Friday, 29 June 2007

The Weekly AT Snapshot - 6/29/2007

This is the story of 42 Meeples caught up in a war they didn't understand, and The Builder and Pimpin' Count who must lead them in their struggle to survive.

Their tale will end in tragedy as they are crushed under the boot heels of Ameritrash, but for now...this is their story.

Today's photo was brought to us by Mike "Monkeyman" Chapel, once again proving his awesome Photoshoppin' skills. Thanks, Michael!


Calling all photoshoppers and imagehounds! The Weekly AT Snapshot wants YOUR images! You send the picture, we add the back-story!

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, 28 June 2007

Putting My Money Where My Mouth Is

OK, so in my last rant here I made the case for getting the word out to the kids and promoting board gaming to a video game-oriented culture. So I'm going to do exactly that.

I'm going to be writing a weekly column at Yes, as in "Nintendo cheat codes" Gameshark, and yes, the site is owned by Mad Catz who also makes many fine console gaming peripherals.

So here it is, a place where I can not only promote board gaming to exactly the kind of demographic I was advocating, but it's also an opportunity to steer new gamers to the Truth, Light, and Salvation that Ameritrash gaming has to offer. And of course, I'll also be directing them to the better Eurogames as well.

There'll be a new column up every Thursday- bear in mind the focus on the column is to get new gamers so don't expect much "hardcore" gamer lingo or our usual raft of in-jokes. I'm writing these with the newbie in mind so maybe we can round up some new hobbyists.

The column's called "Cracked LCD" and they even did up some fancy artwork for it...I'm pretty sure you can find it on the front page.

That's all...go click on it a bunch so I'll look good!

Wednesday, 27 June 2007

Interviews with Ameri-Titans, Volume 2: Roberto Di Meglio and Francesco Nepitello

For many of us, Roberto Di Meglio and Francesco Nepitello probably need no introduction--they're two of the three designers for Nexus' and Fantasy Flight's massively popular War of the Ring, a game unabashedly old school in its complexity as well as featuring some of the most drop-dead gorgeous components imaginable, rivaling and surpassing the Gamemaster line of the 80s that all of our young eyes glazed over in our youth.

War of the Ring has been a massive success, and currently stands ranked at #14 on It was one of the first games I picked up after getting back into the hobby in early 2005, and I was thrilled that Roberto and Francesco agreed to do an interview for us.

So, without further ado...


F:AT: First off, thank you Roberto and Francesco for agreeing to do the interview. As is our standard, could you each give us some info on your gaming backgrounds?

Since I was a kid, I had a knack for crafting un-necessary complex rules to play with toy soldiers together with my elder brother, Ugo. So we were in for being easily converted when, after the usual fare of Risk and Monopoly, we were introduced by a friend to our first wargame, AH's "Cesar's Legions", back in 1979 (I was 13 then).

More AH's and SPI's titles followed, then our gaming group was stormed by the arrival of D&D in Italy. Over the year, I mantained my taste for games which are strongly themed and simulation-oriented. Getting older and dumber, I can't manage the monster rulebooks I could when I was young, so I am now drifting towards simpler games, and unavoidably euro/family games - I also have two kids, 9 and 6, to play with!

My gaming background is pretty similar to Roberto's. I also started as many others by playing with my elder brother, Giuliano, who was in charge of running every game we did together, and who compiled notebooks with detailed rules for everything, from toy soldier games to games using lego, and so on (thinking about it, I shall try to dig up those
notebooks, sooner or later...).

With such an approach to games, it was completely natural for us to get involved in simulation games when we first spotted them. So, our parent's house still has shelves full of AH, SPI, GDW and similar brand's titles. Eventually, we got in touch with role-playing games, about when I started to cement my friendship with my current designing partner, Marco Maggi. I think that the love for simulation and rpgs has left a strong interest in blending rules and theme strongly together.

F:AT: How did you come into the world of game design?

From a professional point of view, I started writing "Crom!", one of the earliest gaming fanzines in Italy, in 1987.

I soon "graduated" to founding the first widely circulated gaming magazine in Italy, "Kaos", in 1991. In 1993, Nexus Editrice was founded, initially most to publish our magazine (which we bought from the original publisher) and role-playing games. Working on the magazines, I started creating some small games which were published with the magazine, but I was too deeply involved in being the publisher to properly develop an activity as a designer in the proper sense. Until I got involved with "War of the Ring"...

After a very brief attempt to write (for cinema and novels), me and Marco decided that we could try to apply our love for games to create something. It was probably in the late eighties that the interest in D&D fortuitously put us in touch with Leo Colovini and the studio soon to be known as 'Venice Connection'.

This way, we spent a few years learning about Euro games by masters like Alex Randolph and Dario De Toffoli, discovering a new world made of elegant and concise mechanics. Together with Leo Colovini and Dario De Toffoli we finally debuted in '93 with our first title, 'Lex Arcana', a fantasy rpg set in a fictional Roman Empire that learned to use magic...

F:AT: In a time where many European designers were striving towards cleaner and more simplistic rulesets, you guys obviously came at theme and complex mechanisms with gusto. Was this due to a love for more complex gaming, or a feeling that the games you were working on deserved it? Sort of a "chicken or the egg" type question.

First of all, I approach game design trying to create games which I'd personally like to play. For me, theme and rules must go together, and sometime a little bit of additional complexity may be necessary to recreate the proper atmosphere. I like simple games, but I think you can only go so far in creating a game which is very simple AND thematic.

So the point is trying to get the right balance, without being scared of one rule too much. On top of that, we got to work on licenses, such as Lord of the Rings and Marvel, which had seen lot of simple, "cut-and-paste your mechanic here", games. We wanted to create games which could provide a good experience to fans of these settings, not another mass-market product or euro-style mildly-flavored product.

In general, we start to design a game because we are attracted by a theme, or subject, and we try to portray it in the game as faithfully as possible. If this is compatible with simplicity, the better, but if it's not...

F:AT: In 2004, War of the Ring took the gaming world by storm, becoming a smash success and a favorite of a lot of gamers. How did you guys become involved with that project?

Well, the story has been told a few times. For years, we were just waiting someone to publish a game like War of the Ring, to play it. What was around at the time was not exactly to our taste! Then we waited, and waited, and it did not appear.

So we started thinking how it should be, drafting some rules, and before we knew it, we were designing it. Halfway through, we realized that after all we WERE a games publisher, why don't
try to get the license? And we did, and found out that several other companies were exactly at the same time trying to get the same license...

And in the end the licensee (Sophisticated Games, which holds the master license for LotR board games) decided that our project was the best one.

I remember a trip to Nurnberg when Roberto was showing me and Marco a very first draft of the map for the game, to discuss the set-up of forces. We were very tired, for driving late in the evening, but Roberto was relentless (as he usually is), so we ended up laying the map on a bed
and talked into the night. What is funny that me and Marco were doing it mostly simply to keep Roberto happy, as we were certain that he was delusional in thinking that we could really get the license!

F:AT: It's obvious by your attention to detail that either you're huge Tolkien fans or did a lot of research in the development of the game. Did you have a complexity level in mind when designing it, or did the evolution of the game itself come more naturally?

I think both statements are true for me - I am a huge Tolkien fan (even if I forfeited the History of Middle Earth halfway through the first volume!) but we also did a lot of research and re-read many things.

We can say that the game "evolved" to its current complexity level during the early design stages, then remained more or less stable after that. Initially it was simpler, but gradually we realized that certain things could not be simplified too much or we would lose "realism".

A small example is the "Stop in a Shadow Stronghold rule" when the Fellowship is revealed. This rule is a small additional rule which at one point we added to the design because it was just not right that you could get through Moria without caring too much...

I think that the complexity level of War of the Ring was mostly set by the subject from the very beginning. We knew what we, as fans, would have liked to find opening that box, and we didn't spare ourselves. When we disclosed the design to playtesters, the general consensus told us that we were right, so we only needed to make everything work together.

Sometimes this meant to add new rules, sometimes we were able to simplify, but only when we felt that the 'unity of effect' we sought was being lost in the minutiae.

F:AT: One of the most intriguing mechanisms in the game is the action dice system. How early did this concept enter into the main game?

Since the very beginning. We wanted to limit the choice of players' actions just like many other modern strategy games do, and wanted an original mechanic to create this limitation. The funny thing is that initially I thought of using this system, then I immediately realized that Francesco and Marco were already using an action-dice mechanic in another game we published a few years before: X-Bugs! (X-Bugs is going to be released in a new and improved format this year, under the name originally used in France, "Micro Mutants". )

It's one of the many things we immediately agreed upon, as it was exactly what we were looking for.

F:AT: One thing that was shocking to me was opening that box for the first time and seeing such a lavish production, especially for a game that retailed for $60. What was the secret in getting all those bits in there at a relatively affordable cost?

Two answers: I am very bad in trying to make a profit from our games, and we had a very large initial print run!

Roberto said it best...

F:AT: One of the criticisms of the game was a perceived lack of balance between the sides; this of course makes sense given the story of Tolkien's novels. Did you intentionally set out to portray this imbalance? How did you feel about those criticisms of the game?

A certain level of imbalance was deliberate. The Free Peoples player must suffer and struggle to win, that's just as it should be. And I am still not convinced that the game is imbalanced as some people think...

But I always play to have fun, while clearly some people are really obsessed with finding the "perfect strategy"... Still, apparently they must have fun if they continue to play despite how
imbalanced the game is, isn't it?

In the end, I think that minimal changes may be done by players with house rules if they find that they have a little more imbalance than they are comfortable with. I don't see War of the Ring as a tournament game, but I think that the choice of sides with a bid on corruption is perfectly ok as a balancing system for tournaments, without changing any rules.

The game is asymmetrical, as the conflict in the stories was portrayed as such. Then, when we were balancing the game, making changes that alternately favored the Shadow or the Free People, we felt that we could afford a slight imbalance in favor of the Shadow, as it makes
sense, storywise, while an edge in favor for the Free People would have been less accepted. So, when we found the right mix, we froze it, hoping that the larger number of games played would not uncover weaknesses in the design (something you do for every game you design - you can't
playtest forever). As Roberto said, I think the jury is still out regarding balance, so we don't think the game needs any fixing.

F:AT: The expansion Battles of the Third Age was equally well-received; I had my first chance to try it several weeks ago and was really impressed with how the tweaks to the main game really enhanced it. How did the development of this expansion come about? Did you guys have the idea for the more detailed battle games, and took the opportunity to tweak the base game a bit?

When we first created "War of the Ring", we did not deliberately left anything out for the expansion... So when we decided that doing an expansion was a good idea, given the success of the game, adding a separate game looked like a good idea to make sure that the expansion was interesting. And of course we very much looked forward to re-telling the epic battles for Rohan and Gondor in a game format.

In the end, there was a LOT of work in adding the new "Twilight of the Third Age" rules, and probably they were interesting enough to be an expansion on their own. So, once again... I think that there is enough in Battles of Third Age that other companies would have done 3 products out of it!

With the expansion we had the time to play with new stuff, without the production limits imposed by the basic box (very few, but of course there were limits). So, we could add things we thought could be interesting and fun. Additional miniatures are always fun, and the new
characters and units add simply something more to what we already had. \

I look at the basic game plus expansion as the 'extended edition' of the game. It is a product aimed to the basic game enthusiast, something that you can do without, but that is very fun to add. Moreover, I like very much the operational games, and I look forward expanding that game system to other battles.

F:AT: Marvel Heroes had the unenviable task of being the follow-up to War of the Ring.
How did you guys become involved with the development of that? Are you guys comic fans?

Personally, I took a back seat in this project because I am not a big fan of superhero stories. I've read a few, seen all the movies... But my personal collections of Marvel comics are all non-superhero stories, like Conan and Punisher!

It was very funny how we got the license, because the meeting with Bruno Maglione, at the time president of Marvel International in London, at the Nuremberg Toy fair, really happened at the right moment, and was completely by chance. But when the president of Marvel says, "Well,
you should really do something in this style (pointing at the War of the Ring prototype) for our characters" - you can't really say "I am not interested"!

I have been a comic fan for all my life, switching my interest from character to character, from genre to genre. Currently for example I am a very big Mike Mignola fan, and I really would like to make a good horror Hellboy game, or a horror game featuring Mike Mignola's art (I have a
prototype with his art for a card game in my closet...). So, when Roberto presented us the chance to do a Marvel game, we jumped at the opportunity.

F:AT: Was it your goal to "pull back" from the action in the game, as opposed to a street-level skirmish game? In keeping with the shorter playing time, what sort of abstractions became necessary?

I leave Francesco alone in answering this one!

We wanted to stay away from everything that was already been done about Marvel, so the first choice was to forget the tactical aspect. At the same time, we thought that what interested us in comics was not the fighting aspect, but the storytelling.

So, we thought it was better to take a step back, to look at how the stories came together, composed as mosaics by several fighting scenes and events. The 'bigger scale' enforced many abstractions, like for example tactical movement, and the interaction between large numbers of characters (allies in the game).

F:AT: I think the game is quite fun and captures the spirit of an ongoing comic series very well in a game that plays in 2 hours or less. Are there plans to expand on the game with new teams, villains, and scenarios?

We've lot of ideas, and have the rough plan for the first two expansions. But until we get proper approval from Marvel on these new products, I can't really say anything!

F:AT: Your next release appears to be Age of Conan, a game that many of us are anticipating, but details have been precious and few. Can you give us any Fortress: Ameritrash "exclusive" details about what to expect from that?

We are now getting closer and closer to opening the "beta" testing, so I think we can tell something.

Age of Conan will be a game for 2 to 5 players, with players taking control of a major power of the Hyborian Age: Aquilonia, Nemedia, Turan, Stygia, Hyperborea. As a ruler, you will have two main type of units under your control: armies, which you use to crush your enemy, and emissaries, which you use to create alliances and treaties, or to wrestle the alliances of your opponents.

The game is set between the youth of Conan and the time he becomes king, so this is not really a time for an all-out war, world-conquest style. The nations of Hyboria have their own "agenda" for becoming a stronger power, but none of them is set to conquer the other nations. This is reflected by a dual system, where you can either develop your power through military conquest - but this is of course a bloody and costly effort - or using more subtle and treacherous ways.

We are using many elements of War of the Ring as "building blocks", so people who are familiar with War of the Ring will catch up with Age of Conan fairly easily, but all mechanics have been
re-visited with many original twists.

With Age of Conan, we are trying to blend the adventures of Conan and the political and military efforts of the kingdoms of the Hyborian Age, as we were able to reproduce the progress of the Fellowship and the military events of the Lord of the Rings on the same level in War of the
You guide your kingdom's rise to power, as Conan forges his myth across the Hyborian kingdoms. From time to time the two paths cross, as Conan fights in your armies, or raids your subjects. You generally try to benefit from his intervention, but the barbarian is dangerous as a
double-edged sword...

F:AT: What other sorts of games do you guys see yourselves working on in the future? Do you see yourselves wanting to create even more involved designs, or perhaps try lighter fare?

I think that - in the Nexus' catalog of games - War of the Ring will probably remain our most complex game, even if as a company we are working on a project which is quite close in complexity, which is our Battles of Napoleon game system (it's worth noticing that my brother Ugo is involved, so may be all that time spent inventing rules to play with toy figures was not wasted after all...).
Battles of Napoleon will also be close to the heart of Ameritrash fans: big box, lot of figures, good
gameplay, strong coherence with the theme. It is definitely more simulation-oriented than the Commands & Colors system. I think a closer comparison - in style and level of complexity, not in game play - maybe Tide of Iron.

We envision Battles of Napoleon as a series of games, just like we did with Wings of War. Every game will be a stand-alone product but all of them will complement each other. This is a formula which I like lot and I am really surprised it has not been widely copied yet!

Wings of War is also evolving as a miniature game and is absorbing a lot of our energy...

We are also working on lighter projects, however: I designed a game which I took maybe two hours to invent and has one page of rules, which may be played by a 4-years old and which will be our first family games product.
It will also be released by our friends FFG in the USA, which incidentally also did their first family game this year, Penguin... It's called "Rattle Jungle" but I think that in the USA it will be
called "Rattle Snakes" instead. I don't know if I will ever do another game in this style, but it has been a nice change from the year-long agony which is the design of our "big" games.

Next year (2008) Nexus will also start - very carefully! - to do a few more mainstream Euro games... We have to start to compete to win the Spiel des Jahres, you know! Hopefully, however, even here we will try to add some originality to the category.

And then there's Micro Mutants of course...

I like to think that the complexity level of my designs will be always forced upon the game by its theme. And generally, I am attracted by complex stories...

But sometimes it happens that we fall in love with some clever mechanic, as in the case with Micro Mutants, that is basically a dexterity game (think about tiddlywinks with special powered creatures). So, I cannot fairly predict our future design directions.

F:AT: Again, I can't thank you guys enough for doing the interview; you've got a lot of fans on Fortress: Ameritrash, myself included. We're looking forward to more of your
games, keep them coming!

Roberto and Francesco:
Thank you for welcoming us Italians in the Ameritrash category! We
will try to deserve to be here!

(All images used in this article are courtesy of

Tuesday, 26 June 2007

ZOOBILEE ZOO Board Game Wins Spiel Des Jahres!

Looks like we have another "family game" taking home the prize for this year's SDJ! Cue the "Price is Right" loser music for all those "gamer's games" like PILLARS OF THE EARTH and ARKADIA...once again SDJ demonstrates how firmly its finger is on the pulse of gaming.

Congratulations lion guy and pig lady!

Monday, 25 June 2007

"...And we don't care about the young folks..."

A couple of weeks back, some of you might have seen the news that Wizards of the Coast is soon to launch a new hobby gaming site with a much broader scope in terms of inclusiveness- RPGs, CCGs and video games are not the pariahs they seem to be on other sites- and a more pronounced emphasis on MySpace-style social networking. It’s called, which is a pretty terrible name from a linguistic perspective but it is a direct reference to a MAGIC: THE GATHERING in-joke. I took at look at the site, which isn’t nearly fully functional yet, and what I saw was a modern site not unlike most video game sites and other web destinations geared toward teenagers and young adults. Of course, it wasn’t long before members of the online board gaming community lined up to take shots at how “juvenile” it looked, how confusing the layout was, and how it hurt their eyes to look at it. Oh, my aching bunions. Never have I seen a bunch of fucking cranks whine like that outside of a front-porch bitching session at the nursing home. God forbid someone court younger gamers and get someone other than more 45 year old man-children into the hobby.

But that’s just part of a series of events and circumstances that made me realize something about board gaming I had been thinking about yet I hadn’t really pinpointed a position on. Enter a recent discussion I read regarding one of the larger gaming conventions in the US. Apparently there’s some kind of age limit to get into thing, just like a bar or a strip club- yet I doubt very seriously there’s any shortage of childrens’ games being played at any given moment during the proceedings. That just doesn’t make any sense to exclude children and young people given the impetus on game “evangelization” and the supposed sense of community that allegedly exists out there in the gaming world. Of course, the comments I read were full of the usual “I don’t want a bunch of whippersnappers running around while I’m trying to figure out the optimal move in my AGE OF STEAM game” statements while several parents made entirely reasonable cases for the right to bring their families to the event. Then, with recent events involving Mr. Skeletor’s banning from The Leading Board Game Site I witnessed any number of detractors turn in the usual “grow up”/ “go back to high school”/ “teenage boys” slanders in various attempts to discredit Mr. Skeletor and the other excellent writers we have here at Fortress: Ameritrash. If there’s anything board gaming needs righ tnow it’s mischief, a youthful sense of irreverence, and a general overturning of the stagnation and mediocrity that has infested everything from game design to forum posts. Add to all this the realization I came to at a recent gaming event here in Atlanta where I was shocked that I was the youngest person in attendence at 31 years old. I’ve come to understand that board gaming is populated chiefly by a bunch of tired-ass, worn down, crusty old bastards who’d just as soon never see a kid get into the hobby just to keep any sense of youthfulness or genuinely childlike enthusiasm from tampering with this supposed atmosphere of “sophistication” and “elegance” that board gamers are expected to promote. Up your enema, oldster.

Now, I’m not one of those Chicken Little types that’s predicting that the hobby game industry is somehow going to collapse and disappear, but I will say that younger gamers are becoming very scarce despite the best efforts of Spielfriek parents to indoctrinate their kids with Haba games and the occasional attempt at HEY THAT’S MY FISH. I see less and less kids interested in hobby gaming with every passing year and when I recall being 13 years old myself and meeting with other friends around that age to run a role playing game or play AXIS AND ALLIES I can’t help but think that eventually a generation will come around where all “traditional” hobby gaming is transferred to electronic formats. The writing is on the wall- young people that used to get into gaming through DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS are now getting into it through MMORPGs and the kids that would have dug board games are whiling away their gaming childhood with RTS games and Xbox Live. Not that there’s anything wrong with video games at all, I’ve been playing them since the Atari 2600- but it’s very clear that the board and hobby gaming demographic has crept up over the years and it’s very unfortunate that most publishers and designers seem either completely unaware of that fact or just don’t care to court younger, teenage to young adult audiences. These are the gamers and consumers of the future, and if they aren’t cultivated then our already very marginal hobby will be even more marginalized in future generations.

I think that this is one of the places where the phoenix-like rebirth of Ameritrash games and the attendant evolution of hybrid games incorporating the virtues of European design stand to make the biggest difference on the hobby both now and in the future. The themes of most Eurogames are of little to no appeal to kids who are growing up with HALO and other video games that generally feature very conflict-heavy, some would say “violent” themes and images and although there’s definitely a large number of PC games and strategy titles that feature civilization building, civic planning, and the like it’s clear that the big, blockbuster games that most young people are interested are generally very immediate, action-oriented, and feature fantasy or escapist themes of some description. If we look at games like AGE OF STEAM (the classic cranky old man game), PUERTO RICO, and even SETTLERS it isn’t hard to see how the thematic appeal of these games skews older- even in their graphic presentation, which favors muted colors and a distinctly “old fashioned” atmosphere. But compare that to any given Fantasy Flight title- bright colors, modern typography, best-in-business genre artwork, and “blockbuster” production values. It’s not hard to imagine that an 18 year old looking to spend their first paycheck would be much more likely to pick up ARKHAM HORROR than NOTRE DAME.

At my store, I did have a number of younger clients but of course the big draw for them was collectible card games- but I did have an alarming number of kids who would spend their parents’ disposable income with reckless abandon on Games Workshop products. Some of the kids tried out and kind of enjoyed some of the simpler board games but I never saw an under-20 spending a single dollar on a board game purchase of any description. They’d come in and spend $100 or more on the latest VERSUS or MAGIC: THE GATHERING set but not a dime on any of the supposed “gateway” games or even the more youth-friendly AT titles for that matter. Why? Because CCGs and other collectible games are made accessible and appealing to them. They’re marketed directly toward a younger audience with more modern methods that are youthful and for lack of a better term, much hipper than anything I’ve ever seen a board game publisher pull off. The result, of course, is that CCGs and other collectible games routinely outsell board games and recent sales figures in the industry even show that CCGs are doing better now than they have in years. On the other hand, board games are made accessible and appealing primarily to the sort of men who used to (or still do, for that matter) spend inordinate amounts of time building model railroads or building ships-in-a-bottle.

So the usual trope is that video games are killing the business. It’s true that the RPG sector has taken nothing short of a life-threatening beating over the past couple of years but other product sectors are showing growth. The whole argument that I’ve heard game store owners grouse over about video games is pretty much the same thing as hearing Ratt and Winger lament over how Nirvana ended their careers- it’s not that somehow this new music (which wasn’t even really anything new) somehow lured people away from the hair bands, it’s that the new music was more youthful and in tune with the culture and zeitgeist of young people of the time. In short- it was more relevant. Board games, and hobby games in general, have to remain relevant and timely with someone other than middle-aged men if they’re going to survive in a long term situation. As it stands now, I feel that there’s a lot of disregard, disdain, and just plain hostility going on in the board gaming community regarding anything that appears youthful or vigorous. I look at message boards and see these anti-youth comments and all I see is bitter old men who use board gaming as a way to escape the responsibilities and demands of their families, including their own children.

So I say let the old men run off to play with other old men avoiding having to interact with their wives. Let the geriatric geezers have their “21 and up”game conventions so they can engage themselves on the deepest possible level over choo-choo train games and LOOPIN’ LOUIE. The kids are always welcome at my table, in my store, and at my convention. And if they can’t grasp TWILIGHT IMPERIUM yet then we can at least get them started on NEXUS OPS and if that fails the basic rules of HEROSCAPE should be on their level. It’s great that Gleemax is gunning for a younger audience and it really shows that Wizards of the Coast, unlike a company such as Rio Grande Games, understands that younger audiences are where the long-term future of the hobby lies and that it is absolutely critical that they be courted and their gaming lives be nourished if the hobby is to stay out of the old folks home, where it will inevitably expire in relative obscurity, lying in a puddle of its own urine while bellowing “wood for sheep” or calling for the Governor.

Friday, 22 June 2007

What about Randomness?

So I got to play a quick four player game of Twilight Imperium on Wednesday, we have a great game and it was nice to see that I can get thing done on weeknight. So after the game I was cleaning up (this is the real downside of Twilight Imperium IMHO) and one of the other gamers makes a comment along the lines that the dice wreck that game. Now everyone is entitled to thier opinion, but this struck me as insane. Combat is such a small part of actually winning that game that the small amount of randomness involved hardly has any bearing on the winner.

That being said I wanted to take a look at randomness in games and get into a little deeper an essential element in re-playability that has at times gotten a bad name.

Randomness, while not as high up on the list as other no no's of "Modern Games Design" as say Player Elimination, does at times take a fair amount of beating. And certainly Randomness can be used poorly in games, yet with out it we have no games. Even in games with seemingly no random elements your opponents and the choices they make during game, are in essence a random element. They may be predictable, and to some people that a good thing, but they are not certain. Good games give players a large number of viable plays, this keeps you guessing, lesser quality games tend to have a number of choices, but with one that stands out as the most advantageous to the player. The former is the way I feel about games like Age of Steam (even if i find it boring), the latter is how I feel about Goa.

This really is about the level of tolerance for randomness in most hard core Euro Gamers. Folks who love perfect information and having a map of game play from the start and only needing to make minor course corrections as the game progresses.

As an aside Diplomacy is a good example of a non Euro game where this type of randomness is used exclusively. The moves the other powers make IS the game here. You have a chance to influence this, and thats a game in and of itself, but the gameboard tension is based on what options the other players are going to select.

On the other end of the spectrum is something like a classic roll and move. Monopoly comes to mind. Randomness here is king, you are going to move a random number of spaces and the have to deal with the consequences when you get there. Most folks who read this blog will probably agree that this is too little control over game play. That the dice rolls determine the winner. I personally an not so sure that last statement is 100% true in monopoly, there certainly is some politics and bullying that can go on with trading properties, but for arguments sake lets call it 70% true and agree that Monopoly is not going to be our most played game of 2007.

Another game that gets put down for randomness is Risk. This is where most folks are dead wrong. Risk uses randomness to determine the outcome of combat, but the odds are clear and the sheer volume of dice rolls ensures that the odds play out over the course of the game. Risk certainly has some other flaws, but being random is not one of them. In fact this type of almost predictable combat works very well, and it is the aspect of risk most often stolen by newer games for that very reason. A simple engine for arriving at a predictable, but not certain outcome. Something that pure war gamers and conflict sim. fans out there live by.

So that brings me back to Twilight Imperium, and why I personally feel it is a great game. This is because it applies just enough randomness to make combat somewhat predictable but not certain, and then makes combat itself one of many options for limiting the actions of your opponents. I have yet to see a game of TI3 come down to a single space battle, in fact, players that focus too much on the conflict tend to do very poorly, but not because the dice were against them, but due to the fact that the VP system in this game is based on making stead progress each turn, and building up and setting up for conflict eats up too much time for you to get the needed objectives complete.

So remember don't blame the dice, blame the jackass that was tossing them.


The Weekly AT Snapshot - 6/22/2007

Mr. Skeletor---BANNED~!!

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, Fortress: Ameritrash's own Mr. Skeletor has earned himself a nice 30-day BGG suspension, specifically for changing his avatar to the one above.

Discussion time, such imagery worthy of such a harsh response? Remember, we have avatars of exploding heads, drive-by shotgun blasts, and more...

Then again, they're not posted by one of AT's most outspoken advocates, so...

This week's snapshot was submitted of course by F:AT's own Mr. Skeletor. At the very least, this should put to rest rumors of a "special" relationship between He-Man and Skeletor, "Brokeback Greyskull" style.


Calling all photoshoppers and imagehounds! The Weekly AT Snapshot wants YOUR images! You send the picture, we add the back-story!

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.

Tuesday, 19 June 2007

Ameritrashin' Heritage: The Risk/Talisman Connection

Not too long ago I heard the opinion espoused that all AT games essentially boiled down to one of two games (or a combination thereof): Risk and Talisman. This was intended as a derogatory statement, as though to say, "Your little AT games are mired in the same ol' same ol' and lacking the innovation seen in the most recent Eurogames."

I naturally wanted to initially refute that argument. Talisman is a game that is nearly 25 years old; Risk is double that in age and is one of THE whipping boys for "Bad" game examples. Think about the Risk comments you may have read over the years...they generally aren't pretty.

(My take on Risk, by the way, is that it is an important game that has been obsoleted entirely by its offspring. But that's probably neither here nor there).

But then that leads you to think about your favorite games to use as an example. Axis and Allies? Uh...yeah, you can see the Risk heritage in there. Runebound? Much more elaborate, but Talisman is clearly its inspiration. Blood Feud in New York? Risk. Descent? That was inspired by Heroquest but there are those who argue that Heroquest itself is a progeny of Talisman.

It's as though once Gygax's ideas were lifted and put in a compartmentalized game form, any evolution that took place after that point is irrelevant. You're a board game with a fantasy theme. Wham--you are Talisman Jr., thanks for playing, good night.

(This of course carries the stigma of being compared to Talisman in the minds of nostalgic gamers, and seemingly no amount of improvement in gameplay during that time could *possibly* equal the great Talisman. So know your place, Runebound).

And don't get me started on Quest for the Dragonlords...

Two Roads Diverged

It's the age old battle, of course...which do you value more? Theme, or gameplay? Never mind the fact that many games provide both, on the ideological battlefield all games boil down to a see-saw battle of theme vs. gameplay.

There's no denying that German games have seen great strides in the innovation of game mechanics. I clearly remember playing Settlers for the first time and just having this alien feeling as though I was taking part in something I couldn't quite grasp and was altogether new.

At that point, innovation becomes the thing...never mind the fact that the Eurogames market has also fallen into a seeming pattern of stagnation ("It's Puerto Rico meets Caylus meets Settlers!") and worse, simplification (the SdJ winners since the turn of the century have grown more and more distressingly simple-minded). It's just that since American-style games have had a long lineage, they fell into stagnation "earlier", and thus such opinions were formed.


That's not to say that these accusations are without merit. Who of us hasn't sat down to an Ameritrash game and been told, "It's Heroquest meets sci-fi" and instantly been able to expect what's coming? Who hasn't seen a billion games with a map of the world or area and plastic troops on it arrayed by area, in which some dice will be thrown and these piles diminished or increased?

Sure, AT publishers can be guilty of pumping up production to make up for a seeming lack of innovation. Heroscape is a brilliant game, but not intensely innovative in terms of gameplay--it uses the hit dice system of Heroquest, the hex movement rules of countless miniatures games before it, and cribs a bit from the world of CCGs with wild and fantastic themes and powers. Heroscape grabbed attention precisely because it presented this package in a beautiful and relatively affordable package.

Is that a bad thing? Personally, I don't think so. It's a nice combination of simple rules and attractive production that works for me...and of course, during games of this you get your Ameritrash moments such as an army of mechs facing down an Orc riding a dinosaur and William Wallace (let's face it, that's who that guy is) and his clan going to town on some Samurai.

Whither Innovation?

That leads me to two thoughts on the subject of innovation. First, if we assume that theme-minded gamers are more concerned with themes that appeal to them, the need for innovation is diminished. If I want a sci-fi themed game, it's the theme itself that I'm after--the rules merely need to be adequate (and sometimes, familiarity is a bonus). I look at the map and see my plastic armies--if you fill me in on the combat, we're ready to go inside of ten minutes. To that degree the rules don't inhibit your ability to be immersed in theme.

Secondly, if we take the assumption that our games are generally inspired by Risk and Talisman--that we are constrained to play games with armies clashing and fantasy or sci-fi themes--what this does is allow the Ameritrash style of game to come full circle.

Think about it; currently a lot of Euros are caught in the spiral of Action Points/Auctions/Tile Placement and by extension trying to slap themes on these that will appeal to gamers or seem different in a sense. "Yes, this has auctions, but this time you're bidding for the rights to build sewers!" The limitless themes of the Euro in which many different themes can be grafted onto the same basic mechanics may keep Eurogames in a stagnant state as themes are chased and innovation diminishes. I've seen few Euros released over the past few years that weren't described as "Euro X meets Euro Y with a splash of Euro Z".

The Theme's the Thing?

What has happened, though, is that Ameritrash games have already been through that valley of stagnation. Due to the nature of Ameritrash fans, the list of "acceptable" genres and themes are pretty well defined. And thanks to the Euro explosion that did bring with it tons upon tons of innovative game concepts and ideas, we're seeing AT games cleaned up and borrowing from these innovations to make them better games. Even better than this, we're seeing more AT games from publishers overseas, such as the upcoming Tannhauser (bringing it's Hellboy-inspired theme with it, but with a different take on a miniatures skirmish).

Not to mention the influx of hybrids, rapidly becoming the grail of game design. Appealing themes that fit the mechanics with medium complexity, decent rule sets, and enticing to both crowds?

Maybe AT games, having benefited greatly from the innovations that Euros initially brought with them, can now give back in return their Risk- and Talisman-induced marriage of theme and mechanics. Maybe AT can finally be comfortable in its own skin, accepting of an understood limitation in theme, and we can watch as game designers continue to crawl under the hood and fine-tune the Ameritrash machine.

Now pass me those dice--my little plastic warrior is about to smash that plastic dragon.

Monday, 18 June 2007

Playing Games to Make Music to Play Games to

The gaming community has always been associated with Heavy Metal. I can recally an edition of White Dwarf back in the nineties which included a plastic disc of a particularly execrable death metal track by a band called Bolt Thrower. If you look at the boardgamegeek music microbages there's a predominance of metal and rock fan badges. I don't know why it should be so, but it is.

I used to be a bit of a metalhead, a long long time ago, but my musical tastes have broadened significantly since then. While metal can be fun and is good for many things I'm not entirely sure it's much good for playing games to - it's loud, demanding and energetic and tends toward the theatrical instead of the genuinely atmospheric. Sadly for me, the guy who hosts most of our game nights has a nice line in sixties psychedelia and I've spent more game nights listening to the likes of Bob Dylan, Cat Stevens and Pink Floyd than I care to remember. Great artists all, but it's music that needs to be sat and listened to rather than played in the background.

So, having been rebuked on last weeks' column for becoming far too speculative and serious, I thought I'd devote this slot to looking at a few musical styles that I favour as backdrops to Ameritrash gaming nights.


Semi-autos roar in the building hall
Symptoms of bloodsport, the slugs are still in wall

I used to really hate Rap music until I discovered one day that, like most musical styles, the stuff that gets the most airplay on the TV and the radio are usually the most useless examples of any given genre. I still think a lot of Rap albums are full of filler material but the stuff that stands out is so good that they're worth a spin in any case.

What really surprises me about Rap is that it's pretty much the only kind of music that I find can really generate a latent feeling of threat. Metal tries but it's just pantomime violence - it's so over the top that it's hard to take it seriously. Rap artists on the other hand tend to sound not only like they mean it, but that they've done it before and seen the consequences and the lyrical threat is intensified by the stripped down, sparse nature of the backing music. The past-masters of this are the Wu-Tang Clan who have an ability to sound deadly serious once you've got past the enourmous drag factor the rather comical name. My opening quote on this sector is from a track called Let my Niggas Live from the album The W, is possible the most dense, strangling track I've ever heard in my life. Another track from the same album Careful (Click, Click) manages the same feat. The Wu debut album, 39 Chambers features a number of between-track skits including one where clan members sit around discussing aspects of torture in an off-hand fashion. Next time you have a horror-themed game night, put together a collection of tracks like this for the background instead of the metal and see if it freaks you out as much as it does me.

The natural match up for Rap music in terms of game style though is, of course, gangster games like Blood Feud in New York. For these sorts of games there's plenty of rappers who don't take themselves terribly seriously who can help set the mood. Try something by Cypress Hill for instance with their nice line in cartoon violence which occasionally veers over into genuinely scary stuff, with the shock coming from the sudden contrast. Or, particularly for Blood Feud, check out the Fun Lovin' Criminals and their brand of smug, often highly comical rapping.

A final heads up here is that a number of rap artists have an abiding obsession with Kung-Fu films and the more overt efforts in this genre are great for backing up games with an eastern flavour. Probably my favourite rap album ever belongs in this category - the fantastic Liquid Swords by Wu-Tang member GZA. It contains no filler whatsoever and is packed to the brim with great rapping and memorable kung-fu samples. So good it might even enliven Samurai to the point where it's bearable to play.


Now they have taken out his heart and stuck it on a spear
They took it to the house of Mar and gave it to his dear

Read that quote again - it's from Sir James the Rose by Steeleye Span - and tell me how it's not 100% Ameritrash? It's got medieval weapons, violence and taunting of the vanquished all packaged neatly in one rhyming couplet. There's vast archives of European folk music that are just like this - filled with history, fighting and supernatural themes. It's just the ticket for fantasy game nights.

For fantasy lovers, it's the overt inclusion of ghosts, monsters, goblins and such that really sells it. The fact that the music was largely written by people who still believed that such things were real lends it a particularly effective edge. There's ever flavour of fantasy you could want here. For a more grisly atmosphere how about the ghostly, ghastly Famous Flower of Serving Men or the murderous protagonist of Long Lankin. Elves (and not the sort of elves Tolkien wrote about) get a number of mentions in songs like Seven Hundred Elves and Thomas the Rhymer. If want more hideous monsters try out the horrible haunt in King Henryor the vile witch Alison Gross.

I also wonder why folk music isn't more popular amongst wargamers given it's strong link to historical material in which battles feature strongly. There are evocative accounts of a huge number of battles from the bloody affair that was the Battle of Harlaw in 1411 all the way up to songs from the First and Second World Wars.


Electronic music covers a very broad variety of musical forms, many of which are far too high energy or far too low energy to use as theme music for a game night. However, the lack of lyrics (hence no quote to begin this section) means it makes great background music and the modernist nature of making it means it's eminently suitable to accompany sci-fi games.

I can remember hearing a compilation album called Trance Europe Express which was just taylor made for this kind of experience. A glance at some of the track names - Black Hole, Gravity Pull, The Colour of the Sun - will confirm this. It's a hard album to track down now, but well worth the effort. Another compilation to check out in the same vein is Earthjuice with the 1984-inspired Soma Holiday and the spaced out Universal Message.

Some artists working in this field have released concept albums with a powerful sci-fi theme. Although it's rather on the ambient side, Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld by The Orb is a great example - it makes a great partner with Twilight Imperium since the game is engaging enough to keep you awake through the music and the album (a double) is long enough to accompany the games' vast play time. Check out Earth (Gaia) on disc 1, with its Flash Gordon sample for a particularly evocative effort.


I hope that's given you a few ideas for music for your next game night. I'll end with a bonus question - kudos to anyone who can identify the album title that inspired the title for this post - a great album by one of my favourite artists.

Wednesday, 13 June 2007

Interviews with Ameri-Titans, Volume 1: Rob Daviau

Rob Daviau (along with Craig Van Ness) of Hasbro has designed several games that, despite their mass-market heritage have become instant classics--many of them featured right here on Fortress: Ameritrash such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Heroscape, Star Wars: The Queen's Gambit, Risk: 2210, and many others. Rob graciously agreed to give an interview for Fortress: Ameritrash, to find out what makes the mind of an AT-oriented game designer tick.

Thanks for agreeing to do the interview, Rob--you've got a lot of fans on Fortress: Ameritrash, myself included. First of all, can you give us some background of your gaming history?

I was always a gamer but primarily a role-playing gamer. I discovered D&D while at camp back in 1981 and was hooked. I was 11 at the time so it was a nice segue between my kid days of gaming into my teen days of gaming. After that it was always and off and on affair with games (again, usually rpgs) up through my late 20s when I got this job.

How did you come to work for Hasbro, one of the biggest gaming companies in the world?

A little bit of "right place, right time" and a little bit of being the right person for the job. Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers had just been merged into one location and there were some openings. One was for a designer with a writing background, which was me. I had been an advertising copywriter for 5 years, had written some rpg articles, but also had a board game design aptitude. I was originally hired to work primarily on the adult game line (Taboo, Trivial Pursuit, etc.), games that had a lot of copywriting to them.

Who are some of your favorite game designers? What games are you playing now?

I'm always reluctant to name designers as I don't want to offend anyone I accidentally leave out.

I like a variety of Eurodesigners, roleplaying designers, and Ameritrash designers. I find that Eurogames tend to impress me in a "why couldn't I think of something that elegant" sort of way but Ameritrash games move me in a "wow, that was a rush" sort of way. My head is Eurogamer and my heart is Ameritrash.

In the past month I've played... Crokinole, Pitchcar, Bonkers, Game of Thrones, Ursuppe, El Grande, History of the World, a variety of standard card games, some games I'm working on here, Heroscape (testing new scenarios), Guitar Hero II, Candy Land (with my 3 year-old son), and Carcassonne. Probably more but that's all that comes to mind.

Star Wars: The Queen's Gambit, published under the Avalon Hill brand in 2000, is absolutely one of my all-time favorite games; it really captures its theme very well, better than many, many other games. Can you give us some insight on what was involved in the development of that game?

This was primarily Craig's game. I was around for some playtesting and I think I came up with the Jedi splitting their attack dice idea but it was almost entirely Craig's. I get flattered yet embarrassed that this gets attributed to me as I love this game but had so little to do with it. Oh wait, I came up with the name (I think my favorite name I've come up with for a game.)

You were also involved in the development of both Star Wars Risk games,and both are easily among the best of the Risk variants. I especially like the thematic elements that were grafted on to the system and more importantly, the much cleaner and shorter playing time. Can you talk about what went on during the development of those games, and your goals for each?

Sure. This is where my rpg background comes in handy. I always like games that tell a story, where, the next day it almost sounds as if you are recounting a movie or a tv show or a book.

That's why I like Ameritrash games; they tell a story. So the goal was to tell a story, a Star Wars story. A "what if" Star Wars story. There were a lot of questions at the start as to which trilogy was going to come out first (or if they were going to be one giant game) so we sort of worked on them at the same time, going back and forth. The first thing to establish was whether it was going to be about land battles with a space battle accent or about space battles with a land battle accent. Since it is easier to understand owning planets rather than owning a section of space, we went with the former.

At that point there were several rounds of trying to figure out how ships worked. At first they were abstract things that just came in for one invasion or one battle but it was hard to understand, not very powerful, and just not worth the card spend. Eventually we went to the physical representation of the ships and that started to make sense.At this point we focused on the Clone Wars version for release with the film.

Given the timeline it was easier to balance the game to always have four armies (plus it was a new thing for Risk). This game was being designed in the year before Revenge of the Sith came out. At this time, movies can change quite a bit so having four armies in play gave us the easiest route to rebalance things if we had to make a change because the movie changed. It was a tremendous relief to see the final movie and realize that what we had put into the game really matched what was on-screen. (That is one small reason why The Queen's Gambit works so well - it came out a year after the movie so it could match the feel shot by shot.)

The hardest thing to wrestle with was Order 66. We went through a lot of iterations on that before settling on the final version.

What are some of the challenges involved in working with licensed properties?

As I said above, you are sometimes working on a game at the same time the movie is being shot so there is a little guesswork in determining what the final movie will be. But, for the most part, games are abstractions that high the key points of a movie or TV show and those key points usually don't change much during development.Personally I like working with licenses as it lets me know the narrative tone and theme that I should be hitting.

Many of the games you've been involved in designing have featured what I like to call "asymmetry"--whether it's variable player powers, or starting positions, or something similar. How much more challenging is it to design these games with an eye on balance than one where all players start out equally? Do you feel that asymmetry increases replayability?

I think that asymmetry increases narrative. If everyone is playing a slightly different role or has slightly different powers or has slightly different goals then a story more naturally develops as you have character, motive, enemies, etc. It probably is more of a balancing issue but its just the way I approach things.Again, my goal is to create little stories/movies that are driven by players and their goal to win.

That is why I love, love, love reading Betrayal at House on the Hill game sessions on bgg. Most of those are little short stories that are only vaguely related to the gameplay. I think that Betrayal at House on the Hill is my favorite creative project that I've ever worked on. It came from the inventor, lived with me for about two years, and then went on to WotC.

I didn't realize you worked on Betrayal! When you talk about games that are "dripping with theme", Betrayal at House on the Hill is as 'dripping' as it gets. Can you tell me about your involvement with that?

House on the Hill continues to be the single-most satisfying creative project that I've ever been part of. I worked on it, in various ways, for almost two years and loved every minute of it.A lot of the mechanics of the game are know I feel odd claiming anything about that game because I was so impressed (and still am impressed) with Bruce Glassco's original vision.

It's a game that has to be played by the right people -- if you are too competitive you'll get frustrated with the inevitable rules/rooms/haunt holes that will arise. The game went to WotC just as I was about to get into some major playtesting. I wasn't surprised that the haunt books had be published twice; it is just too much to test and get right the first time.

My favorite thing that I put in (except I think there was a typo in the final game on these cards or they weren't written as I first had them or something...) were the two event cards where you give and receive an item through a mirror. They were two different versions of the same event. In one, you lose an item card back to the deck as you pass it through the mirror. In the other, you can an item card from the deck as you get it from the mirror.

I don't remember if that's how the final cards worked.I knew that, in most games, one or the other card will show up, but not both. And if it is both, it is likely to be different players. And if it is the same player, it is highly unlikely the cards will come out in the order that I wanted (lose an item, then gain an item). And even if that worked, it is highly unlikely that the same item card will be returned to the deck and drawn again.


I knew that there could be one game, somewhere, somehow, that a person loses an item to the mirror. Then, later in the game, just when they need that item, it get returned to them by their past self. And if that moment happened, the players would never, ever forget that gaming moment. Ever.

Both you and Craig did some great designs under the Avalon Hill brand, and I think that the line suffered once you guys were no longer involved with it. Was there ever talk of your working again on any of the newer AH titles?

Avalon Hill went to WotC back in 2002 (I think) so its been a while since we've worked on it. WotC is on the other side of the country and have dozens of talented designers. I mean, when you have Richard Garfield designing your games, you're in good hands.

Can you give us some tidbits about some upcoming projects from you? What's the "next big thing" from Hasbro?

I can't talk much about what I'm working on but let's see if I can talk in a general sense. I've been working with some of our big family brands and seeing what can be done with them. I did Clue DVD last year (and Trivial Pursuit for Kids DVD) and our Monopoly Tropical Tycoon DVD game will launch later this year (or maybe in 2008). Not all of this work will involve DVDs but I'm playing around with some classics, which is both daunting in some ways and rewarding in others.

Rob, thank you for your time. Both you and Craig have brought American-style gamers a lot of great games to enjoy over the past decade, and we look forward to more!

Look forward to making more.

Tuesday, 12 June 2007

The Beast Within

The recent article by Ken Bradford, A View of Villany touched a personal nerve with me and really got me thinking. Not about the great villains that have been presented in AT games over the years but more about why the role of a villain in a game is such an appealing one. Because let's face it - by a certain standard virtually every game role available in a good AT title is a villain to some extent. With occasional, notable exceptions such as Arkham Horror the genre virtually demands that players betray, maim, pillage and slaughter their opponents whatever dubious moral justification is offered for one side being the "good guys".

I can't remember exactly when I became interested in genuine military history as opposed to make-believe battles in RPGs and miniatures games, but it must have been before the first Gulf War when I would've been around 17. I can recall sitting with some friends watching the news and discussing in some detail the weapons deployed against each other and the likely (and predictable) outcome of pitting T-72s against Challenger tanks and Apache Helicopters. Before that I can also remember creating and playing historical Vietname War scenarios in Overrun! with a friend on his C64. This interest continues to this day - I have vague Grognard tendencies in my choice of games and I'd probably play a few more wargames if I didn't have a bent toward multiplayer games, or could find anyone to play them against, or didn't find most of them of a level of complexity better suited to computer simulation.

On the other hand I can remember when I first took against the horror of war and violence. It was while studying the poetry of Wilfred Owen at school, aged about 15. I took against the apparently pointless and unnecessary violence embodied by the First World War, and indeed most other wars, to the point where I became a sworn pacifist and really quite an annoyingly self-righteous hippy wanker.

I've since recovered from that extreme position and recognised that violence is sometimes necessary and on very rare occasions, legitimate. However much of my adult life I've struggled with the apparent contradiction of being against war but fascinated by militarism and military history. I found some sort of reconciliation after reading the excellent book Dispatches, a journalistic memoir of Vietnam from which I took the message that warfare is at once terrible and yet glamorous. And it seems to me that until we can recognise this, and perhaps find something to replace combat in the collective psyche, war will continue to dominate the world, like it or not.

But as usual, I have digressed to some extent. You see, I love being really nasty to other people in games - it's one of the prime reasons I pick AT games out as being favourites. I absolutely delight in games where you can pretend to co-operate with someone and then pull out and stab them in the back. I get an immense thrill out of games where you can make plays which suddenly and unexpectedly put your opponents position back by several turns. I have a fantastic time rolling the dice and grandiosely sweeping enemy figures off the board. Destruction is fun. Betrayal is good. Wholesale slaughter is awesome.

But only in games.

This is stuff I'd never, ever do to people in real life. I'm a nice guy, basically, who likes to please people and shies away from genuine conflict. I'm absolutely convinced that the reason I enjoy being such a bastard to people when I play games is because it allows me to express the less pleasant side of my personality - and let's face it, we've all got one (with the possible exception of Mr Skeletor who might not have a pleasant side to contrast it with) - in a way that doesn't really hurt anyone else. For me, this is the catharsis that's replaced the glamour of conflict in my system and allowed me to behave like a sensible, civilised human being most of the time.

I can't help but wonder whether deep down, this isn't part of the appeal for other AT gamers and Grognards too. It would undoubtedly help explain why playing the villain is such an attractive role - the more dastardly you get to be in the game, the greater exorcism of your own darker feelings you get in return. Which brings us on to Eurogamers and the oft-commented tendency amongst that crowd for passive-aggressive behaviour. Could it be that this is because pushing little coloured wooden cubes around a table doesn't help much in letting off steam? So some of them, who perhaps haven't found other constructive or harmless ways of dealing with those sorts of feelings, decide to get it off their chests by adopting the passive-aggressive stance when challenged?

I just realised this article has gone way beyond a focus on games. Ah well, I've started so I'll finish.

So here's another idea to chew over. As anyone who's played a particularly intense and vicious game of Diplomacy will know, deciding to be really nasty to other people in board games isn't always a safe option. Handled badly it can really, really upset your fellow gamers and lead to the sorts of situations which make board flipping incidents look trivial. To be comfortable playing games which absolutely require you to be really horrible to each other you need to be playing with a certain set of people - people with whom you have a good enough understanding that everyone knows it's just a game, but people that you're not so close to that real-life issues can be dragged into the equation. In other words you don't want to play these games with strangers, vague acquaintances or family - you want to be playing them with good friends. That's my preferred gaming environment. I can't speak for my fellow AT fanboys but I do pick up the idea that Eurogamers have a greater tendency to game at clubs or with family members. Maybe if they tried playing games with a crowd where everyone knew each other well enough not to be bad loosers, whatever happened, they wouldn't have such an issue with player elimination and other elements of ultra-competitive games.

Monday, 11 June 2007

Mr Skeletor’s Mailbag, 11th June

It’s late again and I have an elastic band around my head, slowly cutting off the circulation to my brain. So lets get straight in:

Mike “arselicker” Dowd writes:

The AT revolution seems to be one of dice and badasses. The contributors seem predominantly male and badass. My question is – Do chicks fall into the equation as far as the ultimate AT gamenight is concerned? Should chainmail bikini’s optional or required?

Your loyal henchman,

Mike Dowd

Loyal Henchman? Is that you Beastman?

Females don’t fall in anywhere when it comes to game nights I’m afraid. F:AT’s own Ubarose is supposedly a chick, but I have never seen her boobs to confirm and so remain skeptical. I sometimes suspect Franklincob is a chick, but he is more likely one of those Tai transvestite hookers with a redneck accent. Barnes certainly bitches like a chick, but I don’t think that counts. Thadd Orclover from FFG is a chick, but she is paid to like them so doesn’t count. I’m struggling to think of any other AT chicks on this or any other planet and am coming up with zilch.

No, I’m afraid Beastman Mike that chicks as part of the equation of the ultimate AT gamenight = 0, Unless you all pitch in and hire some hookers or something. Chicks just don’t seem to dig AT, it could be because it tends to be as sexist and misogynistic as an El Roth movie, or because women have shitty taste in games, but the truth is most likely because it tends to be played by middle-aged childish nerds, and despite what 80’s teen comedies claim, no chicks want to shag nerds.

Emmanuel “Amen” Denis writes:

Dear Mr. Skeletor,

Next Friday I will host the first boardgame session at
my church (and hopefully many more will follow), with
my churchgoing fellows. Now the problem is that nobody
in the church knows any of the games we all like on
fortress ameritrash. What kind of games should I bring
to this gaming party?

Please let me know your input.



Tsk, tsk, did you confess to your local priest that you read this blog? You know each Mr Skeletor article you read is worth 2 Hail Mary’s penance!

I’m struggling to think of any good AT games for a church group to be honest. AT tends to be complex, long and themes which may be inappropriate for church, so it’s a tough one. Nexus Ops is perhaps the best one I can think of with the least offensive theme. Roborally is a good choice. Heroscape could be OK except that it is a pain to cart around and punk kids will nick the bits. Conquest of the Empire might be a good choice, though people may object to the war theme. You could put a case forward for Fury of Dracula, after all the players are working for God trying to exorcise a great evil, but it depends on how “Churchie” the Church group is and if they will buy it. Reiner’s Lord of the Rings is a good choice but not really AT. Warrior Knights might be passable were it not for the fact people may find Corrupting the Church offensive. Marvel Heroes is non offensive but a shocker to teach.

To be honest I think you may be best off teaching them Eurogames. Yes I too can’t believe I just said that.

If you have any mail for this section, address it to with “[mailbag]” in the header.

Friday, 8 June 2007

Battlelore: Under the Havoc Staff

If there is one thing that Days of Wonder annihilate their peers in, it’s marketing. They may only have a few releases a year but by God, if those releases don’t sound like the greatest gifts to gaming ever I don’t know what does. Battlelore currently stands as their greatest example of the hype machine – despite simply being the 4th ‘redevelopment’ of the very popular Command and Colors system, it promised to be everything from a mass combat war game system to a role playing game to a miniatures game to a naked lesbian orgy. It’s the current reigning champ of AT games based on Board Game Geek ratings, but does it hold up?


The game is pricey, but you do get a lot of stuff in the box. The first thing that hits you is what at first appears to be the amazing plastic inserts. Everything has its own special place for storage, and it makes for a lovely display piece, except that most of the minis get squashed into a little compartment which badly warps them. It’s fucking ridiculous – some guy obviously spent a lot of time and money designing this thing, did 90% of it and then just seemed to say “Ahh fuck it!” and crammed the remaining stuff in a little section, rendering the whole thing useless. Now normally I couldn’t give a shit about inserts – most are either very cheap looking or generic, and so I toss them out without a second thought. In this case however the insert seems to have had so much work put into it that it feels like part of the game’s cost went into it, so when I throw these useless things out it feels like I’m wasting money. Still, it does sound rather anal to be spending such a long paragraph ranting about an insert, but as you will see the design of things being 90% "there" and then not finished properly is a reoccurring motif for this game.

The minis are cute but nothing special. The humans look a little bit squat and ugly, but you’re not paying Games Workshop prices and you get a ton of them so you can’t complain. One of the most exciting things about the game for me initially was that the game came with flags which told you what side the miniature was on – this meant that the miniatures could be used for either side, so you could have one scenario where all the humans were on one side, and then swap the flags on some of them for the next scenario so that both teams could have humans. Sounded great in theory, but in practice I have yet to see it used – none of the provided scenarios ‘swap’ miniatures between sides, and you get so many of each type that it feels like both sides get more than enough anyway. I would have rather they dropped this aspect and provided the miniatures in 2 sets of colors (one for each side) to make the board more lively, currently everything is a drab grey. Apart from these complaints the miniatures are fine.

The cards are lovely with nice artwork, the dice are wonderfully wooden (I prefer wood dice to plastic) and the counters and overlays feel solid. Everything comes pre-punched to cater for the laziest of asses out there.

Finally we get to the “massive” 80 page rulebook, which the game seems to wear on it’s sleeve with great pride. It’s really a case of a sheep in wolfs clothing though – 80 pages makes the game seem deep complex and involved but it’s mostly padding, you could condense the rulebook into 8 pages easily. This approach is a double edged sword – on the one hand the rulebook looks great, and goes into such minute detail that even the biggest drongo who has not played anything more complex then hungry hungry hippos should be able to comprehend the game. On the other hand experienced game players (like moi) will find themselves having to inject caffeine straight into their veins to keep themselves awake while reading the tedious and terribly obvious descriptions and examples, especially in the first half of the book. The book also over explains some rules to the point where it gets confusing, (much like this review!) – “bold” is a good example, it’s a simple rule that gets explained in so many different ways that it ends up sounding a lot more complicated than it really is. Sometimes less is more.


The game has a medium setup time, mainly due to placing the miniatures out, 4 per unit. The fact all of the miniatures are grey doesn’t help matters at all. Normally this amount of setup time isn’t a problem, except that the game is fairly short (1 hour max) so you feel the setup time more than you normally would.


The game centres on the 100 year war, but gives it a fantasy twist, having different nationalities instead be different fantasy races, and introducing magic and giant creatures. Interestingly it’s not quite fantasy fair, but rather is presented in a more fairytale or “disneyish” way with very colorful cutesy-poo artwork. Unlike most typical fantasy games things like blood, darkness and death is unseen and indeed wouldn’t fit, the violence being very cartoony. It seems to be more heavily inspired by Shrek than Lord of the Rings, which gives the setting a very unique flavor and suits the game really well. Graphic design wise the game is spectacular and beautifully presented.

Basic Gameplay

I assume most people by now have played the Command and Colours system (CCS) in one of its forms, it’s a rather simple and surprisingly popular system that even has old grumpy grognards fawning all over it in its CC:Ancients form. In case you are from mars and have never played a CCS game, the basics are you play cards to move your troops in different sections of the board then roll a number of dice depending on the color of the unit, trying to roll the color of the target to score hits. It’s very quick and clean and works well for boardgames – but the problem here is that battlelore is trying to push it into more of a open system, and I’m not convinced CCS is robust enough to handle it, as I’ll get to later.

The basic game doesn’t change much of the CCS formula, like CC:Ancients this version differs from Memoir ’44 in that it emphasizes movement and formations over terrain advantage, which makes the game feel more deep and tactical. However as terrain is less important, this also has the effect of making each scenario feel similar to the last one, so while the game feels more involved then memoir it doesn’t take long for each game to begin to feel samey. As in all other CCS games the luck factor is very heavy – while I’m not one to complain about luck, it does get tiring when every element of the game involves luck in some form. On the flip side this does make the game excellent to play with newbies, as they have a good chance of winning based on luck alone.

Victory is achieved by killing of a certain number of your opponents units depending on the scenario. Like Memoir, the scenario balance is up the shit, with one side often having an obvious advantage over the other. It is recommended that people play a game then swap sides and play again; tallying their total victory medals, but this has always come across as a cop out to me. There seems to me to be no reason why the designers don’t simply adjust the number of kills each side needs to win to reflect the scenarios imbalance apart from sheer laziness.

The other curiosity for me is why the designers dumbed down the dice system from Memoir ’44. Memoir ’44 dice system allowed different odds to hit different things – squads had a 50% chance of being hit, tanks were more difficult, and artillery were hardest of all to hit having only a 1 in 6 chance. It made each of these unit types feel quite different. Here however no matter what you attack – be it a heavily armored red unit or paper armored green until - you have the exact same chance to score a hit against it, and the designers basically spend three die faces to do what could have been easily achieved with one. Some may argue this is a big non issue, but to me those two wasted die faces could have been used to bring a bit more flexibility into the system, which is something Battlelore sorely needs as its going to be its biggest hurdle.

You see Battlelore in my opinion works as a very solid if unspectacular boardgame, but it is far to rigid to be this amazing system Days of Wonder are claiming it will become. It’s not the simplicity of the game that’s the problem, after all Heroscape is a very simple system that has an incredible variety of troops that feel and play different, it’s that too many of the systems variables are fixed – the color of a unit dictate the amount of dice it rolls, unit movement is fixed based on color and if it’s mounted or on foot, there is no characteristic to make a unit harder or easier to hit, and so on – basically it seems the designers have not left themselves enough room within the game mechanics to bring forth the amount of variety and big ideas the advertising and hype machine is claiming, but maybe I’m being too skeptical. Lets take a look at the ‘advanced’ features of Battlelore and see what they bring to the table.


The game comes with a sampling of two races: dwarves and goblins. Dwarves are always Bold (a state of morale) and goblins are always frightened (another state of morale) and get a rush attack which is useless to their green units. That’s it.

Upon reading this, one thing sprang immediately to mind: Big fucking deal!

Say what you want about Warhammer and it’s sludgy, over complex, archaic and way overpriced system, but at least in that when you play a dwarven army it feels like your playing a dwarven army, which in turn plays and feels very different to a goblin army. These dwarves are simply bold humans. Apart from being a really poor design choice, as keeping units in bold is one of the main challenges of the game, and dwarves negate that making them boringly straightforward, it really shows a lack of imagination and scope. These races don’t present a new way to play, they are just fiddling around the edges of the mechanics as an excuse to sell the game as more than it really is, and demonstrate firsthand why I am so skeptical of this system becoming as great as it claims it will be.

The irony is getting the different races to play differently would have been quite easy – just copy what Combat Commander and a host of other different wargames do and give each race it’s own specific command card deck. The dwarven deck could have had less movement on their cards (as dwarves are slow) but some defensive bonuses or other such cards. The goblin deck could have allowed goblins to move en mass, making up for their weakness in combat, thus making them a swarming army. There was a lot that could have been done, but instead the main movement mechanic remained unchanged (despite the fact that we have seen it 3 times before!) and the designers simply slapped some minor rules on.

Because of this, and the way the victory conditions work with each side needing the exact same number of kills to win, as it stands I can’t see there ever being a fair dwarves vs goblins army fight. The dwarves would simply steamroll the goblins even if the goblins were given twice the numbers – after all each army would still only be able to move the same number of units per turn, as dictated by their cards. I simply cannot believe how disappointing these races are, and I sure hope DoW have something big up their sleeve because this shit just don’t cut it.


Now this is more like it. Creatures are special figures that are each unique and have their own special powers. They remind me a lot of heroscape really, and the beauty of them is that they each play differently from the others and feel a lot more thematic and less mechanical than the races do, especially the earth elemental, which is quite a clever unit. This is more along the lines of how the races should have been treated and as they stand are the strongest aspect of the game. They aren’t perfect however, and I have two main criticisms:

Firstly, the rules have a number of holes when it comes to creatures, even forgetting to tell you how to recruit them at start up! Quite unforgivable considering the 80 page rulebook.

Secondly, killing creatures is too much of a crapshoot, involving 2 sets of rolls to kill them. This means that a lucky roll will knock off a creature on turn one, while other games will have the creature run rampant with the player unable to land a blow. Creatures really should have been given lifepoints, to allow the attacker to wear them down gradually and give the owner more control over their fate.

Apart from these issues creatures are a lot of fun, and I wish I could have more than one per side.

War Council and Lore

This is the big selling point of the game, and its bit of a mixed bag. At the start of the game each player gets to pick different characters (who can each be from 1 to 3 levels of strength) to make up his war council. One character slot can be a creature as explained above, and another can be a commander, who will increase your hand of command cards to allow you more flexibility in issuing orders to your troops. The other four characters give you access to spells / special abilities in the form of lore cards, which you can cast during the game. It’s a great idea, but it didn’t seem to get followed through properly so doesn’t work as well as it should (remember the 90% there analogy I brought up with the insert?)

For starters instead of each player getting their own deck, they share a common one built up of the character types chosen by each player. This means that even if you chose a wizard, you may not get any wizard spells in your hand all game! Worse, your opponent might get them, which he can freely cast himself (though at a small penalty if he doesn’t have the proper character.) This means that forward planning with the lore deck is almost impossible, as you cannot know what cards you will get during the game.

The other problem is that not all war council characters are created equal, with some being clearly better than others. It doesn’t make much sense to take a level 3 warrior for example, who only has 1 card that is effected by his level. On the other hand a level 3 priest is a natural choice if you want to win. As it stands the war council choices could have been balanced a bit better. The same applies to the Lore cards themselves - each card has a ‘lore’ cost, which is a currency used for casting spells, but again I’m not convinced the lore costs are all that well balanced. The popular example are the cleric cards “Hills Rumble” and “Forrest Frenzy”, which at 7 lore each are clearly better than say the theif’s “Sneak Attack” despite that costing 9.

Another disappointment is that the 4 different lore decks (wizard, priest, warrior and thief) play a little too similar to my liking. In fact lots of cards appear in multiple decks just under a different name. It kills the flavor for me and demonstrates yet again just how limited the system currently is.

Overall it is an interesting aspect of the game but the heavy level of randomness it employs and the overall lack of strategic planing they allow simply ends up making the whole game too luck based, and by this stage you feel as though the game is playing you rather then you controlling it.


Battlelore is the McDonalds of AT games; looks good in the adds, is convenient and does the job when you want something quick. But it doesn’t taste all that great, isn’t very fulfilling and as yet doesn’t live up to the promises it makes.

As it stands I’m disappointed - the game is too simple, too heavily influenced by luck and I feel the system is too inflexible to match its claims, but with the expansions on the near horizon we will soon be able to tell if my hunch is right. I have the first expansion "Call to Arms" on my desk and am about to bust the shrink as soon as I hit "send", wish me luck!

Recommended for those who:

Are new to AT games and don’t want to deal in anything heavier.

Only play games that go for no more than an hour.

Like to jump on bandwagons early (get in before there are too many expansions to catch up on!)

Not Recommended for those who:

Are looking for a bit of weight and depth.

Are looking for a good system with which to invest heavily in – this is no where near as robust as a miniatures game.

Are an experienced AT gamer with lots of games already (there probably isn’t enough here to keep you interested.)

Overall it’s not bad game and good for the ocasional play, but not all that great either. Doesn't deserve it's current hype or praise in my opinion, but I'll refrain from overall recommending it or dismissing it and simply sit on the fence.