Monday, 7 May 2007

Theme and Meaning- The Destruction of Sly Stallone Block

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 HOLY MOUNTAIN, a 1973 film by Alejandro Jodorowsky, who in the 70s was working on a film version of DUNE starring Salvador Dali, Gloria Swanson, and Orson Welles. If you haven’t seen it, you probably should but don’t blame me when its almost nonstop cavalcade of bizarre images poisons your memory for the rest of your life. The film is almost wholly symbolic, a rich and very complex mishmash of metaphors, ideas, and concepts from religions Oriental and Occidental as well as mystic traditions such as alchemy and the Tarot. What it all means is sometimes very opaque, sometimes very clear but it’s never abstract- everything in the film, even if it appears to be at first glance complete nonsense, is vested with specific meaning regardless of whether or not it is understood or apprehended by the viewer. It has a very clear theme throughout- the alchemical transmutation of illusion into reality. Base material into a higher form. Lead into gold.

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 FORMULA DE on the strength of their interest in Indy car racing, they became hooked. Sure, FORMULA DE is little more than a dice rolling game but the dice rolling has a significance, and specifically a significance that held meaning to these guys.

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?


Gary Sax said...

Good post. I was hoping someone was going to mention the "teaser" for the Knizia game (or whatever) over here in a post.

alan polak said...

makes me think of another GW game- Warhammer 40k. When I first started playing it back in first edition, I guess 1988, it was quite a different game from where it is now. The background to 40k has bee a work in progress for the last 18 or so years for GW but back then it was very, very thin. But what the hell did I care, the game was what was important. But with a distinct lack of "theme" it was just a dice rolling exercise. Now of course it is much different. BUt here's the thing. As a wargame, I think 40k is a pretty weak game. I have played much better "rules" for miniature wargaming- check out 2 hour wargames for example. BUT what made me keep going back to 40k was the background fluff, which is the games theme. SO yes, theme is essential. This new Knizia sounds like yet another tile collecting game. Haven't we seen that before? But people love that shit and this is what I dont understand about the manic eurogamer. All these games seem to have the same basic goal. Collect a set of things, trade them in for another thing, trade x number of these things for something else, rinse and repeat. Just not seeing the attraction and I wish someone from "over there" could explain it without assuming that everyone who posts here is (a) an idiot who "just doesn't see the genius behind these games" or (b) doesn't play euro's so "wouldn't understand even if we did justify our opinion". It does no good to come here, post anonymously,slag off everything here and then complain when you get called out for adding nothing to the hobby. Sometimes I think some of these guys have a bit of a wizard of oz complex, guys there is no Oz, just some geek behind a curtain saying the same old shit

Michael Barnes said...

Well, the obvious argument the Eurogamer should employ here is that the mechanics are the "gold" and that they are in themselves the "meaning" we should be looking for in games. Which is fine since that seems to be their bag, but you're right that they'll automatically assume intellectual inferiority if we don't agree.

Sometimes I think some of these guys have a bit of a wizard of oz complex, guys there is no Oz, just some geek behind a curtain saying the same old shit

Hilarious. Is he gonna give Mike Chapel a heart or a brain?

pronoblem said...

Last night I’m watching the recent DVD issue of HOLY MOUNTAIN, a 1973 film by Alejandro Jodorowsky

My boxed set arrived on 5/5. What a great package! Fando Y Lis, Holy Mountain, El Topo, another short film about a woman who collects severed heads, a documentary about Jodorowsky and two soundtrack CDs - Don Cherry did Holy Mountain, Jodorowsky scored El Topo... I do wish that the Fando y Lis ST was in there though, I think that was my fav even though I love Don Cherry's work... I had an MP3 download of the soundtracks before but they had dialog in them - ack... I am so glad to have them isolated. It has been a long time coming... looking forward to the new film too.

Shellhead said...

The vast majority of my game collection has themes involving combat, fantasy, science-fiction, and especially horror. Without at least one of those themes, I am unlikely to buy a given game.

Fortunately, those themes tend to be interesting enough that they encourage game designers to make those games fun and thematic. The games about boring things like building and harvesting and collecting tend to be games with mathematical solutions and thinly-pasted on themes.

Here are some themes that I think could use more good games:

pulp heroes
post-apocalypse survival
kung fu

Dennis Ugolini said...

139 lines that distill down to "theme good." Does anyone dispute this?

A good theme can make a game fun despite mechanical shortcomings (Junta). A themeless game can still be good, but it has to be *really* fine-tuned, enough to become a classic in the genre (I feel this way about Ra more and more). Now I will dig in and defend these points...oh wait, no one's arguing with me? Oh well. I was all set to write ten Biblical-epic-length articles on this.

I disagree that there's much "excitement" over this new Knizia, too. I'd never heard of it before your post. Amongst the San Antonio Boardgamers, I've only seen Caylus played twice, and I've never seen Pillars of the Earth outside of BGGcon, where it was still a shiny new toy (and you have to try everything once). If you look at our blog, you'll see a strong wargaming bent lately, including Here I Stand, Combat Commander, War of the Ring, and various Columbia block games. So y'all aren't the only ones who feel that most Euros are getting repetitive -- doesn't that always follow something that's been successful in the past?

Michael Barnes said...

139 lines that distill down to "theme good." Does anyone dispute this?

I do. It's already a given here that "theme good", as you put it in caveman-speak. My point is that theme imparts meaning and significance on mechanical structures. You're new here, aren't ya?

A themeless game can still be good, but it has to be *really* fine-tuned, enough to become a classic in the genre (I feel this way about Ra more and more).

Absolutely true. But it still doesn't mean anything to me. RA doesn't mean jack shit in the end, even though it's a fun game and I enjoy playing it every now and then. It's like watching a movie that is technically amazing but you remain distant from because you don't connect with it on any level...playing even the best purely mechanical games is like watching a demonstration of how Hitchcock shot the shower scene in PSYCHO...the nuts and bolts are fascinating but without a context- and in fact, meaning- it's almost completely sterile and devoid of the visceral impact of the material as it exists within a larger framework.

We don't go to the movies to see the "man behind the curtain", so why should we play games that are nothing but that?

Rliyen said...

I could not agree more with this post. As a Block Mania and 2000AD fan, I read your post like it was a storyboard, the game became very real in my imagination. And, you hit the nail on the head to the main reason why I dislike Euros: pasted on theme.

Basically, you can take a Knizia game's mechanics from any of his games, slap another theme, and voila! A new, smash hit game for the euophiles to drool over. They would get all squeeified if Knizia came out with an area control game set up during the War of 1812 with various breakfast cereals for playing pieces.

My first introduction with Euros would have to have been Settlers. I played several games and felt like I was robbed of my time. I was absolutely bored the entire game. The premise didn't grab me, the gameplay was limited, and if I wanted to play a game that was similar to work, I'd just go to work. At least I'd know I'd get paid for my time.

Now, when I go to the Geek and see the games that are being reviewed, I just go, "Why, on God's green earth, does anyone find that INTERESTING to play???"

Hmmm, Should I play Samurai with abstract strategy, pasted on theme game or Samurai Swords (aka Shogun) with a theme superglued on,*gasp* player elimination, and *double gasp* luck?

Give me Samurai Swords any day.

Euros just remind me of God Mode in a FPS. It doesn't matter how badly you play, nothing truly affects you and you still win.

Give me a win where I can definitively say I have earned, where it pays to have a plan or gambit outside of "optimal moves" for the first go around and no cries of "you're throwing the game if you don't do X!" That way, I can sit back and savor the feeling a victory earned without training wheels.

Jack Hill said...

I do admit that I'm probably almost as much of a Eurogamer as an AT-er.

Eurogames do have mechanics, and a sense of exploration. The biggest kick for me is puzzle-solving. The good games either kick you in the head trying to figure out how to approach and survive, or some new major twist (Puerto Rico) that makes you seriously consider how to approach it.

Once you solve the puzzle, you pretty much have to move on to the next game. Which makes Eurogames almost disposable, unless the game is either brain-meltingly hard, or so variable (Ursuppe/Primordial Soup) that you keep having to adjust your tactics a lot.

By the way, Primordial Soup is easily in my top 10, and it is one of the most AT-like Euros around. You eat each other, starve each other out, it contains a couple of extremely random factors, lasts about two hours, and has buckets and buckets of special power cards. Oddly enough, my wife enjoys it, which may make extra justification for ubarose's last article.

Michael Barnes said...

I'd say that URSUPPE actually has a lot of theme/mechanics symbiosis though...I feel safe in saying they likely designed that game to be specifically about amoebas and biological concepts, which is why it feels more thematic than you'd expect.

Not one of my favorites, but it has some merits.

alan polak said...

"Once you solve the puzzle, you pretty much have to move on to the next game"

See, this to me is not something that people who only play Euro's, and seem to hate AT games so much, will ever acknowledge or admit. This is why I have a problem with most Euro's(samurai is a great example) and play more AT style stuff. To me it isn't about solving anything, it isn't a jigsaw puzzle. But you mentioned "exploring". I would say it's more about exploring the rules to discover the way to win, the previously mentioned solution, and not any sense of narrative or meaning. I mean what exactly am I doing when I lay that tile down in Samurai? So now I control an entire city eh? Not my thing I'm afraid and I'd still like someone to explain why they like this kind of thing. Is it a purely "mathematical" thing? If so then don't dress it up as a boardgame. Call it what it is. A puzzle.

Jack Hill said...

Although...upon more thought the idea that figuring how how to solve a game may be the big draw.

Think about it in proper Eurogame terms:

1. Randomness is bad. Gets in the way of solving the game and winning.
2. The lack of theme doesn't matter.
3. Eurogames rarely have a shelf life beyond a few months. Once solved, everyone moves on to the next unsolved.
4. Player interaction is limited. Other players get in the way of solving the puzzle.

Therefore, the extremely Euro design is doomed to only a few plays. The good games actually include a healthy dose of randomness and/or player interaction to keep the game interesting beyond a handful of plays.

(I still am very fond of Puerto Rico, which is one of the most pure Euros around. I think the game is tricky enough not to have been solved, and I'm a bit of a special powers addict. )

alan polak said...

Oh and someone mentioned movies which made me think of Star Wars from a previous article. Think about the original trilogy; full of character and narrative. Think about the prequels. Dry dull exercises in special effects. What exactly is going on during the battle on the wookie planet in ep.3? Listen to the audio commentary on any of the new films. There is not one actor on any of these and barely a mention of any story element. Lucas has turned it into a mathematical exercise.

the*mad*gamer said...

Great Point Alan! I agree! Check out the commentary by Richard Edlund on the special edition DVD of "Big Trouble in Little China", he talks about the special effects guys in today's movies have no schooling in movie making, they are technical guys which turns the whole thing into a math exercise like you state.

Michael Barnes said...

Absolutely right- completely mechanical (yet technically astonishing) exercises in process without any heart, passion, and only the most maudlin, chintzy "meaning" imagninable- not that the OT was a rich metaphor for the human condition or anything, but at least it didn't feel like a machine cranked it out.

Those commentaries are atrocious...hearing Lucas defend a scene that's little more than lightsabers waggling in a dark, smoky scene as a "tone poem" makes me want to throw up. Is Lucas a Eurogamer?

Rliyen brought up SETTLERS in a negative light...but I think it's still the best Euro, and I think it's the most "human" of all of them...the game is much more about interaction and conflict than most of the later spreadsheet games. Its meaning is found very much in who you play it with, and there is a solid sense of development and accomplishment that makes the theme, such as it is, work well for me.

robartin said...

This is a great example of a game that really epitomizes the AT ideal - theme comes first, but you gotta have good gameplay too. There are tons of little bits and pieces (chrome) in games like this that detract from the "elegance" of the design. But you know what? In the end you still have a really fun game that weaves a rich narrative for you as you play it.

A game like this really flies in the face of the myth that AT games are all about theme at the expense of gameplay. If you want to talk games that are all theme and no game, look no further than most of the mass-market licensed crap like The Jurassic Park Board Game and The Ewok Adventure Board Game.

Even so, occasionally you get a licensed mass market game which turns out to be a bona fide AT hit like Buffy the Vampire Layer.

Jack Hill said...

The Jurassic Park boardgame IS crap.

The Jurassic Park 3 game is actually rather good. It is almost a dungeon crawl, with one person playing the maneaters, and the other 3 trying to run as fast as they can through the gauntlet.

I think it was a Craig Van Ness design, and it does have some resemblance to Buffy. The only thing is that it is heavily weighted towards the humans.

Michael Barnes said...

Can we just stop here for a minute and give a big "hell yeah!" to Steve Weeks for bringing up BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA?

alan(egg shen)polak said...

indeed. There's that commentary on "The Thing" which is an AT version of Lucas's dullness. Carpenter and Kurt Russell, clearly boozing, just having a good time watching a flick. Two friends hanging out. Lucas has Ben Burtt telling us how he created the sound of Chewies ass hair rubbing on the seat of the Falcon. Tone poem does sound kinda elegant though. Maybe one of the anonymous guys is George Lucas.

Ken B. said...

Actually, it's "Jorge Lucas", George's cousin who is of Latin American descent.

What do you have to say for yourself, Jorge?

Yo soy EN FUEGO~!

TheRankO said...

I'm just tuning in to this post, but I couldn't let this bit of unthought slide by:

139 lines that distill down to "theme good." Does anyone dispute this?

This statement is as absurd as saying that a newspaper story is no more than its headline, or a novel is no more than a concisely-stated theme.

I just don't get his complaint. Is this guy just doing some vaguely lowbrow bitching because he thinks the article is too long? He seems to be saying, "Read my blog! We limit posts to 50 words...and they're all real, real short!"

Barnes, I enjoy your writing, but you really pull in some characters. What you need is a Vasel-esque motto to place at the bottom of your reviews: how about "Real Gamers Attract Envious Low-Brow Detractors"?

(Nah...too many words.)

Dennis Ugolini said...

The "139 lines" comment was in reference to the fact that there's a ton of verbiage but nothing *new* here. Other than the mention of Block Mania (which I've not played before), it's ground already covered on this site. And "Envious Low-Brow Detractors" is an awfully tin-foil-hat-esque response when I agreed with the topic of the post.

As for Barnes's response:

Absolutely true. But it still doesn't mean anything to me. RA doesn't mean jack shit in the end, even though it's a fun game and I enjoy playing it every now and then.

Here is my fundamental issue. Sure Ra isn't life-changing...but it's fun! You like to play it every now and then! Isn't that Mission Accomplished for a game?

I can see "a game is better with a good theme". But what I see in the posts on this site are "games without theme suck" (not a direct quote, obviously), which seems like needless exaggeration for effect.

TheRankO said...

Oh, I see: 20+ lines that distill down to "you already said that."

My mistake...

Michael Barnes said...

Dennis, don't be a dick. You're behaving just like these jackasses who, on both Boardgamegeek and, continue to make hyperbolic comments like "all they do is bash Euros and Tom Vasel"'re trying- very desparately- to "take on" Fortress: Ameritrash and its founding ideas. And I've got news for you, we've heard everything you've said over and over again. Not just here, but on the other sites as well.

We all like a lot of different games here, and for a lot of different reasons. Why do I like RA? Because it's fun. Does it have a meaning? No. That doesn't make you right and me wrong, no more than it makes me right and you wrong. Nor does it fundamentally change my value judgment of the game.

FUN, is in fact, an end unto itself. I never stated otherwise. But there are also reasons why I find that some games are more fun, more meaningful, and more satisfying than others.

But back to Dennis- why don't you tell us something fresh, innovative, and interesting that has never been said before?

ubarose said...

In mathematical terms most Euro games are algorithms. Whereas most AT games are applied math used to describe a system (which we call a theme).

An algorithm is a finite list of well-defined instructions for accomplishing some task which, given an initial state, will terminate in a defined end-state. In other words Eurogames are like a series of black boxes. You put A in you get B out. Then you put B into the next box and you get C out. In a Eurogame, the only variables are the players who decide the initial state (what goes into the box). The equations are already solved, the challenge or puzzle is to determine the combination of initial states which yield the greatest output. The algorithms of Eurogames don't describe anything. Rather, the theme is used to describe the algorithms.

Applied math is a broad field, however, in over simplified terms, a system is observed and then an attempt is made to describe it mathematically. When describing one system it is often necessary to take into account the impact of other independent and interrelated systems. For example, when describing an agricultural system you would have to consider rainfall, temperature, disease, pest population. These impacts are often expressed in terms of probability. What is the probability that there will be a drought, or a plague of locust? In game terms, roll the dice and consult a chart. The models created using applied math are complicated not elegant. Some many variables must be considered that what results can appear random and chaotic. Many systems are unsolvable. AT games start with the theme (system) and then develop the formulas to describe it. What results is often complicated, random, chaotic and unsolvable.

In AT math describes the theme. In Euros the theme describes the math.

Julian said...

It's nice to see a refrence to the galaxies greatest comic here.

Even though Ameritrash is my favorite, I think that themeless games, and even ones with tacked on themes, have their place. I prefer narrative games, but there's nothing really wrong with puzzle games unless the puzzle is too easily solved (like a lot of Euros). Chess and Go have lasted because the puzzle is fiendishly complex, and even super computers can't solve them yet. The real problem is when their is a disconnect between the theme and the mechanics. That's just profoundly irritating.

About the "all games are just mathematical puzzles" crowd: I've noticed a couple of recent threads on the Geek on how people SHOULD play games. The same people who think that there is only one proper way to play a game (no vengeance, etc) seem to be the same ones who think that games are just mathematical puzzles. One of the reasons I enjoy Ameritrash so much is that for some of those games, half the game is the psychological game. Negotiation, intimidation, and alliances can't be reduced to mathematical equations. Of course, that psychological element helps build the narrative as well.

I think a lot of the hard core eurogamers don't get AT, because they can't see that the psychological game IS a legitimate part of the game. Most AT games embrace that, while Euro games usually attempt to reduce or eliminate it.

As to the Wizard of Oz syndrome, I think its obvious that what Anonymous is lacking is courage.

Dennis Ugolini said...

I was in the process of writing an article, because it is clearly inappropriate to point at lack of content if I don't try to contribute some of my own. Where should I send it?

Shellhead said...

Julian: About the "all games are just mathematical puzzles" crowd: I've noticed a couple of recent threads on the Geek on how people SHOULD play games. The same people who think that there is only one proper way to play a game (no vengeance, etc) seem to be the same ones who think that games are just mathematical puzzles. One of the reasons I enjoy Ameritrash so much is that for some of those games, half the game is the psychological game. Negotiation, intimidation, and alliances can't be reduced to mathematical equations. Of course, that psychological element helps build the narrative as well.

I've wasted some time today participating in that BGG thread about vindictive players. I'm giving up now, because I think that it's hopeless attempting to discuss the full range of human emotion with some humorless Borg wanna-be geeks. They don't get it, and they will never get it, because they are trying so hard to suppress their feelings and act smarter than they are.

Mr Skeletor said...

Dennis, send it to with [mailbag] in the header. If it's good enough I'll give it it's own section.

This is my new favorite article on here. Makes me want to pull my socks up and improve my writing enough to match it. Hopefully these thoughts will pass by lunchtime.

ubarose said...

Mr Skeletor said...

This is my new favorite article on here. Makes me want to pull my socks up and improve my writing enough to match it. Hopefully these thoughts will pass by lunchtime.

I agree. It is dense with ideas, and requires more than one read through to process them all. It is invocative rather than provocative, so I think you will need more than socks Mr, S.

TheRankO said...

Just make sure you keep it short for the riff-raff, Dennis. None of this 139-line, "Biblical-epic-length" nonsense to say "Gee, I like Ra."

Malloc said...

Yes, I think Steve Nailed it. Big Trouble In Little China is about as Ameritrash as a movie can get!

Like I told my last wife, I said, "I
never drive faster than I can see."

It's all in the reflexes.


Ken B. said...

Yeah, we AT'ers are wordy bastards. Just like our rulebooks.

Jack Hill said...

Ubarose: Quote correct, and extremely geeky. I'd always preferred games with inherent randomness, but which give you reasonable tools to "weather the storm".

You read the xkcd comic, right? In not, you really need to.

Regarding Big Trouble:
In a lot of ways, it is such an ode to the kind of deranged stuff coming out of Hong Kong. It is possibly my favorite movies, and I've been known to measure time in units of Big Trouble in Little China.

I'm not sure the movie is all that AT. But if we all like it, that's got to be a good thing.

Pat H said...

Here you guys go again gettin' all wordy on me. No matter what you say you can't match wits with my TV.

Seriously though the theme vs mechanic debate needs more discussion.

In wargaming you have essentially the same themes which are often repeatedly used and dressed in different mechanics. The theme however can be extracted from viewpoint - either man to man tactical to grand strategic. This can offer much room for mechanical and thematic difference.

Often in wargaming you will see the reverse in that the mechanic is re-used and dressed with a different theme (sticking to the war overall war theme but changing theatres-periods etc..). In this case however the difference is that wargamers will call this a "system" as opposed to a new game. You don't often here eurogamers refer to the "tile laying, building and trading" system but rather designers will attach some abstract theme du jour and call it a new game (they will paint and resize the cubes differently).

On the flipside AT games are often treated to just as poor design strategies when licensed themed games are rushed out to print without much thought to gameplay. How many Spiderman, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars/Trek or other movie licensed games really suck badly and suffer from ill conceived mechanics just to sell a hot theme? This doesn't mean that these overused and over hyped themes can't provide good material, quite the contrary but for Joe Blo who looks on a shelf for a game to play based on their interest in a popular theme there is the very real possibility that this person could wind up with the wrong game and be put off from ever buying one again. This can very well happen even though there is a much better game with the same theme designed by a proper publisher sitting on the same shelf.

Essentially good themes can and do quite often get cashed in on and abused for the sake of cash. While this sort of exploitation is not so common with the eurogame because the immediate return is not there, the marketing machines have found a different way to cash in on the euro craze by regurgitating the mechanics instead.

Michael Barnes said...

In a lot of ways, it is such an ode to the kind of deranged stuff coming out of Hong Kong.

More significantly, it's the kind of deranged stuff that _was_ coming out of HK in the mid-1980s...from what I understand, Carpenter saw ZU: WARRIORS OF THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN and CHINESE GHOST STORY and wanted to do the same thing for an American audience...gee, long before the Wachowski Brothers...

Dennis- glad you're contributing something seem like a good guy, you just gotta learn how to play on our turf. Looking forward to seeing what you have to say.

StephenAvery said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rliyen said...

Think about it in proper Eurogame terms:

1. Randomness is bad. Gets in the way of solving the game and winning.
2. The lack of theme doesn't matter.
3. Eurogames rarely have a shelf life beyond a few months. Once solved, everyone moves on to the next unsolved.
4. Player interaction is limited. Other players get in the way of solving the puzzle.

Therefore, the extremely Euro design is doomed to only a few plays.

Thank you, Jack Hill, for extrapolating further on the reasons why I dislike pure Euros. The closest one I may take a liking to is Dungeon Twister, but I don't believe that's a full blown Euro, but a hybrid.

Every time I see the words, "elegant", "deep", or "mechanism" describing how wonderful Euros are, makes me want to break out my copy of The Hunt and imagine the prey to be Euro players.

Then, again, the above words should be never used in describing a game to being with.

My word association with them:

Elegant = prom dress.

Deep = philosophy.

Mechanism = D&D trap.

Jason Lutes said...

EXCELLENT article, Mr. Barnes. And a much-appreciated distillation of the math/theme relationship, Ms. Ubarose. I would love to see more pieces investigating this subject, since it's the crux of my own interest in games.

Re: 139 lines, what I love is that Dennis took the time to count them.

Re: Big Trouble, a little know fact is that the script started out as Buckaroo Banzai vs. the World Crime League, one of the great unmade movies of our time.

Ken B. said...


...wait, wrong movie.

Michael Barnes said...

Big Trouble, a little know fact is that the script started out as Buckaroo Banzai vs. the World Crime League, one of the great unmade movies of our time.

Get outta here!

I never drew the connection even though I knew W.D. Richter did some script work on Lo Pan is almost certainly a distillation of the nefarious Hanoi Xan.

That's the 2nd reference to BUCKAROO BANZAI we've had on F:AT. We're hitting our stride.

Here's a great movie quote for you Franklin...from HOLY MOUNTAIN, no less-

"Your sacrifice completes my shrine of 1000 testicles".

Shellhead said...

Barnes: More significantly, it's the kind of deranged stuff that _was_ coming out of HK in the mid-1980s...from what I understand, Carpenter saw ZU: WARRIORS OF THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN and CHINESE GHOST STORY and wanted to do the same thing for an American audience...gee, long before the Wachowski Brothers...

I went through a major HK movie phase in the 90's, thanks to Shadowfist. Chinese Ghost Story was one of my favorites, but Zu seemed too random. I ended up trading it away to a friend who was really into Magic: the Gathering. He loved the way the spell-casters in Zu would shout out the name of whatever spell or technique they were using.

For those who haven't tried it, Shadowfist is the ultimate CCG for the AmeriTrash gamer. Lots of combat and gets really wild as a multi-player game. The basic theme is kung fu, but then there are a lot of other elements, including magic, cybernetics, futuristic biotech, shapeshifting animals, robots, ghosts, demons, monkeys, and lots of guns and explosives.

Anonymous said...

I'm surprised that someone who so obviously enjoys Jodorowsky and seems to understand that there is narrative in Holy Mountain can not only miss its symbolism so starkly and simultaneously invert it as a metaphor for games. One of the strongest aspects of Jodorowsky's work is the emphasis of process, much like Brecht, or Dada, or "eurogame". I'm not defending any "euro" or "ameri" significantly because I don't believe the delineation even really exists.

Ken B. said...

Are you saying Princes of Florence and Descent belong in the same boardgaming category?

Michael Barnes said...

Hey, Anonymous said some smart stuff this time...

I didn't miss the meaning, because at the end of the day as Humpty Dumpty says- "Words mean what I say they mean". That's something to bear in mind when you're watching Jodorowsky or any other other highly symbolic/metaphorical film.

The alchemical_process_ is definitely the point of HOLY MOUNTAIN, and the entire film represents and is in and of itself a process- it's impossible to argue otherwise. One of the points of my article is that game design is a process and that Eurogames and AT games exhibit apparently opposite procedures- not that AT games are not a process.

Of course, playing any game is ultimately a process- it doesn't matter if it's WIZ WAR or DIE MACHER.

Eurogames are defintely more about the act of participating in the structure of process, and my argument extends to the assumption that this approach rarely yields a meaning.

AT games, being heavily themed, are more likely to start with meaning and "drill down" to the structural level...thus embuing the entire process with a sense of meaning and purpose beyond form.

Michael Barnes said...

Oh yeah- to say that there is no line of demarcation between AT and Eurogames is the equivalent of saying that HOLY MOUNTAIN and YOU'VE GOT MAIL are the same genre of film.

Ken B. said...

Aren't they?

"There's no crying in BASEBALL!"

robartin said...


I knew I liked you Franklin. That's Remo Williams! Barnes can name drop his obscure art-house films, but I'll stick with quality Amermitrash style cinema where a guy learns to dodge bullets, run on water, and throw guys with diamond teeth through bulletproof glass walls.

"Mono sodo...mono-sido..."

"It's monosodium glutamate! You can't even say it!"

"I can say rat droppings. That does not mean I want to eat them."

Michael Barnes said...

Don't forget, it's actually titled REMO WILLIAMS: THE ADVENTURE BEGINS.

Was LEONARD PART 6 the sequel to that?

Ken B. said...

No, but GHOST DAD was the spin-off.

"Tell Bill I said to have a Coke and a smile and to shut the fuck up."

robartin said...

Don't forget, it's actually titled REMO WILLIAMS: THE ADVENTURE BEGINS.

Well the film is based on The Destroyer book series, which began publication in the early 70's and is still going, so I wouldn't say that the film's title was unreasonable.

It's a fun movie - the Statue of Liberty Scene is pretty iconic stuff. I haven't seen anything like it until the most recent Bond Film, whose opening chase sequence was

Michael Barnes said...

The opening of CASINO ROYALE was definitely impressive...the director and action coordinator DEFINITELY had to have seen ONG BAK. That whole running fight thing is going to become like the new car chase scene.

Which means of course, some guy is going to run into a fruit stand, probably an outdoor cafe, and likely a balloon vendor.

Jack Hill said...


Which version of Zu? Both have some pretty choppy editing in the fight scenes.

There was a more recent reworking which cut the traditional Three Kingdoms backdrop and Taoist wackiness and wrapped it in this godawful modern day framing crap.

To do it, they cut out a good 30 minutes of the real movie.

Sadly, the Tai Seng DVD is the crappy one. I've only got the original on VHS.

I also refuese to watch Casino Royale. The original Casino Royale is the only Bond movie I've ever really liked. I love the horrified stares from people who are Bond fans.

Jack Hill said...

Come to think of it, all of those psychedelic-influenced wacky huge cast comedies from the 60's and 70's.

It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad world, Casino Royale, The Magic Christian, Cannonball Run.

THOSE are AT movies. Bolt a whole bunch of things together and allow wackiness to ensue.

Shellhead said...


I didn't know there was a new version of Zu. Mine had to be the original release, because I bought it for $5 at an asian video store that went out of business in 1996.

robartin said...

I also refuese to watch Casino Royale. The original Casino Royale is the only Bond movie I've ever really liked. I love the horrified stares from people who are Bond fans.

Actually, I don't even like James Bond. I think most of the films are dull, mindless, overly commercial garbage. But this new one is different - it has a hard edge to it like The Limey or Get Carter. Bond is kind of an anti-hero in this latest film - a cold, calculated killer. It's good stuff.

Michael Barnes said...

There's two ZU movies- the old "classic" (?) ZU: WARRIORS OF THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN from 1982 and a newer one called ZU WARRIORS. I believe both are directed by Tsui Hark.

I thought ZU: WotMM was HORRIBLE, although it was one of the first HK films to get exposure here and a lot of folks love it.

CASINO ROYALE ain't that bad, ain't that great either. But Craig is a really cool actor, he's a good Bond, and there's some pretty neat scenes (like Bond's first kill, an awfully dirty little bathroom sink job).

I think John Carpenter more or less embodies everything we want out of an Official Filmmaker of the AT Movement...I just wish he'd return to making good movies like IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS or THE THING...

Michael Barnes said...

Whoa...GET CARTER...Michael Caine buck-ass naked with a shotgun...take that one to bed with you tonight...

Ken B. said...

"Do you read Sutter Kane?"

Jack Hill said...

Agreed about John Carpenter. I think the last decent thing he did was Vampires. But (looking at IMDB) he hasn't done anything in years really.

As to Zu. Both are directed by Tsui Hark. Zu Warriors is quite lame.

But there were two versions of Zu:WoTMM. If the version you saw had 30 minutes of modern day tedium in it, it was the revised and mangled version.

The original was really bizarre. Gods who attack with their eyebrows? A weird combat/foreplay scene involving jousting on telekinetically moving stone elephants?

Admittedly, Bride with White Hair did that sort of looniness far better, but Zu was earlier. Tsui Hark always got a little too caught up in the slow romantic plots, and there are draggy bits.

Michael Barnes said...

BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR is probably my favorite Wuxia movie. Too bad Ronny Yu went on to nonsense like BRIDE OF CHUCKY and WARRIORS OF VIRTUE.

If you want pure lunacy, check out EAGLE SHOOTING's almost as surreal as these Jodorowsky pictures.

alan polak said...

I heard a dirty rumour that Carpenter is set to do Escape from New York 3. Now while the first one is pure AT all the way, and responsible for the genius that is Richard Halliwell's Chainsaw Warrior, the second one was a bit shit. As for Bond, yeah Casino was cool. Give it a go. Better than I expected it to be

Shellhead said...

I enjoyed The Bride with White Hair, but I don't usually like the wuxia movies. Once people start flying around with floppy swords, my interest level fades a bit. That said, I did love Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

My favorite HK movies are usually more about the shooting and the HTH. especially The Killer and The Hitman. Oh, and also The Heroic Trio and both of the Fong Sai Yuk movies featuring Jet Li. And um, what was that big budget one with Sonny Chiba... Storm Riders!

Ken B. said...

Since we're discussing Asian cinema, have you guys seen Fulltime Killer? I was really surprised by how much I enjoyed that film. Great action sequences, but more importantly they were able to play the "bad" assassin as being likeable, to the point where I was almost rooting for him. It's too easy to play these characters too broadly, and they don't make that mistake here.

I'm not sure I like how it ended, but it was a fun ride.

John said...

Man, that was a beautiful post. Barnes' metaphor of the gold theme distilled down to the lead mechanics, and then turned back to gold by the playing of it is brilliant.

Then, however, he calls a commenter a "dick" for the venial sin of making a snotty remark. Seemed overly harsh. Guess that's why Barnes was banished.

But so much the worse for BGG. I mean, how ridiculous to exile your best contributor just because his elbows are sharp.

For me, BGG lost most of its appeal when it silenced Barnes. I'm thrilled that F:AT started up at the time. It's now my go-to site for gamey goodness.

Muzza said...

I gotta add my two-thumbs-up for Casino Royale. I'd resisted it for ages due to the last several Bond efforts. Eventually got talked into watching it by 'The Trouble'. The best thing to happen to Bond films in decades.

As for Asian cinema, nobody has mentioned 'What's Up, Tiger Lily?'....

... OK so maybe it doesn't quite qualify.

simon said...

My favourite Asian movie is Old Boy.

Christopher Moore said...

Brilliant writing Michael. It really does appear that the best writers from BGG are now here at FA. Furthermore, the sense of humor displayed by the contributors here is on a much higher level (even including the "gay jokes" and foul-mouthed rants).
I truly love the BGG, but if I have to wade through another collage of meeple photos and hear everyone praise it as the apotheosis of humor, I think I'm going to weep.

adrianbolt said...

What can I say Michael? Superb! Thanks for bringing back memories of Block Mania (both it and Mega Mania are in the cupboard behind me and you've got me yearning for a game now). Add Big Trouble in Little China (wonderful fun!) and Asian movies in the same blog - it doesn't get much better than this.

I don't know how the US Zu compares but the UK version is titled Zu Warriors from the magic mountain and is 94 minutes. If I remember rightly you could choose to view it with or without the framing modern crap scenes.

And I love Once Upon a Time in China and Chinese Ghost Story; I wish CGS 3 would hurry up coming out as a Region 2 DVD. And Chinese Erotic Ghost Story of course! I'd also recommend Iron Monkey and Bichunmoo.

Shellhead said...

Did Stallone know that they named a block after him when he accepted the part of Judge Dredd?

Michael Barnes said...

Funny enough, the game predates the film by like 10 years...the blocks are all named for different people. There's also a Millhouse Nixon block in the game.

Judge Dredd lived in Rowdy Yates block, named after Clint Eastwood's character on Rawhide. When he contracted Block Mania, he said the great line-

"I'm with Rowdy Yates block- who are you gunning with?"

Rliyen said...

"I'm with Rowdy Yates block- who are you gunning with?"

Then, the Med Judge nailed Dredd with the antidote after his proclamation. It would have been interesting to see what damage a Judge could inflict during a Block War.

My favorite scene was when Dredd's maid came in looking for a weapon to fight, Walter the Robot then forcibly restrains her for her own good. Then, when the antidote is released in gas form, he thinks it's poison and puts a Judge's helmet with its respirator on her to protect her.

All the Citizens revert to normal, except Dredd's maid.

Tom Hazlett (Southernman) said...

That's it ! - I'm gonna have ta pull out my 2000AD graphic novel collection now and do some serious reminiscing (before my 8yr old gets his paws onto them) ... Blockmania, Apocalypse Wars, ABC Warriors, Nemisis, Rogue Trooper, Slaine .... and then pull my copies of Block/Megamania out and force someone to war with me.

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