Friday, 30 March 2007

What's in a name?

Allow me to tell you a story.

A long, long time ago, in a country far, far away (if you happen to live in the US), I worked for an organisation called the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC). My job had nothing to do with physics - I worked on their website and intranet. One day PPARC decreed that an Electronic Records Management System (ERMS) must be bought and so options were investigated by a committee consisting entirely of managers. Because the committee consisted of managers who did not include or consult any technical staff the ERMS they decided on, Objective turned out to be a complete turkey. It turned out to be such a turkey in fact that in an all-staff meeting one of the senior managers who'd picked it diverted from topic and made a sudden and spontaneous attack about it being so crap that he'd never, ever use it himself.

Thanks for bearing with me so far, this is going somewhere.

A new project manager was bought in to try and salvage the software. She was very good indeed and things did improve a little bit. Then she decided to hold a competition to rename the software from "objective" to something more touchy-feely, reasoning that a new name might help dispel the negative vibes surrounding the old project. The winning name was "nemo". Various small in-office publicity events were held to mark the renaming and a bit of marketing was done. And, amazingly, everyone carried on calling it "objective" and thinking it was shit.

Which illustrates exactly why, whatever you think about it, the name Ameritrash is here to stay as a genre label for the games we love and why it's completely pointless to try and change it. Now me, I don't like it. I'd change it if I could, although I'm not entirely sure what to. The reason is simply that a small minority of the very best early Ameritrash games got designed and published right here in the UK by good old Games Workshop in the far-gone days before it became a great satan which nearly rivals Hasborg and Michael Barnes in the Big Book of Gaming Bogeymen. So maybe we should change it to "specialrealtionshiptrash"? Bit of a mouthful I suppose.

Anyway, whatever terrible sins GW have committed they have continued to support one or two of the better board games they put out, most notably the excellent and quirky Blood Bowl which manages to turn most euro-assumptions on their head by being random, violent, steeped in theme and yet at the same time amazingly brain-burning. But what happened to the rest? Well, for a long time some of them were fairly important collector grails, although not so much here in the UK where copies were a bit more common. But then Fantasy Flight Games picked up the licence for many of the titles and started releasing them, redesigned for more modern and euro-friendly sensibilities.

I am not privy to exactly what this licence covers. But I think it's an unfortunate although understandable decision that the two games they've chosen to re-release so far are in fact two of the best games from the GW stable and the ones in least need of a redesign. The reworking of Warrior Knights which attempted to make this marathon game shorter feels like a game which ends just as its getting interesting. The reworking of Fury of Dracula looks to me like the game was redesigned entirely around an attempt to solve a very minor problem (dracula cheating). Both have a slew of new euro-style mechanics that sometimes feel a bit bolted-on. Don't get me wrong here, neither are bad games, I just continue to feel that the originals are better.

This is a missed opportunity. I'm hopeful that FFG will look at publishing some more GW titles, primarily because some of them contained some fantastic gaming ideas which got bogged down by weak play or old fashioned mechanics - although there's also Space Hulk which deserves an un-tweaked re-release in its own right. There are some games which are just screaming for a redesign - here's two of them.

Top of my list is Blood Royale. On the face of it this was a fairly ordinary looking middle-ages wargame with economic and diplomatic factors. However in reality the game revolved almost entirely around building your dynasty - you started with a small royal family and had to go about trying to produce more offspring and marrying them off to the children of other players' families while hoping your older and more experienced characters avoided the grim reaper for another turn. The marriage arrangements, just like in real medieval diplomacy, formed the basis of the deals and contracts that were made between the players. As far as I'm aware this approach to an empire-building game remains completely unique. Sadly the game took far too long and eventually got bogged down in the absurdly complex interplay of all the treaties made but the core of the game were a bunch of solid gold ideas that have yet to be replicated.

I'd also suggest that someone take another look at Rogue Trooper. This was part of a short series of games GW released based on characters from the famous 2000ad comics, none of which were particularly good, although in the Judge Dredd one was sometimes amusing for allowing you to arrest Judge Death for crimes such as ... littering or jaywalking. Rogue Trooper was probably the worst of the bunch - a Talisman like game which involved moving across a board, drawing encounters and collecting stuff until you had a final, climactic encounter to win the game. Pretty yawn inducing stuff in the first place, but the problem was exacerbated by the fact that Talisman got away with it because of its fantastically diverse encounter deck, whereas the Rogue Trooper one was short and samey. But I digress. Rogue had one of the most ingenious and thematic solutions to the "problem" of player elimination ever. In the comic, Rogues' equipment was powered by microchips that had recorded the personalities of his dead comrades. In the game a player who died left a microchip on the board and these were massively useful pieces of equipment, so the remaining players then got in a race to see who could pick it up. Whoever claimed the chip got the benefits and also got to play with the dead player as a team - everybody wins! It strikes me that a redesign of this could be built around preserving and expanding this mechanic in all sorts of cool and interesting ways given how the mechanics devised for co-operation in games have expanded so much since it was first published. But I'd ditch the rest of the game before I started work.

So please FFG, dig out those design resources and take another look at the GW back catalogue - but now you've done the obvious titles, try and take a look at the mechanics that are worth salvaging as well as whole games!

So please FFG, take a look at this, extract the good stuff and build us a cool, streamlined game around it!


Ken Bradford said...

The fact that Space Hulk hasn't been reprinted is criminal. GW should sell them the rights but require them to use plastic figures that won't interfere with GW's precious $50 per figure Warhammer money machine.

Michael Barnes said...


Not "rocked", but "rock", as in they continue to rock today just as much as they did yesterday. Even their spotty games (like JUDGE DREDD and ROGUE TROOPER)are at least fun in a wonky kind of way and they're always fucking GREAT to look at.

To me, GW had a couple of things really going for them. One, is that their artists were completely fucking nuts and that made the games have a really idiosyncratic, baroque look that is still to this day very unique and unparalleled. Another is that I always get a sense that their designers not only really loved fun, dramatic games, but also the themes they were getting across- the result is some of the best theme/mechanic integration this side of DUNE. And it doesn't hurt that good, old fashioned game concepts like elimination, direct conflict, dice rolling, cardplay, and CHAOS run through all of their designs.

As for the FFG reissues- I think they're both fine. I do wish they had just left them alone, there's no reason to "improve" something that was already great to begin with. Of course, the idea was to "modernize" FURY and WARRIOR KNIGHTS with Euro concepts and "balance" but in doing so some of the spirit of the games are lost. The idea that old games are somehow "obsolete" because of Eurogame innovations is ludicrous. Just like the STAR WARS Special Editions.

Reprints? How about DUNGEONQUEST, still the best dungeon crawl game on the market- bar none. It'd have to be a 1:1 reprint though, any change or modification to pacify crybabies who bitch about "the luck element" would ruin it. I imagine those whiners' collective asses as the bottomless pit tile- neverending blackness, and likely a rod or stick tumbling through it for all eternity. I'd love to see BLOOD ROYALE back. SPACE HULK...oh, how DOOM is just a spot on that game's masterful ass.

You know what else was cool? The board war games that GW did, like BATTLE FOR ARMAGEDDON and HORUS HERESY...they were set in the 40K universe so you get all that great flavour and none of the bankruptcy. They're pretty simple to play, have awesome graphics, and are generally 1-2 hour affairs. Nice stuff.

BTW- if anyone has a copy of CHAOS MARAUDERS for trade, I'll give you new stuff for it!

Shellhead said...

I don't expect to see FFG re-prints of some of the games mentioned here, because they already have similar products on the shelf and don't want to compete with themselves. Doom, for all practical purposes, is FFG's Space Hulk. Likewise, Descent is FFG's Dungeonquest. Of the GW games that FFG has done, Warrior Knights doesn't interest me (after reading too many negative reviews), but Fury of Dracula is definitely a favorite.

Barnes, I get what you're saying about GW games, and I would love to play those games now. I missed out on their games back in the day because I found the distinctive look of their artwork to be grotesque and annoying. "Oy, I'm a tough guy. See that spoik on my shoulder?" And dark elves have mohawks? Please.

Michael Barnes said...

See, I love that punk rock fantasy doubt those guys were big fans of The Exploited (and definitely Bolt Thrower). Definitely influenced by 2000AD too, which definitely isn't a bad thing as far as I'm concerned.

And think about it this way...if you see that art, you KNOW it's a GW game- it's branding.

robartin said...

Likewise, Descent is FFG's Dungeonquest.

No, not at all. Descent is FFG's Heroscape. It's a long, detailed game that gives you nearly all the experience of an RPG.

Dungeonquest is a simple little dungeon-crawler that easily fits into an hour, even with four players. Dungeonquest would fit beautifully into their product line because it plays in an hour (unlike Descent), yet it has some real thematic depth (unlike Drakon or Cave Troll).

For medium weight dungeon-crawlers, Dungeonquest is still the reigning Champion of Chaos even after all these years.

Malloc said...

I am pulling for a re-issue of Warlord (Apocalypse) but I don't hold my breath.

I have always been quick to defend GW for pretty much everything. (Full Disclosure I was an Outrider and am still in thier Kommando program.) The thing they always nail is the artwork, and backstory for thier products. Yes they cost a ton of cash, but it looks to me like people still pay it.

Anyway no one beats them for the overall feel a game has. You know its a GW product when you look at it, and thats a good thing.


Shellhead said...


Ok, I concede the point about Dungeonquest, and I personally would love to play an FFG Dungeonquest, because Descent is too bloated to be fun. But I still think that FFG will be sensitive about the possibility of having two dungeon crawl games on the market at once, even if there are important differences in price and gameplay.

I was one of the two co-designers of a boardgame* for White Wolf, and we had a really difficult time designing the game because they already had a similar game** in development. Every time there were revisions to the first game, we had to make revisions to our game to maintain some distance between the two games. This was tough, because we weren't kept in the loop on the design of the first game. In the end, two White Wolf developers made some significant changes to our final draft to keep it different from the other game.

It was very frustrating, especially because there were two early designs that were very distinctive games that our playtesters enjoyed, and now they will never see the light of day. Our original game would have been a very AmeriTrash game, loaded with theme, chrome, dice-rolling, chaos, and modular map pieces making no two games alike. Our second version was a dry but very strategic AT/Euro hybrid. The final result was a somewhat thematic hybrid that is too random even by AT standards, with heavy take-that paybacks. You stab people in the chest instead of the back.

*Vampire: Dark Influences
** Prince of the City

alan said...

agreed. no matter what you may think about GW prices, their product is fantastic. Shame that all their efforts now go into re-writing fantasy battle and 40k every other year. Now that the lord of the rings cash cow is drying up I'd like to see GW do something else. Gorkamorka never really took off and was always viewed as a bit stupid, but I love it. viva grot revolution. Likewise with necromunda and mordheim. Thing is with GW once you have your gang or your team or whatever, thats it. Very few add ons to games like space hulk or rogue trooper especially when you see the endless variations on "marine with whatever" in the pages of white dwarf. Gw invests all their brilliant design work into reworking old concepts for their core games. Shame but I agree with the idea of FFG picking up the ball. Oh and if anyones got "Doom of the Eldar" i got stuff for trade..

Fellonmyhead said...

They were dark days, when GW stopped their line of boardgames and RPG's, then concentrated on minis. Even their magazine - once an independent source of all things RPG - became an in-house publication concentrating solely on their product line.

And you're spot on, Matt; they did choose the two games that least needed a facelift. However, I can say I have enjoyed what they did with WK; with the one exception that you really do still need to play almost as long as the original to get the benefit.

One of my favourites was Super Power; it gets slated because of its reliance on dice, but the results of those rolls do kind of reflect real world politics when you look at them.

Blood Royale is a great choice for a reissue; I seem to remember a discussion going on about this where somebody can no longer post, and a slightly more streamlined version would be great (last time I played we were eight hours in and unfortunately had to call it a day).

As for the wargames you mention, Michael; did you know some of GW's stuff is downloadable for free?

Check this out:

Battle for Armageddon

Shellhead said...

Barnes: See, I love that punk rock fantasy doubt those guys were big fans of The Exploited (and definitely Bolt Thrower). Definitely influenced by 2000AD too, which definitely isn't a bad thing as far as I'm concerned.

And think about it this way...if you see that art, you KNOW it's a GW game- it's branding.

Great point about the branding. I like some punk rock and I like some fantasy, but I think that they are two great tastes that don't go together. Like, I dunno, peanut butter and barbecue sauce.

breity said...

Re: your Blood Royale comments. I've always treated Blood Royale the same way I treat Civilization. BR is the only other game I can think of that gives me anything close to the sense of accomplishment, the depth of emotional ties to my civilization / dynasty / dudes, and the gobsmacking sweep and grandeur that playing Civ gives me. Very different game, though. :-)