! This 8 hours (not including playing overtime) allows you to experience the life of an office worker! Optimize your grey cube delivery for the best score! "

Today's image and write-up come to us courtesy of Geert Heijnen, aka LilRed. Thanks!


If you've got a great image that just screams Ameritrash, email us the image or a URL. It can be an image you created or an image you found on the web. We don't care!

If it meets our strict quality standards, we'll publish it in The Weekly AT Snapshot, instantly making you an undeniable global celebrity.

We'll even pimp your website if you send us the URL for that. Send all submissions to with the word "Snapshot" in the subject line.

Thursday, 29 November 2007

Hey, I brought you a Christmas present. Step out of the car please.

Nothing captures the spirit of the holiday season quite like a cattlegun to the front of the skull. Except maybe those ubiquitous gift guides where some jackass tries to tell you what you ought to get your ungrateful relatives who likely already have a special box in the basement where they store all those "stupid foreign board games" you foist on them at every gifting opportunity.

So cue up that haunting, funereal Charlie Brown christmas dirge that sounds like an acapella Cocteau Twins remix...I whipped up a little holiday gift guide myself to ease your shopping obligations.

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

300: The Board Game

It was over quickly, and I enjoyed it ... sort of.

A gamer friend once told me, " Being an out of the closet Ameritrash fan means never having to answer the question 'What were you thinking when you bought that game?'" I'm going to answer the question anyway. It has Spartans. Other than that, my expectations were not particularly high. Reading between the lines of the description, I figured that it was a tactical game with a high luck factor, that could be played by two players in under an hour. In other words, about 45 minutes of chucking dice and quoting the movie in deep theatrical voices. Not much to ask. 300: The Board Game simultaneously exceeded expectations and disappointed.

Andrew Parks has done an exceptional job of creating a world in which players can immerse themselves. There are many well thought out touches that bring this game to life. I have a minor quibble with the legibility of the counters, due primarily to the use of movie stills, rather than icons to indicate unit type. However, this choice is understandable and excusable. The one thing that really prevents 300: The Board Game from being a really great, trashy, beat the crap out of your opponent game, is the use of an outmoded, arithmetic heavy battle resolution system. With a sleeker battle resolution system, such as the ones employed for Memoir '44, Nexus Ops or Monster Mash I, 300: The Board Game could have been that elusive, fast, light, exciting, 30 minute, two player game that would have saved me from another round of dull Euro fillers.

Out of the box, the game looks tasty. I almost ripped the board upon removing it. The board fills the box right to the very edge. Probing with my fingers, I found the fold and pulled. The board lurched. Much to my surprise, I had only grasped half the board's six panels. The other half swung free. I quickly lay the board down to prevent ripping it. The board was huge. Size does matter. I love the epic proportions, and the sense of place the map conveys.

The board is larger than it needed to be for a two player, column battle. Essentially, only the 6 Coastal Plain and the 6 Hot Gates spaces are necessary for game play. The rest of the board is there for thematic impact and convenience. The board is well thought out, providing everything needed to play, plus a nice clear space in the middle for rolling dice. There is a glory point track around the outer edge for keeping score. Two player aids, the Round Order and Battle Chart are printed on the upper corner. Player aids on the board are always a plus. The Persian and Spartan Camp spaces hold reinforcement tokens, so no need to worry about piles of tokens in front of players getting knocked off the table. The game lasts for 6 rounds. However, rather than having a generic turn marker, Ephialtes, the hunchback, moves one space along the goat path at the end of each round. This nice thematic touch not only keeps players in the world of the game, but also makes it easy to remember to move the marker (remember, we are the people who forget to move cars, so remembering to move a turn counter is a challenge). The only thing that I don't like about the board is the "300" written across the middle. It's like "Who the hell tagged the cliffs?" [insert lame Vandals joke here]

There are two decks of battle cards. One for the Persians, and one for the Spartans. The cards are printed on the thinest card stock ever. I think I have received greeting cards printed on thicker paper. I guess they blew the budget on the board. The cards are battle or movement modifiers. They are pretty typical - add to your attack, add to your defense, cancel the effect of your opponent's card, cancel wounds, immediately kill off some of your opponents units, etc. Most have some criteria that must be met to be used, such as a specific unit or leader must be in the battle. Each card also has a still from the movie and a quote. The rules actually state that you must read the quote aloud when playing the card, although it does not stipulate that you must read it in a deep theatrical voice. So points for providing us with the quotes, and points for pictures of hot Spartans.

The Spartans and Persians units are cardboard counters. They are about the size of a quarter and are round, and thick, and glossy. They aren't minis, but they do feel good in your hand, and there's a certain tactile satisfaction when sliding them around on the board. The Persians also get two war beast counters which are about the size of a half dollar. This sizing is, like the board, well thought out. For stacking and attack limits, each war beast is equal to three regular units. The larger size token takes up about as much room on a space as three regular sized counters. This makes it easy to not screw up the stacking limit. Another nice touch is that Xerxes, the God King of the Persians, is worth 20 points to the Spartans if killed. Dilios, the storyteller, will subtract 10 points from the Spartans score if killed (he's the only Spartan with a glory point number). This provides incentive to the respective players to have these two characters survive the battle.

Each counter has a still from the movie, as well as unit type, an attack number, and a defense number printed on them. The Persian units also have a glory point number. One side has the starting stats, with a blue boarder for the Spartan units and a yellow border on the Persian units. The flip side has the wounded stats, and is bordered in red for both the Persians and the Spartans. Here is where the design stumbles a bit. If you are sitting on one side of this huge board, looking out over your army at about a 45 degree angle, you know what you see? Yellow or Blue ringed counters with a big blur in the middle, reflecting light off their glossy pictures. You have to stand up, and bend over, with your face perpendicular to, and no more than a foot above the counters, just to distinguish one unit from another. Once a bunch of units are wounded, you can't even tell which counters are yours. Don't even think about playing this game with someone over 40. They'll be hanging four inches above the board, whipping their glasses on and off and swearing. You'll be like, "Get your fat head out of my way, I can't see my dudes." After a couple of beers, forget about it. You'll both be leaning over, and smacking your heads together, and there will be real blood on the board. Okay, that's an exaggeration. We didn't bleed, but it hurt like hell. After that, we used glass blobs to mark our units so we could tell what was what with out injuring ourselves. Fortunately, there aren't that many different unit types, The Persians have Infantry, Cavalry, Immortals and four leaders. The Spartans just have Spartans and five leaders.

Finally there are 6 "Battle Dice," which are just standard six sided dice. These dice are used as follows. You determine which of your dudes are involved in the battle, and add up their attack numbers, being careful not to whack heads with your opponent who is doing the same thing. Then you look up your attack number on the Battle Chart printed on the board, to determine how many dice you roll. Then you and your opponent simultaneously roll your dice and add up your totals. That's your damage number. The Persians have to kill off dudes until the defense numbers of the dead dudes add up to the damage number that the Spartans rolled. Then you add up all the glory points on the dead Persian dudes, and the Spartans score that many points. The dead Persian dudes get reincarnated as reinforcements and are put into the Persian camp. The Spartans then kill off dudes until the defense number of the dead Spartan dudes add up to the damage number that the Persians rolled. The Spartan dead dudes are just dead, and get tossed out of the game. Additionally, if the total of your defense and the total of the damage doesn't work out all nicey nice, you flip a guy to his wounded side. So for example, if you had three units with a defense of 10, 4, 2, and your opponent rolled an 11, you could kill off your 10, and flip your 2, or you could kill off your 4 and your 2 and flip your 10. Got that? Actually it is not difficult, it is just tedious.

So here's how the game works. The Spartans have to earn 100 glory points before goat boy makes it to the Persian camp (i.e. earn 100 points in six turns). The Spartans earn points by killing Persian dudes, and by taking ground. The Persians win if they prevent the Spartans from earning 100 points (i.e. if the Persians don't die too much) or by fighting their way through the Hot Gates and taking the Spartan camp (i.e. moving onto a row's last space, which is adjacent to the Spartan camp). There are 6 rounds. Each round you draw battle cards, march, battle, and finally move the hunchback along the goat path.

During the March phase, you move in your reinforcements. Each Persian unit can move one space forward. Each Spartan unit can move either one space forward, or one space sideways. There really isn't a lot of movement choices, and most of the time the choices are a no brainer. You just keep pushing your dudes forward. I like that this mirrors the movie and gives you a sense of men constantly surging forward. It is particularly evocative when playing the Persians. You get a real sense of the frustration of having so many men, but not being able to push them through to the front line.

The real game play is in the battle cards. We have been playing with the "gamer" variants, which gives you a starting hand of 5 cards, and allows you to pick two cards at the beginning of each round. Additionally, you can use a card to add one point to your attack number, rather than use it for it's specific purpose. This allows you to burn your useless cards, such as those that require a specific hero to be in a battle, when that hero has already been killed off. Typically at the beginning of each battle you have a hand of about four or five cards, so you have some choices.

During the Battle phase you chuck dice and kill dudes.

So here is how the game plays. The initial set up is dictated, so there is no over thinking how to place your guys. You don't even have to decide what guys to move into battle. You begin face to face, and immediately start hacking at each other.

The Persians: [throwing down a Battle card] I would gladly kill my own men for victory! I add two to all my attack numbers and subtract 1 from all defense numbers.

The Spartans: [throwing down a Battle card] Here we stand! Plus one to all units defense.

The players grab the dice and face off, but wait. Stop. First we must do some arithmetic.

Spartans: Okay, I'm 8 plus 6 is 14 plus 4 is 18. Look it up on the chart, I get three dice.

Persians: I'm 3 times 2, so that's only one die.

Spartans: Don't forget your card.

Persians: Oh yeah, Okay, I get 2 dice.

The dice are thrown. And it is time to do a little more addition to determine your damage number. Then some subtraction to figure out which units get killed off. Don't forget your card modifiers. Then some more addition to calculate Glory Points. In total, seven little addition/subtraction exercises are required to resolve each battle and track points. Gee wasn't that an exciting battle.

And that was only the first row. Now reapeat the above to resolve the second row.

Move the hunchback along the goat path. Pick some cards. Push your tokens forward. A couple of movie quotes, and it's time for three minutes of grammar school arithmetic again.

This is Sparta! This is not grammar school. Battle resolution should be immediate, visual and visceral. Arithmetic is not exciting. Counting things is not exciting. Bookkeeping is not exciting. When I have to pause to add/subtract seven different strings of small numbers to resolve one battle, the game just loses momentum. I am pulled out of the world created by the game. The forth wall is breached. My suspension of disbelief is broken. I get flashbacks of my cubicle at the office.

The amount of work required: depth of game ratio is just off. For me, getting that balance right is the heart of a great game. Unfortunately 300: The Board Game was so close to being an amazing, trashy filler, and then just blew the balance.

On the other hand, the man likes 300: The Board Game. He says if I let him play the Spartans, he'll play in costume, so I expect we will be playing again, just not at Game Club.