Here’s an experience you’re never going to get from an Alea game.
Sly Stallone Block, housing hundreds of thousands of Blockers including Fatties on belliwheels, mohawked Spugs toting spitguns, and angry mobs running amuck with vibrodrills has gone to war with the neighboring Buddy Holly Block. Tensions are high as it is in such quarters in this severely dysfunctional future but to make matters worse a bizarre affliction called BLOCK MANIA has broken out due to a viro-chemical agent dropped in Mega City One’s water supply by Sov agent, Judge Orlok. A group of Buddy Holly block Juves have somehow gotten ahold of a rocket launcher and they've taken position in the window facing Sly Stallone block, overlooking the pedways, tubeways, and the other fragile links between the gigantic buildings. They fire, aiming low…the rocket hits just above the entrance plaza, which had previously been vandalized by an alligator-headed alien mercenary called a Klegg, wielding a can of spray paint causing the block’s residents great shame. Impact. The horrible sound of munitions rending concrete, glass, and steel. The explosion tears through the front of the building causing several sectors to immediately collapse, crushing some geriatric Crocks trying to get outside to take to the sky with their newly found powerboards. The structural damage is immense- the floor immediately above suffers a collapse, which in turn causes sufficient damage to cause the floor above to practically disintegrate. By the time the destruction is complete, the entire face of Sly Stallone block is sheared off. Where are those Judges when you need ‘em?
In retrospect, it is hard to believe that this story was told with a bunch of pieces of cardboard with some numbers printed on them and a couple of dice rolls to determine the outcome of the narrative but so it goes for a game like BLOCK MANIA, designed from the ground up by Richard Halliwell to capture the essential particulars of block-on-block warfare set in the world of Judge Dredd. Like many of Games Workshop’s line of now-classic board games, BLOCK MANIA is incredibly rich with theme and detail, right down to the idiosyncratic 2000 AD slang and satirical bent as well as specific rules to accommodate everything from shutting the power off in a block to a special restriction placed on Super Heroes that disallows them to loot enemy armories or shopping malls. The tone is irreverent and almost totally committed to conveying the mayhem and madness the title promises and I believe it’s likely the only game I’ve ever played where the goal of the game (other than to cause massive property damage) is to inflict “defeat” points on your opponents- a complete reversal of the established norm.
Flash to the recent announcement of Reiner Knizia’s upcoming game MUNICIPIUM from Valley Games which was accompanied by this description:
“The game takes place in a Roman setting. Each turn, players must move influence markers to take over seven different buildings, each with a different function. By doing this, players seek to establish a majority and utilize that particular building’s function. Players will also be using their majority influence to garner differently-coloured tokens, and once a set is collected they exchange them for a gold token. The first player to achieve five tokens wins.”
With apologies to The Smiths…stop me, oh oh oh stop me…stop me if you think that you’ve played this one before.
I’ve played MUNICIPIUM, which was originally slated to be released by Quest Machine with the promising title ADVENTURE LEAGUE. ADVENTURE LEAGUE certainly looked compelling, what with a 1930s Doc Savage sort of vibe throughout the artwork and the description sounded fairly promising and might have been one of the better, more thematic Knizia games. However, the version I played was a prototype which at that point was called MAGISTER. Does that excite you? Me neither. Basically, MAGISTER was a pretty routine area control game that played out more like a Kramer than a Knizia (at least in terms of mechanics). It was largely unremarkable and if I didn’t know that it was supposed to be ADVENTURE LEAGUE beforehand I would have just disliked it rather than be completely disappointed in it.
So MUNICIPIUM, after a couple of years of languishing as a game about some 17th century political maneuverings, then as a supposedly “two fisted” adventure game, arrives to us with a theme that at this point is almost as exciting as Ancient Egypt or renaissance commerce of any description. A recent thread over at BGG criticizing the generic nature of the theme and mechanics description illicited the usual chorus of individuals who are “rather” excited about the prospect of another game of this ilk. What does a theme really mean when its base material is so divorced from what it becomes? Nothing.
Flash forward again. Last night I watched the recent DVD reissue (and first legal home video appearance) of
So all that made me think about themes in games and why they matter despite the cries of those who claim that “it doesn’t matter as long as the game is good” or that “all games are essentially math problems”- more importantly, it made me realize that themes are what ultimately give games meaning. The game of BLOCK MANIA that Damian and I played created a real sense of time and place, of narrative and relationship. Mr. Halliwell and the folk at Games Workshop provided us with a base material- a set of rules, components, and a good, solid theme- and we essentially finished the work by playing the game and collectively hanging the narrative on the scaffolding of words, numbers, and parameters. Therefore, I realized that game design is essentially like an alchemical process and that games with very rich, well developed themes are designed in reverse- working from theme (the higher material) down to the mechanics (the base material). Anyone want to bet that MUNICIPIUM was designed the opposite way?
All games, to some degree, are essentially abstract as they break down situations, characters, actions, events, and other elements of reality into smaller pieces, effectively simulating through subtraction. Some games, like GO, reduce higher concepts to almost nothing and actually become something more but we’re talking about “designed” games here so let’s put it aside. Other games, like many Euros, start from meaningless form and come to develop meaning and purpose- sometimes it is completely mutable and ultimately irrelevant as the structure is the significant part. Games like ARKHAM HORROR though, start with the “gold” and work their way down to the “lead” and as a result the process is much more a stripping away of the illusionary worlds and environments generated by the theme to the reality of how it is presented in our physical world, as a game. When we play these themed games, we essentially complete the alchemical cycle by returning the illusionary elements- in our actions in the game and also in our imaginations- to the structure. We turn the lead back into gold.
But what of abstract games or games like MUNICIPIUM with “pasted on” themes”? Do these games ever leave base matter? Of course, many would argue that mechanics can in and of themselves be a theme (or even a “meaning”) and I don’t completely disagree (hey, I love a couple of those GIPF games myself) but when I play a game that has a weak theme or a lazily applied one that does not speak to the mechanics at all I feel like I could be doing so much more, something that has meaning beyond adhering to process and form. Something higher, like fighting in the aforementioned Block War, commanding Napoleon’s troops at Austerlitz, or saving mankind from the coming of Azathoth. Something that has meaning, something that lives and breathes an organic life rather than existing only as a compound of rules and restrictions.
Recently on one of the forum posts here someone commented that games that have “topics” that interest a player do a lot more to get folks into gaming than trotting out the usual raft of practially themeless “gateway” Euros and I have to say I completely agree. Meaning, significance- is something that MANKIND responds to whether consciously or unconsciously, and if these “Uninitiateds” are shown games that speak to specific interests the games are much more likely to be appreciated, apprehended, and enjoyed. I had a group of friends once that pretty much had nothing to do with gaming outside of GRAND THEFT AUTO 3 but when I showed them
I’ve always loved games with strong, passionate themes married to great mechanics but there are many games I love with great themes and completely crap mechanics- it’s the meaning I love more so than the mechanics. On the other hand is there is no game in my collection that I keep soley because I like the mechanics. Why? Because without a sense of meaning, what’s the point?