Tuesday, 31 July 2007

Guest Review--Twilight Struggle

{editor's note: This is a guest review from Decktech and Boardgamegeek user "Ben_Ethus". He asked if he could publish his review on multiple websites, and since both Twilight Struggle and Star Wars sort of fall under our domain*, I told him to send it by and we'd have a look. Turns out, it's pretty good--so have a look!}

{* Thanks to Clarissimus for the correction.}


I apologize in advance for the length of this review. If you dislike reading, you might want to leave now and bop on over to Youtube, where they show videos and such. This is not to suggest I have uploaded a video of this review over there, because I have not. If you attempt to search their massive database of fine films for a video version of this review, you will be left wanting. Unless of course, some other psychopath managed to mysteriously post an exact filmic duplicate of the review you are about to read, but the chances of that are Slim to None, with the needle not quite spiked on 'None.'

(I take no responsibility if someone decides to go out of his or her way to spite me by posting a video version of this review at a later date. I pre-emptively call shenanigans on it, though. SHENANIGANS.)

At any rate, in this review I will be comparing Twilight Struggle to the Star Wars Customizable Card game.

Yes, I'm comparing a pseudo-wargame from GMT to a collectible card game from Decipher.

No, I haven't lost my mind.

No, you shouldn't throw rocks at me.

Yes, you should read on to see what the hell I'm talking about, so you can verify that I haven't lost my mind.

If you're a cruel, heartless person and intend to deride and belittle my opinions when you get to the end, please feel free to stop reading now and peruse one of the other fine reviews on this website so that you can hurt that author's feelings. (Obviously, it would be preferable if you hurt the feelings of NO ONE, but I can't very well control your impulses, can I?)

If you're the type to heap praise and mountains of GeekGold upon reviewers, feel free to skip the boring parts and start the heaping if you deem this review heap-worthy.

Or, if you're lazy, and you want to skip all the fascinating specifics I'm going to discuss, jump down to the very bottom where you get a summarized view of my thoughts on both games.

On to the fun...


I'm not going to bore you with in-depth intricate descriptions of how these games are played, and how the specific rules work. I will simply be providing a very general overview of the gameplay of both games, so if you are left wanting more after you've read my descriptions, there are a multitude of other reviews that run through the rules of the games, so if you are one of those obsessive types that has to know every little thing, you should probably check out one of those other reviews and come back to this one when you have the mental fortitude to handle the contents herein. (No, that's not a typo for heroin, you junky.)

Twilight Struggle is an attempt to recreate The Cold War in the form of a board game. One player controls the USSR and the other controls the US. Players vie for control of the world by expanding their influence in individual countries. The game is card-driven, which means that the cards dictate all the actions players are allowed to take that they are holding in hand.

The Star Wars Customizable Card game was Decipher's attempt to create a card game out of the Star Wars license. At its peak, it was the second most popular collectible card game in the world, under the current champ: Magic the Gathering. (If you're the pedantic type, now's the perfect opportunity to do some web-based research just so you can prove me how very wrong I am of that fact in the comments section below!) In this game, players attempted to drain each other of their Life Force (aka: their deck of cards) by dealing damage based on controlling locations and winning battles.

At first blush, there's nothing obviously similar about the two games. One's a pseudo-wargame; the other is a collectible card game. What could they possibly have in common?

My reply: Quite a bit.


First let's examine the theme:

a)Players take the role of a big, lumbering, evil empire intent on galactic domination and a scrappy band of brave rebels bent on saving the galaxy from oppression.

b)Players take the role of a big, lumbering, evil empire intent on global domination and... Russia. (Oh, snap... you see what I did there?)

So, we see that in both games, the theme features similar adversaries. There are other aspects of the theme that is similar in both games as well, primarily, in the way that the theme drives both games.

a) Numerous exceptions exist for cards for thematic purposes.

Exceptions, you ask? SWCCG has more of them than Microsoft Vista. (Hoh hoh, computer programmer humor never gets old!) SWCCG was notorious for adding tons of new rules that were never explained and/or directly referenced on the cards themselves, requiring massive amounts of FAQ manuals and help guides.

Some fun examples:

1) Bluff rules: Your card mentions them. Do you have any idea of what they are? Hell no! Are they important as all-get-out? Not really. I never met anyone who actually used them.

2) Hoth Shield Rules: Your card mentions them. Do you have any idea of what they are? Hell no! Are they important as all-get-out? You betcha! Guess you better dig out that FAQ file!

3) Dagobah deployment restrictions: Pretty sure not many (if any) cards reference them. Hope you remember them during your game!

b) Cards are designed towards the theme, which can cause some exceptions during card play.

Fortuitously, although some exceptions exist through card play, most of them are easily figured out using the written game rules and a logical state of mind. If there's something extraordinarily quibbling, a FAQ does exist with official responses from the designer of the game, although this generally isn't required to be at your side, as it is like SWCCG. Despite that, both games generate exceptions because of the theming of the cards.


Let's move on to gameplay. How can a pseudo-wargame and a collectible card game even have remotely similar gameplay, I hear you cry. Well, I'll tell you...

a)You attempt to win by taking control of locations (battlegrounds or other) via characters and battles.

b)You attempt to win by taking control of locations (battlegrounds or other) via influence and military operations.

Hey, those don't sound similar at all, right? Yeah, that's what I thought...

The primary difference is that the locations in SWCCG are placed on the table by each of the players, whereas in Twilight Struggle, the map on the board has all of the available locations ready for play at any given time.

In geek terms:
--SWCCG = Smaller, but dynamic map
--Twilight Struggle = larger, but static map

What's really interesting is that both games use similar terms to denote levels of control over the locations:

a) You can either be present at a location, or you can control a location.

b)You can either be present in a region, dominate a region, or control a region.

The only significant between the two games is that since Twilight Struggle has 'regions', there is a third form of control that SWCCG lacks since there is no regional analog in the game.

Otherwise, Twilight Struggle finds you placing influence markers at the locations on the board, whereas SWCCG has you deploying characters and ships to locations. Having enough influence earns you control of a location, or eradicating your opponent from the location so that your characters hold it alone earn you control of a location. Despite the specifics being different, there is a striking resemblance between the two concepts in both games, especially since victory in both games (at the most basic level) comes down to controlling the most locations on the table.

This leads us quite nicely into our next point, which negates my need to come up with a witty segue that would have rung through the ages due to its innate cleverness. Pity, that.


a)Drain the opponent of cards, or cause epic event (convert Luke or Darth Vader)

Your cards are your lifeblood in SWCCG. When you run out of them, you are toast. If you can wipe your opponent out of his cards, he is fried. The only other way to win is an insta-win based on one of the Objective cards that they published towards the end of the game. (The major storyline event of Luke converting Darth Vader [or in Bizarro-World, where Darth Vader successfully converted Luke to the Dark Side.])

b)Spike the VP track, control Europe, or cause epic event (start Nuclear War)

Victory Points are crucial in this game. If your opponent gets too many, you are toast. If you can drain the point difference back down to your favor, he is fried. Another way to win is to control Europe at the time when the Europe Scoring card hits the table, which does not have an analog in SWCCG. The third way of winning is to force your opponent into starting a Nuclear War (clearly a major event that could never be reversed.)

Although the similarities between these are not quite as exact as in prior examples, they still remain somewhat linked, especially between the two primary causes of victory: leaking your opponent dry of a critical resource, and spawning an irreversible major event. I realize that Victory Points could not really be considered 'resources', as you can't really do anything with them aside from bask in their warming glow of reassurance, but you lose if don't have enough of them, so that makes them pretty damn critical, if you ask me, and I'm the one writing this insipid report, so there you go.

a)Where do I play my characters? Which battles do I start? What Interrupts is my opponent holding in hand?

Every turn presents hard choices, especially since you never quite know what your opponent is planning to do. Say, for instance that some Imperial Weenie like Sergeant Barich is guarding the Back Door of the Endor Bunker all by himself, dinging you for two damage each turn, and you're getting pretty pissed about it.

Do you, Dirk the Daring:

1) Deploy the only dude you have in your hand, Corporal Beezer (and, yes, I realize she's not a dude, but I'm using the parlance of the times here, people) to block the drain?

2) Leave it alone since you're doing equal damage on other areas of the table?

3) Wait until you have an army of people in hand to drop like a bomb to nuke poor Barich out of this mortal coil?

Here's the thing: there's probably not an obvious answer. There are upsides and downsides to all three of those options.

For instance:

1) Maybe your opponent is using him as a trap, so that after you deploy a weenie blocking force, you get nuked with the characters he's holding in hand the very next turn.

2) Maybe your opponent figures out some way to increase the damage at that site to 5 or 6 cards every turn. Unrequited, that'll end things real damn quick.

3) Maybe all your other characters are all on the table already (or they are similarly lame as Beezer), so you end up spinning your wheels for a bunch of turns, never getting any decent guys in hand, which allows the opponent to start negating the progress you've made in the other areas in play.

It's your call. What do you do? What DO you do...?

b)Where do I play my influence? Where do I coup? What scoring cards is my opponent holding in hand?

I've found that this game offers similar choices, with similar ambiguity between the quality of your options.

Envision this fairly common situation:

Your opponent is USA and on this turn they've suddenly started focusing on placing influence in Asia, where they had totally ignored it before.

Do you:

1) Respond by also playing your influence to negate the presence your opponent has just created down there, fearing an Asian scoring card.

2) Pray that he is faking it and continue doing whatever you were doing over in South America, assuming that an Asian scoring card won't drop later in the turn.

3) Spend one of your precious high-powered op values to stage a coup in a key location in Asia in a hope that you cripple his plans before his scoring card (maybe) gets played.

Trying to determine where to play your influence, which locations are worth risking a coup, and deducing which scoring cards your opponent is sitting on are crucial aspects of playing the game well.

Make enough bad choices, and your chances of winning will crumble faster than the Berlin Wall. (Yes, I know that thing stood up for years and years, so it really took quite some time to get rid of, but once those pesky students started whacking it with hammers... you know what happened. I don't have to explain everything to you, do I?)

As evidenced by my examples above, the non-obvious nature of many of your decisions at any given moment during your turn is another similarity between the two games. Generally, since there's not any one best decision, you just have to go with your gut, take a risk, or commit yourself to a strategic path and hope for the best.

If you end up making a string of bad decisions, you may be inclined to blame the Fickle Finger of Fate who controls that pesky fiend known as Luck; however, in both Twilight Struggle and SWCCG, there's slightly differing amounts (although relatively low) levels of luck present during the game.

a) Card draws. Destiny draws. If you're good, you can track the cards in your deck, eliminating luck entirely.

Being a card game, you're restricted to playing the cards that you draw into your hand. In more recent years, though, the designers of the game decided to make more cards that 'uploaded' other cards into your hand, or even 'downloaded' them to the table directly, mitigating the amount of time you had to spend searching for specific cards that may be key to your strategy.

Another element of the game that features luck is the necessity of having 'destiny draws.' For the uninitiated, pulling a 'destiny draw' is similar to rolling a die, with one key exception: instead of rolling a die randomly, you pull a card of the top of your deck and look at the number in the upper right hand corner of the card, theoretically giving you a 'random' number for use in whatever it is required. Given that you have total control of every card that enters your deck, if you're inclined, while making your deck you can ensure that your average destiny number is higher than normal, so that you're pulling more 4s, 5s, and 6s than you otherwise might. This provides yet another way of lessening the amount of luck present in the game.

The other interesting thing is that if you're a really top level player, since the cards in your deck are constantly cycling through, chances are you'll be able to track where the high destiny cards are in your deck, so that you can pull high destiny cards whenever you need them. This can be incredibly frustrating to play against when you are a new player, since you'll be pulling 1s and 2s, and your opponent is constantly getting the same 5s and 6s every single time they need to draw. What it comes down to is that if you're a good enough deck-maker, and a good enough tracker, you can play the game with almost zero luck overall. Few, if any, other collectible card games can make this same claim.

b) Luck found in card draws and rolling die for space race/coups/realignments.

Since this game is also driven primarily by cards, there also exists luck in the card draws. If you get a hand of really janky cards, and your opponent gets a hand of really amazing cards, you're going to have a rough turn. Having said that, you have control over the order in which you play those cards, so as to lessen the damage that can be done while playing them. The game also provides a built-in outlet to get rid of the exceptionally nightmarish cards via the Space Race track, where you can dump the truly heinous out of your hand with no ill-effect, other than the chance of the card eventually finding its way back to your hand.

Die rolls are another feature in the game that provide a source of luck, although generally you won't be making too many die rolls in the course of the game. You only need to roll when ditching a card to the Space Race, making coup attempts, realignment rolls, or if a card dictates you roll a die for some reason.

As was mentioned earlier, making a poor dice roll on the Space Race track doesn't really hurt you too badly, if at all. You still get to ditch the card without activating it, but you don't get to move up on the Space Race track, which generally isn't terribly devastating. It can be a nuisance, obviously, but unless you're in really dire straits, biffing a roll won't cost you the game.

Rolling horribly on coup attempts, realignment rolls, or card-based requirements can also be annoying, if you do have a long string of failurization, although generally having one bad roll won't generally totally screw you over, unless of course your poor decision making has put you in a situation in which you cannot escape, in which case you are a victim of your own ineptitude at that point. It seems to me that there is enough other ways of enacting your strategies, that if you are relying on a single die roll to get you out of a jam, then you have pretty well failed already.

In my opinion, rolling crappy constantly can be a nuisance, but will generally just make your life tougher instead of costing you the entire game. (I suppose this is where you could chime in and say that Twilight Struggle is riddled with way too much luck, that everything depends on the card draws and dice rolls, and that I'm a fool, FOOL, for even suggesting that the amount of luck doesn't negatively effect the player's ability to play effectively, but I will smile, nod, and quietly disagree with you while you flail your arms and froth at the mouth.)

As the prior paragraph may have hinted if you were reading carefully, both games use the cards present for more than a single purpose.

a) Cards are used for everything.

Cards are used for EVERYTHING in this game. Cards constitute your total Life Force, which represents 1) how well you are doing in the game (since when your cards are gone, you are done), 2) which characters or starships or locations you can deploy or move on the table, and 3) which cards can be used to refresh your hand at the end of turn. Learning how to manage your cards effectively is critical to success.

Not only that, but as described above, each card in your deck has a Destiny value printed on it for use when drawing destiny.

b) Cards are primary method of driving the game.

Cards are also multi-function in this game as well, as they can be used in a couple of different ways: 1) Using the card for the Event printed on it, 2) using the Ops Points on it for spreading influence, 3) using the Ops Points on it for coups or realignments, or 4) trashing the card to increase your position on the Space Race track. Once again, knowing when to use which cards for what is critical to performing well within the game.

Clearly, both games use cards for an array of different purposes and the players' options are restricted to what they are able to play from their hand, as the cards are the driving force for both games.


Now that all the heavy lifting is done, let's get into the flaky, superficial similarities that exist between the two games. I won't go into an amazing amount of detail on these because, frankly, it's unnecessary, and I don't want to bore anybody to tears. If you're already bored to tears, why in God's name are you still even reading at this point? You a masochist or something?

a) Can be played online via Holotable or gEngine
b) Can be played online via VASSAL or Wargameroom

You can play both online! Huzzah and happy day!

I highly recommend using the online utilities for SWCCG as it makes the game extremely playable because it eradicates the biggest hurdle for finding opponents to play against: the cards. With the online programs, you have access to every single card ever made, and you don't need to purchase a single thing. Making decks has never been easier!

I've not played Twilight Struggle online, as I much prefer playing board games face-to-face, and I have enough friends into the game that I should never need to resort to online play to get my fix.

a) Two player only, hard-fought games can take a while (for a CCG), lots of back and forth, lends itself to tourneys.

b) Two player only, hard-fought games can take a while (for a board game), lots of back and forth, lends itself to tourneys.

Both are two player games. So, yeah...

As you can probably infer from all the above verbiage, both games lend themselves to making tough decisions in a pinch, and sometimes that requires some serious cogitation. As a result, both games, if being played by two careful players, can take some time to finish.

SWCCG was notorious in the collectible games market for taking 'too long' to play. (1 - 2 hours). I suppose people became accustomed to the length of two-player Magic games, which can take almost no time at all (if someone is playing aggressively enough) and considered that the norm for card games. The length of the game never bothered me, because both players are always actively engaged during play, and the time flies right by.

Twilight Struggle takes some time to finish as well (usually about 2 - 4 hours) depending upon the speed of the players. Granted, this is not long when compared to your average wargame, but when compared to most 'Euro' games, the length could seem interminable for players who are accustomed to games that last only an hour or so. (There's an obvious opportunity here to make a crack about ADD and/or Ritalin, but I'll take the high road, because that's the kind of guy I am.)

What's interesting to me is that both games feature a sense of momentum swinging back-and-forth between the two players during play. Twilight Struggle makes this a key component in the way that its Victory Point track is designed. Point scoring is a constant tug-of-war that may eventually end with someone spiking the counter to his or her side of the track.

SWCCG can feel similar in the sense that if both players control certain areas of the board, they can keep slapping the other player with damage that will keep alternating until someone decides to do something about it. Alternating massive battle beat downs can be common also, which also help keep the back-and-forth swing going.

In both, there's typically a sense of one player being on the 'offensive' with the other playing going 'defensive' to counter their attacks. This can shift between players at any given moment, and will often change numerous times through the course of the game.

Both games are easily played in tournaments. Twilight Struggle even has a few rules variations for when playing in that environment. I don't know what else to say about this observation other than to say that I don't care much for cheese. You may interpret that as you will.


In case you've missed the entire point of this article until now, my goal was to basically show how both games feel similar despite being completely different types of games. (Here's to hoping my writing ability wasn't so shoddy that this was a mystery until now. If so, I've wasted a lot of time on both our ends, which would make me sad.)

1) Both require thoughtful study of board before decision.

Rushing your decisions in either game is extremely foolhardy. You generally want to scope out the board as well as possible and get a sense of how your action will affect the overall situation on the board before you make your play. Another thing you want to keep in mind is that you never want to limit your options. If you paint yourself in a corner by a boneheaded and/or overly risky play, chances are you won't be long for the world.

2) Both require maximizing your results using your resources.

Deciding where best to deploy your forces is key to winning the game. Since both games require you to work with a limited pool of resources, maximizing the effectiveness of each of your actions is incredibly important to perform well.

3) Both require you to consider the effects of the combinations of cards.

Chances are certain cards you are holding at any given time can have interesting consequences when played back-to-back or together. Always be on the lookout for opportunities to link the results of two cards together to yield better position on the table. (Hell, finding powerful combos is just plain fun, too.)

4) Both have a strong tie to the theme driving the game.

Theme is an integral part of both these games and the cards themselves are tuned towards that end very strongly. Without the strength of the theme, both games would not nearly be as enjoyable.

As an interesting illustration of this point, Decipher tried to release a game called WARS that used the mechanics of SWCCG once they lost the Star Wars license to Wizards of the Coast. The presence of theme wasn't nearly as strong as it was in Star Wars CCG. Shortly after introducing the game, it died miserably and went out of print. There were numerous other factors that contributed to this outcome, but I believe a large part of it was the fact that people just could not get into the new theme that they had concocted for the storyline of the game. The mechanics alone weren't enough to make the game popular with the players.


In the interest of equal time, here are some differences that exist between the two games. I won't go into massive detail, because, once again, I don't think it's necessarily required, as these should be fairly obvious. (I'm also growing weary of typing, so I intend to bring this report to a close in a little bit.)

a) You have to buy a billion cards for playable deck of SWCCG.
b) TS comes with everything in the box.

a) Indoctrinating new people can be near impossible. (Why? See above point.)
b) Relatively easy to suck people into the game.

a) Couldn't be easier. Put cards in a box.
b) Lug around a piece of plexi-glass.

Yes, I realize a piece of plexi-glass isn't required, but it makes playing Twilight Struggle so much easier that I can't ever imagine playing without it. I've officially been converted to the Army of the Plex. Give it a try sometime. You'll like it. I promise.


By this point, I'd think it's pretty obvious that I am a big fan of both of these games. Playing both Twilight Struggle and SWCCG in the recent past made me realize how much they had in common with one another, which is what inspired this article.

I love how both games make you stop and consider all your available options, without ever providing an easy out. There are no obvious decisions, and everything you do has a certain level of risk involved with it. This results in an extremely intense atmosphere of play that totally sucks you into the game. The time just flies right by while playing, and I'm typically astonished by how much time has passed after the game has ended, because I've been totally oblivious to its passage.

The strong sense of theme that permeates both games also serves to increase the overall enjoyment of both games. Upon conclusion, you are able to construct a memorable story of the events that transpired, and they're typically very amusing...

"You remember that time when Yoda was flying that X-wing and helped blow up the Death Star II! That was crazy!"

"You remember that time when the USSR totally controlled all of South America until there was that successful American coup in Mexico! That was crazy!"

What's more, the games are just fun. I always have lots of fun while playing them, even when I lose. I realize that fun is a nebulous concept, but both these games work wonderfully in giving me an enjoyable time while playing. Part of it, I think, is that I always have plenty to mull over when the games are over. If I fared poorly, I can review my choices and figure out ways of improving the next time I play. I always learn something new whenever I play either game.

I firmly believe that fans of Twilight Struggle will find a lot to like if they decide to try SWCCG, and I know for a fact that players of SWCCG will practically be guaranteed to enjoy playing Twilight Struggle.

For Twilight Struggle fans, I suppose the biggest hurdle to trying SWCCG is eliminating any bias against collectible games that one may have. If you're curious to try the game, the absolute best thing you can do is hunt down the Death Star II preconstructed decks (one for Imperials, one for Rebels) and play them against one another. They are extremely balanced decks, and give you a great overview for how the game is played without getting into any ridiculous rules exceptions or any other complicated issues, as the decks adhere pretty much to only the basic rules of the game. There's always the online route, too, but you'll need someone who already knows the game to teach you before you can really give that a try. Once you know the game, it's a great way to increase your knowledge of the gameplay, and to get more out of the game.

For SWCCG fans, the only hurdle I can think of to trying Twilight Struggle is just committing yourself to trying something new. You might find out you really like the game. Owning and playing TS has really made me more interested in longer, more complex games, and I hope to try some more of the 'shorter' card-based wargames before too long. My eyes have been opened to a whole new realm of gaming that I had previously shrugged off as completely irrelevant to my interests, which I realize now was a tragic error on my part.

If you've read this far, I thank you for your interest and patience. My hope is that I've made folks aware of games that exist out there that they may ordinarily have completely ignored without giving them a fair shake.

Anyway, I hope reading this was worth your while. If not, then boo-hoo for you, this is time you'll never have back, so now you're that much closer to rotting in your grave.


[The Author has allowed the use of this review on multiple web sites, so nobody stole nothing, you litigious bastard!]

Friday, 27 July 2007

WBC - Best Damn Boardgaming Con on the Planet!

Ahh summer, here in Maryland the humidity is up, the cicadas are singing and its about time we head on up to the land of bad roads and bad teeth to play some board games.

Thats right, it is time for the World Boardgaming Championships, the best gaming con there is.

Its got that old school we come to play games flavor, everything from Titan to Gaylus is there, and the focus is on playing not selling games, pimping games or being part of a secret elite society.

I plan to attend Tuesday - Saturday and will be providing updates to what I see, and the level of smell in the wargame room as the week progresses. So stay tuned faithful reader it is going to be a wild ride.

I spend most of my time goofing off in the open gaming area and drinking beer, but there are a few tournaments I will play poorly in. These are:


Stock Car Championship

We the People

And the best game at the event.....


Stay Tuned!


Thursday, 26 July 2007

JUNK NEWSFLASH--Readers and Contributors of "Fortress: Ameritrash" Blog Experiencing Mass Hysteria

Panic and chaos ensued today when frequent readers of the "Fortress: Ameritrash" blog began experiencing what authorities could only refer to as "a delusional mass hysteria."

"Lots of them were complaining of voices in their heads, ranting, rambling, talking about...nothing in particular, really," said a local law enforcement official, who spoke under the condition of anonymity.

"It was pretty weird, man," said reader Pat H. "I never knew the voice inside my head was such a douchebag."

Proprietors of Fortress: Ameritrash have advised their readers that, in the event they should experience symptoms of this mass hysteria--and by extension, begin to hear these "voices"--they should remain calm, and ignore them; reports are already coming in that after a short period of time, these voices will disappear as though they were never there.

When Robert Martin, contributor to the blog, was asked for a direct comment, he stated, "Mass hysteria is no excuse for douchebaggery. Say, you guys have any beer?"

TIDE OF IRON review up

Gameshark editor Bill Abner just notified me that Cracked Lcd 1.3 is posted, it's my review of TIDE OF IRON. Hope you enjoy it...if not, let me know. I have to make peace with Fantasy Flight after burying both the WARCRAFT and RUNEBOUND franchises last time.


Wednesday, 25 July 2007

Ameritrash is dead! A look at what is hot on BGG

So somewhere in the trolling posts of our latest fan it was said that Ameritrash games are dead and that Eurogames are reigning supreme. We have all heard this line of horse shit before, it is nothing new, but it struck me as odd. I say that because of a number of conversations I have had recently. Michael Barnes has gone on record stating that he tends to sell more AT type games at his store than Euros. I took this fact with a slight grain of salt, it simply could be that MB pushed those games more or that euro-gamers feel uncomfortable dealing with him. I was recently visiting the newest FLGS here in Baltimore (one I have put my full support behind by buying most of my games there if I can) and I asked the owner the same question, and to my surprise his experience was the same as Barnes. That the classic euros like Settlers and Carcassone sold well but that the AT titles were much stronger across the board. Games like Twilight Imperium III, Tide of Iron, Battlelore (Yes I consider this AT), and A&A Mini's were outselling newer eurogames easily.

Again this is all very unscientific, So I went over to peek at that great board game resource site and looked at the hot games list. I was again surprised to find that, with one small hybrid exception, I had to go down the list quite a bit to find a new pure eurogame. Lets review, here is the list as of 7/25/07

1 Starcraft: The Board Game (AT, at least I assume based on the info available)

2 Age of Empires III: The Age of Discovery (This can be call a euro, but its by an AT designer and has combat in it so to me its a hybrid)

3 Tide of Iron (AT)
4Talisman 4th Edition (AT redone)
5 BattleLore (AT)
6 Puerto Rico (Old Euro)
7 Settlers of Catan, The (Old Euro)
8 Heroscape Marvel: The Conflict Begins (Breeding a new Generation of AT)
9 Arkham Horror (AT)
10 Carcassonne (Old Euro)
11 Race for the Galaxy (This looks like a euro)
12 Twilight Struggle (CDG)
13 Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage (AT)
14 Power Grid (Old Euro)
15 War of the Ring (AT)
16 Tigris & Euphrates (Old Euro)
17 Caylus (CRAP)
18 Shogun (RE-do of an older Euro)
19 Monopoly (WTF?)
20 Risk (AT)
21 Descent: Journeys in the Dark (AT)
22 Duel in the Dark (Light war game?)
23 Twilight Imperium 3rd Edition (AT)
24 Notre Dame (Euro!)

25 Railroad Tycoon (Hybrid)
26 Imperial (Euro)
27 Thebes (Euro)
28 Combat Commander: Europe (Wargame/AT)
29 Zooloretto (Shit!)
30 World of Warcraft - The Boardgame (Crappy AT)
31 HeroScape Master Set: Rise of the Valkyrie (AT)
32 Guatemala Café (Euro)
33 Pillars of the Earth, The (Euro)
34 Bang! (I will call the card game Euro)
35 Caylus Magna Carta (Euro)
36 Yahtzee (old School)
37 Colosseum (Euro)
38 Clue (old school)
39 Scrabble (Old School)
40 Tannhäuser (AT)

In order to find something that is not an Ameritrash game, an older eurogame or a hybrid game you need to goto #11 with Race for the Galaxy, a game that the BGG crew are gushing over even though they have only played a prototype. To get to a game the masses can actually buy you need to goto #24 Notre Dame. A game slated for mediocrity after getting slammed by Tom Vassal with a 6 (as we all know anything less than a 8 from him means the game blows)

So, in the top 10 hot games on BGG we have 6 solid AT games and 1 hybrid. Plus the same 3 very popular eurogames. Seems to me that the trend is moving away from eurogames and more toward AT. This doesn't surprise me much, tastes change and there really isn't anything new coming from the eurogame scene. Lets take Race for the Galaxy as an example. Of the 25 folks who have commented on the game a significant number compare the game to San Juan. Seems to me that we have another tweaking of popular eurogame mechanics with a freshly bolted on theme. Am I saying this is a bad game, certainly not, I will have to play it before I can comment on its quality, but I am saying now that its nothing new.

I also feel that one of the other factors in the stale feeling around newer eurogames is a result of one of the ten commandments of euro design. Short game length. Games that last less than an hour can only be of a certain complexity level. This tends to lead to game where 1 or 2 strategies are all that is viable and where varied game play is quickly eschewed in favor of the most efficient strategy. All of this makes re-playability suffer. A typical pattern with my game group is that a new eurogame will be played constantly for a few months and then all of a sudden it never leaves the shelf. They burn out fast and never make a comeback. I think as a whole the entire genre is doing this. All of the interesting mechanics have been used and re-used in different combinations and new games coming off the press feeling stale.

So my friends, Ameritrash is not dying away it is being reborn. American style games burnt themselves out in the past just as euros are beginning to do now, but with all the new AT titles being released and selling well, new life is being given to the hobby. Eurosnoots can continue to believe themselves the mature, elite of the hobby. However, the rest of us see them for what they are; fans of boring, simple games, that use a handful of game mechanics and avoid direct competition. Adults pretending to not be geeks, but playing games with little pastel cubes and themes so lame, that even the most hard up member of the opposite sex would consider batting for the same team before dating them.

Long Live Ameritrash, Long live Fun in gaming.


Monday, 23 July 2007

Home Sweet Home

After a week on the road paying my dues to corporate America, I am back at home and falling back into my normal caffeine laden routine. For those who don't know, last week I have a uniquely coincidental business trip to the home town of of F:AT bloggers Michael Barnes and Robert Martin. This type of universal alignment only occurs once every 100,000 years and usually requires the sacrifice of many small mammals. So for me to pass up a chance to play games with some of my F:AT buddies would be about as smart as opening a second front in a European war. I quickly made sure that there would be no after work activities on Thursday night, for those of you who do not travel for work, dinner and drinks on the company dime are so much the norm that the after hours schedule is usually much more thoroughly booked than the 9-5 shift. I fortunately was working with a guy who's wife had just had surgery and so it was easy to duck out of dinner on both Tuesday and Thursday.

Tuesday night was spent playing a game of Twilight Imperium III with a group of totally die hard fans of the game. (for the record, I was crushed) This was nice since usually I am the only one I my game group who know the rules, and the normal conversation about how someone was planning for hours to make an illegal move and so the game sucks due to their inability to execute said illegality was avoided. Anyway a solid night of gaming early in the week had me fired up for the Thursday night session, and it was great to meet some of the folks playing in one of my online games on the TI3wiki site.

I arrive on early on Thursday, Traffic in Atlanta is a mysterious animal so I left really early. Barnes showed up first and immediately broke out a copy of Space Crusade. A Milton Bradly game from about 1990 that licensed Games Workshop's 40k universe. Think a really really simple version of Space Hulk. I am a total sucker for GW so I was in. Barnes played the bad guys (In this game all the GW baddies, Chaos, Necrons and Orks, are working against the marines) I was the Blood Angles, and there were 2 other players controlling the Ultra-pussies and the Imperial Fags chapters. Barnes played the game well and his baddies had the advantage from the start. It didn't help that both the Ultra Marine and Imperial Fist Commanders forget to remove their skirts and left their balls home with their wives. (I have never seen a Space Marine, bread from a young age to be a killer, trained for decades to fight the enemies of the God Emperor, suited in the best fighting armor imaginable, hide, I repeat, HIDE! behind a wall. Anyway, Barnes was smart enough to keep his two chaos Dreadnoughts as far away from my Blood Angels commander as possible, I was able to reach the 1st one easy enough and left it a pile of smoldering wreckage, but I have to single handedly fight off the hoards of chaos and make my way clear across the map to reach the second one. Falling just short of him with only one wound left...... Next time Michael Barnes won't be so lucky.

Our Second game was the Really nasty Horse Racing Game. I have been wanting to play this game for a while and no one I know ha a copy, so I was eager to try out this box full of screwage. I have to admit I never had a chance in this game, I do not think my horse ever placed and none of my wagers paid off, but what a good time! I will be ordering a copy of this ASAP. The game is exactly what the name says it is, and with the right crowd you can call this a box full of fun.

The last 2 games of the evening were Lineage II, a quick roll and move adventure type game that was only so-so, but with some interesting twists, and the always fun Cash n Guns. (I did pick up a copy of this finally)

Good times were had by at least me, and I hope to get back to Atlanta sometime soon. For now it feels good to be back in the normal routine, worrying about the important things like what picture is #1 on BGG and if that picture reflects poorly on the board gaming community. (Everyone who reads this blog should go thumb up that poorly dressed young MTG chick)
Also I have to prepare myself for next weeks trip to the World Boardgaming Championships. This process involves getting my body used to a lack of sleep and a diet of Candy bars and Beer.


Edit: FYI the Dune map survived and is just fine! I was able to get it rolled up nice and safe when I got back to the hotel.

Sunday, 22 July 2007

Wizard Duels

In the spirit of the Harry Potter book release, we played some games with wizards and spells this weekend.

The ability to smack an opponent with some random chaos from across the board has always been a hallmark of Ameritrash games. Lots of people hate that aspect of AT games with a firey passion. For others it's the best part of the game. It is so good, in fact, why not do away with all the other extraneous aspects of a the game, and just have an all out wizard smack down? I bring you two of the more recent offerings in a long line of wizard duels, from Flux to M:tG.

Lord of the Rings: The Duel

Gandalf encounters the Bolrog in the under mountain Caves of Moria. The result is a fantastic duel of their magical powers on a small bridge over a deep chasm.

Hey cool, a magic duel. It's a two player game. It has a nifty 3-D bridge. It's one of the most exciting scenes of the books. It's got Gandalf. It's gonna be great! Well, it isn't great, but it doesn't suck. The Duel is essentially a card game. The 3-D board is just a fancy way to keep score, you don't actually play on it. You could play the game without the board, if the scoring was a little less quirky.

The battle resolution is actually somewhat interesting. Each player receives their own deck of cards. Along the right and left sides of the battle cards are four spaces, some of which contain a "magic symbol," some of which are blank. The right side of the card is the attack. The left side is the defense. Players alternate laying down cards next to the card previously played by their opponent. A spot where there is a symbol on both the attacker's and the defender's card is a successful block. A spot where the attacker has a symbol and the defender doesn't is a hit.

Above you see that Gandalf makes a three dot attack. The Balrog defends with three diamonds, blocking two of Gandalf's dots, and taking one hit. The Balrog makes a two diamond attack. Gandalf blocks one and takes one hit.

You play four rounds of 18 cards. After each round you determine how many steps you get to move up or down on the bridge. Who ever is on the highest step at the end of the game wins. About half way through the second round, I forgot that I was in the middle of a "magic duel" - a battle of life and death between a great wizard and a terrifying monster. I was sitting in silence, staring at my hand as I played an abstract game of match the dots...

I take it back. This game does suck. I want that m****r f*****g Bolrog to burn. I want to throw his ass off that bridge. I want the catharsis of Gandalf triumphing, and to finally get over the trauma of the first time my father read "He staggered and fell, grasped vainly at the stone, and slid into the abyss.' Fly, you fools!' he cried, and was gone."

So, cool bridge, interesting battle mechanic, but ultimately a dry, abstract disappointment.

Harry Potter Trading Card Game

Welcome to Hogwarts! With the Harry Potter trading card game, you join the other new wizards at school in a duel. Then you summon creatures, use magical potions and cast spells to make their cards disappear first. If you do that, you win.

Looks cute. The kids around here spend a great deal of free time dressed in their Hogwarts Halloween costumes, speaking pseudo latin and waving sticks at things. Here's a way for them to play without putting someone's eye out. So I pulled out a couple of decks and played a round with one of the kids. It's been called "baby" Magic the Gathering. You build your own deck, which is made up of Lessons, Spells, Items and Creature cards.

You must have a certain number of lesson cards in play to play spells and summon creatures. The creatures do damage to your opponent, the spells can either do damage or help you in one way or another. You get the idea. It's fairly simple, it's a kid's game, but I'll be damned if it wasn't a hell of a lot of fun. We were summoning snakes and unicorns, casting spells, and yelling "Incendio" and "Stupefy" at each other. I didn't want to give up my deck to the kid who was waiting to play. A couple of adults came to watch and wanted their turn to play. I'm going to have to sit down and make up a few more decks.

Notice I didn't explain the game by saying you play cards with a numeric value whose suits match the suit of the lesson cards in play. These cards subtract the number of points indicated on the card, from your opponent. No, I said that we summoned creatures and cast spells, because that is what it felt like. The theme and the game play were tight.

So, Harry Potter TCG - fast playing fun with lots of flavor.

Here we have two games, that, when deconstructed down to their most abstract form, are quite similar . Each player has their own deck of cards. You play cards which subtract points from your opponent, or prevent your opponent from subtracting points from you. Why did one bore me, while the other amused me? A year ago, I wouldn't have thought too hard about it. My assessment of the two games would have been The Duel = bored now, put nasty game at bottom of game chest. Harry Patter TCG = spell-casting-goodness, put in pretty box on shelf. Beer now.

However, that was before F:AT. As I have said before, for me the most important contribution of the on going discussion of AT games is not the classification of games, but the introduction, and legitimization of new rulers by which to measure games. So I pulled out what I have now identified as my most important ruler : the ability to create narrative. Harry Potter measures up, The Duel not so much. Why? Really, the games are so similar. It's all just addition and subtraction. It would be easy to reduce the Harry Potter cards down to dots and symbols like the Duel cards... but ...they're not symbols. The Harry Potter cards have text. They have FLAVOR TEXT. There are no dots, and arrows and symbols. These cards are not language independent.

I almost called language independence, flavor text's evil twin, but that's not really fair. Language independence has many fine qualities; however I'll leave the lecture on the economics of game publishing and the purity of abstract puzzle solving to Professor Euro.
Evil language independent hieroglyphics. What the hell does this shit mean?

When I open a box for the first time and see those hieroglyphics, I groan inside. Now I have to learn a whole new language of pragmatic symbols, and none of them will translate into anything exciting or poetic or funny. In a language independent game there will be no heroic leaps, or fire balls, no "Horror at Groundbreaking" not even any "Go directly to jail." Instead people will be saying things like, "I'm going to shovel a circle," and "Any one got feet, we need feet?" I'll have to ask to see the rule book again to look up exactly what all the little arrows and pictures of Vienna Sausages mean, which pretty much negates any sense of immersion in theme.

However, when I open a box and see cards with lots of text, especially completely superfluous text in italics, I sigh with contentment. The designer wants to create narrative, and has provided the text for us. We just have to fill in the gaps with our choices and sometimes a die roll or two. It is so much more amusing to summon a Surly Hound, or transform a Raven into a Writing desk, than it is to play 3 dots against your opponent. Maybe, instead of banishing The Duel to the bottom of the game chest, I'll deface the cards with the names or appropriate spells and maneuvers. I have a friend who is a writer and has really good penmanship.

I know that many players ignores the flavor text in their rush to speed up the game. What's the hurry? I suspect these people say things like "I pick yellow," rather than "Mr. Fantastic transforms into a big bouncing ball." I'm certain that they never jump up on their chair, point at you menacingly and shout "Incendio," before slapping their card on the table.

Friday, 20 July 2007

The Sometimes-Weekly AT Snapshot - 07/20/07


Today's photo was brought to us by the mysterious "Powdered Toast Man." Just who is this masked man? The world may never know. Thanks, Toast!


Calling all photoshoppers and imagehounds! The Weekly AT Snapshot wants YOUR images!

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 fortressat@gmail.com with the word "Snapshot" in the subject line.

Thursday, 19 July 2007

Another Prayer Request

Folks, Cracked LCD #3 is up...it's my "Games to Avoid" one. I really need to buy a minivan and to pay for my gas bill so please visit the site. The column has been under attack from Satan and it really needs your support.


Looks like it's another F:AT meetup tonight! MICHAEL BUCCHERI is going to be joining up with Robert Martin and I along with our comically drunken sidekick WILL KENYON who will likely rope Mr. Buccheri into a 4 hour long game of WAR OF THE RING like he did with Franklin Cobb. Mr. Buccheri has already requested that we play MISSION RED PLANET instead of DUNE.

Wave Without a Shore

What's an Ameritrash game?

This question keeps coming up, and appears to have no entirely satisfactory answer - ask different people and you'll get different opinions, ranging all the way from "isn't it obvious" to "there's no such thing". It's the latter response that really annoys me, the idea that just because even the fanbase can't form a coherent definition of the genre there is no such thing as the genre. I'd like to see any fan of a particular grouping or subgrouping within the boardgame hobby come up with a watertight definition of what constitutes "their" group of games, especially given the modern design trend of deliberately borrowing cool ideas from across the spectrum.

Of all the times that this lack of focus gets used as a stick to beat the AT crowd, the worse is when one of us labels a game as an AT game and people come along and sneer and tell us that of course it's not for reasons x,y and z and then go on to point out what a shallow and desperate concept Ameritrash must be when it has to claim clearly unsuitable games as part of its canon. I've seen this happen with Memoir 44 more than any other game. To me, and, I suspect to most AT fans, this is clearly an AT game. It doesn't have enough of a simulation edge to please wargamers (and anyone who doubts this should just look at the huge number of Grognards who bash the game because it doesn't reward WW2 tactics in play) and it's too random and conflict-orientated to be a Euro. It's a lightweight combat game and nearly all lightweight combat games are AT game. Simple, right? Well, of course not. Turn the perspective and you can make all the opposite arguments - it must be a Euro because it's short, simple and streamlined. It must be a wargame because it's got a clear historical pedigree emphasised in the rules and scenarios. M44 is both a good and bad example of the problems that plague attempts at game classification because it shamelessly borrows heavily from a load of design paradigms which is of course partly why it was such a popular game in the first place.

So given that subdividing games is a messy and pointless business in the first place (albeit one that we all enjoy indulging in, me as much as the next guy) why is it that fans of other game groupings are able to sit comfortably in their corners and point and laugh at us while we squirm and attempt to justify what we're doing? I've no doubt that part of the answer is very simple - we're attempting to insert a new classification into a fairly well established landscape. For years no-one bothered with a tag for the particular group of games we now call Ameritrash, in the first place because back in the old days there were only AT games and Wargames in the boardgaming hobby and wargames back then had a very clearly defined remit, and in the second place because the advent of Euros had everyone talking about those instead so no-one bothered with a tag for the older games. I've always felt that getting that AT label was a really important moment though because it helped to crystallise together a group of disaffected gamers who were kind of milling around and trying to define themselves as standing against something (the domination of euro concepts as "truths" about the best way to design and play games) rather than as supporting something, which is never really satisfactory.

The other part of the answer is considerably less simple. The inspiration for writing this particular piece came from the conclusions that eventually struck me when I was reflecting on the question. It seems to me that even though the actual results of game design are becoming ever harder to place into succinct groupings, designers are still using particular sets of goals as their starting point in the design process which are much easier to group and define. Euros, for example, might be defined as games which have been designed to extract the maximum amount of difficult gameplay choices out of a minimal amount of rules and play time. Wargames might be defined as games which attempt to simulate and/or reproduce the events of historical conflicts. Going into sub genres you could have party games as games which are designed to accommodate a large range of player numbers and skills and which are more interested in inspiring laughter than strategic challenge.

Ameritrash games don't have this founding design paradigm to fall back on. The idea that AT games are interested in reproducing themes gets kicked around a lot but really, how much more thematic can you get than trying to reproduce the fine details of a combat scenario like a Wargame does? Also, in reality AT games are actually about quite a narrow range of themes centred around fantasy, sci-fi and faux-historical conflict. Surely if were that interested in theme we'd be buying into some of the more thematic eurogames such as Amun-Re when in fact these are often the sorts of games we reserve for the greatest scorn. I'm more sympathetic to the idea that AT designers go out to design games that can provide a worthwhile narrative experience but I find it hard to accept that the design teams behind some of the more war-orientated AT titles like Titan, Conquest of the Empire and others, or the more negotiation style AT games such as Cosmic Encounter were really interested in providing narrative. What other common themes do we see running through AT designs? Well, drama is another one I've heard but that's a very personal thing and I'm sure a Euro fan finds a close game of Puerto Rico every bit as dramatic as a nail-biting roll of the dice in an AT game. Ameritrash games also commonly seem to feature frequent screw-your-neighbour mechanisms but in a sense, any competitive game has to have elements to get one over on the other player else it's not much of a competition.

This lack of a specific direction has no doubt come out of AT's historical links with role-playing games. The origin of the AT paradigm comes from people who were effectively design board games either as light entertainment diversions or heavy wargame equivalents for the RPG crowd. Role-playing games don't have design paradigms in the same way as boardgames do - rather they seek to deliver a particular kind of character-driven experience that no other game can provide. So, inevitably the initial board game spinoffs from this hobby were rootless. Times have changed, and AT designers have absorbed enough clever ideas from other aspects of the hobby that we've definitely got the capacity to stand as a genre in our own right, but that lack of focus remains with us and remains a problem.

So where does that leave us? What's the answer? Sadly, I don't have one. If you love AT games you're going to have to continue to put up with being the bastard stepchild of the RPG hobby and enduring the scorn from Euro-purists. The only ray of light I can offer is that this lack of a specific approach point is as much as blessing as it is a curse. Ameritrash games have perhaps the widest range of themes (proper themes anyway, as opposed to bolted-on afterthought themes), play experiences and mechanics of any type of game across the whole gaming hobby. They've evolved and become increasing successful over the past few years by being able to experiment and re-invent themselves by stealing and borrowing ideas from all over the place. This is all down to the fact that our designers are not tied to a specific approach and can do whatever they want and it'll keep us from falling into stagnation as we increasingly see happening in other areas of the hobby. And maybe that is the answer, maybe that is a focal point you can bring up the next time someone asks: that AT games, much like the open and organic play strategies that they encourage, are designed not to get themselves tied down to one specific idea, but to remain open to explore.

Tuesday, 17 July 2007

Mr Skeletor's Mailbag, 18th July

I better get off my ass and do this before Franklincobb starts cracking the whip again:

Panzer “I sent this in 3 weeks ago you lasy bum!” Patching writes:

Hello Mr Skeletor, just a couple of completely un-connected questions for

Why isn't RISK more popular in Mongolia? Let's face it, the Mongols are the
only nation who've managed to hang onto that big scoring Asian continent for
any amount of time. Do you think it's becasue the unimpeded winds of the
open steppe play havoc with the plastic pieces?

Is this you? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e8Z24Z3o5gM

Why is it that whenever a games company makes it big (or indeed if a games
company was already big) it becomes physically impossible to say anything
remotely positive about them without hordes pf people jumping over
themselves to be the first to slag them off? I'm thinking primarily of
Games Workshop and Avalon Hill here. Mark my words, it's only a matter of
time before Fantasy Flight joins this elite crew.



I’ll label my answers with numbers which correspond to the questions which you didn’t number. Or something.

1) In order to answer this question lets look at what Wikipedia has to say about Mongolia:

Mongolia (Mongolian: Монгол улс) is the world's second-largest landlocked country after Kazakhstan. It is typically classified as being a part of East Asia, although sometimes it is considered part of Central Asia, and the northern rim of historical Mongolia extends into North Asia. It is bordered by Russia to the north and China to the south. Mongolia's political system is parliamentary democracy. Its capital and largest city is Ulaanbaatar.

Now, we all know Kazakhstan is famous for being the home of Borat, but what that has to do with your question I don’t know, I’m just biding time while desperately trying to think of something witty to say, and failing miserably. When I was in Hong Kong I was locked in a room in a nightclub with 2 Mongolian chicks once for three hours while the cops searched the entire club, so maybe that has something to do with it. Or maybe not. Let’s just leave it as “I have no fucking idea” and move onto the next question.

2) No, I am not Keven Conn, who recently retired from the “Unemployed Skeletor” bit. If it was me there would be a hell of a lot more swearing. I like his taste in women though…

3) The reason people slag off Avon Hill and Games Workshop is because their games have too much flavour and not enough meeple. Actually it’s probably more to do with the fact these guys pretty much stopped making boardgames all together didn’t they? You have to admit, both companies are no where near as good these days as they use to be (kind of like BGG – ohh feel the burn!) I myself will refrain from slagging off Fantasy Flight games however, as if I do Thaadd wont give me anymore precious spare parts after my dog eats them.

Jar82@verizon.net writes:

It seems a lot of American-style games lately have been incorporating Euro-mechanics into their rules. While this has been hailed as a good thing by some at Fortress Ameritrash, I can't help but wonder how much better some games could've been without them.

Now I love Twilight Imperium, but wouldn't it be better without the Puerto Rico-style Strategy Cards? Just let every player do everything in phases a la Civilization. And Age of Mythology would have been just wonderful had it used an actual map so your plastic minotaurs and mummies could be fighting over actual physical space.

What do you think?


For starters Jar82 I, unlike my peers here, do not believe in this ‘hybrid’ bullshit people bandy about. A game to me is either a Euro or an AT, even if they are borrowing from the other genre. Warrior knights may have many ‘euro like’ mechanics, but it’s still firmly an AT game. It’s the end result that matters – Just because you stuff your roast with organic salad it doesn’t mean it’s a hybrid vegetarian meal.

Games have been developing innovative mechanics and pinching innovative mechanics long before the Euro was a gleam in some young punk German’s eye. So why shouldn’t they pinch the good stuff Euros have, especially if they can make a better game out of it. Euros didn’t invent the Auction after all!

In response to your examples – I haven’t played TI 2nd edition which sounds like what you described, so I don’t know if dropping the strategy cards would improve the game. Your Age of Mythology idea sounds similar to Titan, which isn’t a bad thing at all. Maybe someone should design this variant?

Send your mail to fortressat@gmail.com with “[mailbag]” in the header to be part of the fun.

Friday, 13 July 2007

It's official, Barnes is 90% butthead

Steves Weeks' latest (and possibly final) Ultimate Podcast did an interview with Derk Solko but for some reason isn't on his website. For those who missed it you can hear it here:


Derk officially confirms Barnes is 90% butthead. Feel free to post your condolences to the Barnes family below.

Stock Car Champoinship Racing Card Game. Long name for a pretty cool game.

You all should know I am a race game Junkie. I have this unexplainable attraction to any racing game. From Speed Circuit to Mississippi Queen from Win place & Show to Daytona 500 (one of the best out there), I will pretty much buy any racing game I can get my hands on. Sure these are not your mainstream Ameritrash Fare, but they sure are fun and the good ones do have a lot of player interaction, a ton of trash talking, most have some dice tossing and even the rare combat phase if you look hard enough. (Circus Maximus anyone?) In fact there are few racing games I have played that I didn't enjoy, the only one I can think of is Ave Caesar, that thats really a euro with a racing theme.

So anyway, I have been working with the group to try and run a race season over the next year, and have been looking for a game to do it with. I looked at Formula De, obvious choice in that there are tons of tracks, the game looks great on the table and most folks like it. I however find it a bit the same all the time, a little too easy to be an idiot and wreck someone else and way to much depended on the dice. Speed Circuit was another choice, not as popular with my group as Formula De, and we would have to print out the tracks, turning the members attracted to the bling off, but to me its a much better game than Formula De, using the modified AH rules currently deployed at the WBC. However I do not think I can rally the boys on this one so maybe I keep it in the back pocket for the 2nd season.

The last game that I own and one of my favorite race games is McGartin Motorsport Design's Stock Car Championship Racing Card game. This sometimes hard to find game (it ebays for a ton, but is available most years at the WBC from the designer) is one of the most unusual racing simulations you will find. Instead of a printed track that you move mini cars around. The game attempts to simulate NASCAR races, where the track is almost an afterthought and the action is based around how the lead pack of cars bump and grind for position. SCC, or "that card game" as it has become known in these parts, is far more abstract than a normal racing game. Each player is represented by a car (we use 1/64 or 1/24 die cast mini's) placed on the table in a line. Something like this:

Players have a deck of cards that they draw a hand from (7 to 9 cards depending on the type track). These cards contain a number of different bits of information. Each has a Lap count, a Speed Rating, a Pit Time and an event (Action or Response). there is also a Track Deck that contains cards with events and lap counts on them.

Each turn has 3 phases:

The Track Phase - The top card of the Track Deck is flipped and players must play cards out of their hand so that the added value of these cards meets or exceeds the lap count. Each card played will use up one of the players actions (more later on these) and players can use as many cards as they have actions to fill this, however the more cards played here they less that player can do on his/her turn. Additionally a player may play a draft card here regardless of the lap count on the draft card. This counts as the player making the lap count for the turn but the player will get to take no actions during the turn. Any player unable to make a lap count runs out of gas and fetches beer until the race ends.

Also in the Track deck are events. Like a crash ahead, slow traffic, or engine trouble. Players may have to play a card from their hand or top-deck a random card to see if they get nailed by the event.

The Action Phase - This is where all the fun stuff happens. Players compare the speed ratings on the card(s) played to make the lap count. (if more than on card is used players pick the speed rating they want to use and place it on top of the other cards before seeing other players speed ratings)

Players now can play action cards out of their hand, assuming they didn't use up all their actions making the lap count. (Actions for the games are either 3, 4, or 5 per turn depending on the type of track)

These are usually cards that allow you to pass the guy in front of you, or maybe pull away or even have you pull next to some slower traffic to prevent being passed. This doesn't just happen, that driver in front of you gets the chance to play any response card in their hand. This is usually either a block, or a challenge to your pass. Also there are times when players can choose to draft you while passing, or draft the car being passed, this adds a bonus to the card being drafted for challenges and can cause a lot of heated discussion about potential future support. Anyway this is when race position changes, gaps form etc. etc.

The Refill Phase - This is where player refill their hands (again 3, 4 or 5 cards depending on the track type) Players have a max hand size and can not draw more than the refill limit. Spend too many response cards trying to stay in 1st and you will be playing the next hand a bit short!

Thats a fair description of the basic game. There are advanced rules that limit the size of your draw pile until you pit to refill it, allow you to take damage or use tire points until you pit to fix/replace them.

For a fairly simple card game SCC does a great job at simulating the lead draft in a stock car race. Knowing when to pit under green conditions, timing the drive to the front of the pack, and sometimes getting a lucky caution just when you need to catch up is all a part of the game.

For the season you can score each player using the normal NASCAR points system for finishing and laps on the lead. There is even a driver experience system that can be used to increase hand size, speed modifiers on passing or the drivers skill rating for avoiding random events.

I hope to nail down the rules we will use for our season this week and present it to the group in 2 weeks (I will be in Atlanta next week for some gaming with my F:AT buddies! So look for some crazy session reports soon!)

Thats all for now, and remember "If you ain't first, your last!"


Wednesday, 11 July 2007

Them Bones

We played Marvel Heroes during the July 4th holiday last week, and it got me to thinking primarily about dice-based combat systems. Marvel Heroes is primarily a "throw the dice, see who gets more hits" type affair blended with a selection of abilities for each hero, and while it serves its job well it's obvious that the combat is only a smaller portion of the game as a whole.

Since a lot of the games I enjoy involve throwing dice and inflicting casualties based on the results, I began thinking about what I look for in a *good* dice-based combat system. Here are some things that are important to me:

1. Casualties should be able to be inflicted on both sides during a roll.

Really, this is my biggest problem with Risk. Each die rolled is a "zero sum" affair, highest takes it. I realize that you could (and often do) have situations where you split the higher dice and each take a casualty, but that's not exactly what I'm talking about.

I mean, we've all seen it...two defenders in Risk throwing INCREDIBLY, defying the odds. You throw twos, they throw threes. And NOTHING is more frustrating than a defender who rolls a pair of sixes a couple of times.

I like combat systems with "to hit" rolls for each side. Meaning that my casualties are essentially independent from yours, if that makes sense. Combat is a messy thing; there should be bodies all around when the action goes down.

Axis & Allies of course features this mechanic, where each side rolls looking for target numbers, and inflicts casualties on the other side accordingly. Twilight Imperium and War of the Ring also see battles where each side rolls fantastically and just demolishes each other in a bloodbath.

2. Differentiation of Units/Rolls

Let's face it--who wasn't disappointed to learn that the different looking units in Risk were actually no different from each other, except for counts? This especially holds true with the licensed versions of Risk, where you *want* those Nazgul figures to have some extra-lethal combat abilities.

Different units should battle differently. This is especially important because this typically means the game also features some sort of economy--it should be more expensive to build better fighters, and the game needs a way to reflect this cost.

Even if all units of a certain race fight the same way, you can make them different by the costing of the units. Then, when all players mesh in play, it creates diverse combat situations. Quest for the Dragonlords has this as part of its base game but didn't really exploit it well until its Crystal of Power expansion.

I realize that War of the Ring has different-looking unit types that essentially battle the same, but WotR actually creates differences in other ways. First is the location, which can cause each side to battle differently. Then there are leaders and companions, who provide re-rolls. The expansion provides Siege Engines, allowing you to affect the rolls at important Strongholds. Lastly, there is...

3. Card-based Combat and Die Manipulation

I really dislike games where all you can do is throw the bones and hope for the best. You literally have no control over your outcomes whatsoever. This is the biggest reason I can never go back to vanilla Risk; it's just a series of dashing my three guys against your two and keeping my fingers crossed.

The themed Risks really excel here because you can stockpile cards to use them for critical assaults. This allows you to try to skew the odds when it really counts, and deciding when to use those precious cards can be a game unto itself. Star Wars Risk: Clone Wars Edition even features a few cards that can help you snatch victory from the jaws of defeat; one card portrays Obi-Wan and Yoda's attempt at striking at Palpatine one last time and does so by allowing you to attack with two units to anywhere on the board.

This is where War of the Ring shines; the card-based interchange during combat ensures that combats play out differently. Nexus Ops is again a winner by having cards that can boost certain unit types, give you bonuses to your rolls when battling in certain areas, and more.

4. "Tiered" Combat

This goes hand-in-hand with having different units for an army; you can increase the worth of more expensive units by letting them fire first.

This can take the form of having each unit type fire in turn and removing casualties after each tier, or having a ranged and a close combat tier where the ranged attackers get to inflict their casualties first, all the way to having a very small subset of unit types fire in a sort of "pre-combat" mechanism.

Nexus Ops uses the "each unit type fires in turn", with casualties after each step. This is great because it often provides the painful choice of sacrificing cheaper units that haven't fired yet, or inflicting casualties on more expensive units who have already had their chance to fire. Samurai Swords/Shogun has a ranged/close combat breakdown where archers get to unload on the charging ground units before they can close the distance. Twilight Imperium has both PDS and anti-figher barrages that can change the nature of a battle before it's even begun, outside of the "normal" combat phases.

5. Specialized Dice

Let's face it, nothing does a better job of portraying the ferociousness of stronger units than allowing them to roll bigger dice. Understand when I say "specialized" that also includes stuff that most of us are used to but the public at large isn't--things like d4s, d8s, d12s, and so on.

This doesn't mean that's all I'm referring to; games like Memoir '44 and Battlelore essentially create their own odds by having dice with different faces that mean different things in certain circumstances. Even Lionheart uses this to a decent effect by having dice with three Axe faces, two arrow faces, and a Panic face; now with only one die you can give close combat fighters 50/50 hit rations, archers get a 1/3 hit ratio, and you can use the special Panic face for different effects. The most common is having your units Panic; this happens if you roll all Panics on your dice. This is a nice touch because you are more likely to have your morale break as your units are reduced; one lone guy with a sword is much more likely to Panic than he was when he had three of his buddies backing him up.

Having different dice to use in different situations really allows you to open up the possibilities for combat, making it richer. I'll go back to Quest for the Dragonlords, which I think is really effective at using different dice to make combat more interesting. Each unit in the game has two values: an attack value, and a defense value. The defense value tells you which die to roll when fighting against that unit, and the attack value is what number the unit has to roll to hit. So a "normal" fighter might have a Defense of 6; that means you roll a d6 when attacking it, but you use your Attack value to determine success. That means if I attack a guy with a Defense of 6 and I have an Attack of 3, I roll a d6 and try to get 3 or less.

Why this is great is that it allows monsters to have really ferocious scores; the dragon has a defense of TWELVE, meaning you have to roll a d12 when attacking it and for most fighters come up with a 3 or less. All the while the dragon is just MOWING down your dudes with his crazy attack value that almost guarantees a hit every turn.

Battleball may be the simplest yet most creative use of different dice that I've seen. The game features the full compliment of the most common "specialty" dice, from d6s to d20s. Each player is color-coded to show what dice they move when they roll. This allows guys like the wide receivers to roll the d20s and literally just tear down the field. But, in a nice twist, when tackles happen, it is the lower value that wins the combat, and rolling a "1" means you've just LEVELED the other guy, who's out for the game. This means your big burly tackles may only roll a d6 for movement and are extra slow, but their odds of tackling a speedy receiver are huge, and their chances of really flattening the other guy and breaking his cyborg bones is much, much higher.

So there you have it; things that really make dice-based combat work for me. What are some of your favorite dice-based combat mechanics, and games that feature them?

Friday, 6 July 2007

Shameless Plug- Cracked LCD Column #2

People often tell me, "Barnes, ya got no shame". And they're right.

My second column is up at www.gameshark.com. Go click on it and help me in my bid to become the Anti-Tom Vasel. Send you paypal "prayers" to michaelbarnes@shameless.net. Together we can beat the devil.

Thursday, 5 July 2007

Ameritrash from Poland? NEUROSHIMA HEX and ZOMBIAKI

Late last year I started hearing chatter in the boardgaming world regarding a mysterious game from Poland called NEUROSHIMA HEX that was apparently based on a popular Polish post-apocalyptic role-playing game. Initial notices were very favorable and the description made the game sound like a cross between the venerable Ameritrash classic NEXUS OPS and the somewhat unjustly overlooked Christian Petersen/Tom Jolly design VORTEX and needless to say I found myself interested yet still unwilling to jump through hoops to try to import the game. Flash to June 2007, and I find myself ordering thirty copies directly from the very nice and accommodating folks at Portal, the game’s publisher, and becoming the only retailer in the US to stock the game. Of course I had to pick up one for myself and I just couldn’t resist also snagging a copy of the publisher’s zombie game, the charmingly titled ZOMBIAKI. I’m not made of stone.

Now, we’ve all played hybrids at this point and the vast majority of them, barring a couple of designs like MISSION:RED PLANET have skewed much more toward the Ameritrash side of things, incorporating Euro design elements into more baroque, thematic fare. NEUROSHIMA HEX, designed by Michal Oracz, falls definitely further toward the Euro end of the paradigm- despite plenty of thematic material (including a hilarious bit of f-bomb laden fluff text in the rulebook that contains the classic adage “fuck Christmas”) and a brutal, bloody tone the game is fairly abstract in terms of play- it’s much more about positioning, planning, and tactics than surviving in the post-nuclear wasteland. It’s an odd balance of theme and abstraction- almost as if a game like Knizia’s SAMURAI actually had a point beyond placing numbered tiles on a pretty board.

Components are good- serviceable but not outstanding. However, this is a very small publisher working without the huge budget of a Fantasy Flight or Days of Wonder so don’t come into it expecting that level of quality. I was fairly impressed by the overall graphic design. It’s amazing how many “professional” companies are completely unaware of the appeal of simple icons, good typography, and decent illustrations. The main complaint I had was that the board is terrifying dull- it almost makes that SANTIAGO board look exciting. Not really, at least this one has hexes.

Gameplay is pretty simple and you’ll be up in running in minutes- but expect to check the rulebook frequently both for rules and laughs as you remind yourself that this is the only game you’ve ever played with an R-rated rulebook. Each player represents a different faction struggling to survive in the aftermath and I’m sure they mean a lot more to those who follow the RPG but suffice to say there’s various army types, rogue types, and a cool robot faction. Each side (there’s four) has a headquarters piece with a special ability and around 30 tiles representing units with different abilities, actions, and modules that can modify your unit’s abilities. Units differ wildly between factions which gives each side a lot of uniqueness in play style. Units might have melee and/or ranged capabilities, nets (which infuriatingly disable adjacent enemy units altogether), or other abilities. Facing is critical and some units might only get an attack on one side of their hex whereas others (like this really sweet robot piece) get to attack every adjacent hex. On your turn, you get to draw three tiles, throw out one, and play or keep the other two. There are no placement restrictions which allows for a lot of strategic possibilities. The goal of the game is to wipe out any enemy HQs, which take 20 points of damage.

Here’s the kicker. You place these tiles out and the board eventually starts to fill up. Tensions are high. Shit is talked. You’re about to pummel an opponent’s HQ with a couple of shooters and some guy with a big stick is going to beat the hell out of the punchy guy attacking your base. So you drop an “attack” tile (every side has several in their tile mix) and the whole board erupts in mayhem- but carefully plotted mayhem. Each unit has an initiative number from 1-3 and the high numbered pieces get to go first. So all “3” pieces deal their damage first, then down the line. And since most units can only take one hit, the board is usually a pretty lonely place after an attack round. It’s a neat system but it does have a very chess-like (or ROBORALLY-like, if you prefer) sense of analysis that can really take the fire out of the fight while everyone huddles around to try to figure out what’s happening and where. Fortunately, it’s over pretty quickly and then you start to build up towards another Armageddon. Oh, did I mention that this is also an elimination game?

Sure, you can play on teams and there’s also a king-of-the-hill variant on the flipside of the board, but where NEUROSHIMA HEX excels is in the fact that it’s an essentially abstract, simple game that manages to capture a lot of the confrontation, trash-talk, and fun of Ameritrash-style games. Yet somehow, I can see gamers really into the GIPF project games, HIVE, or even the dreaded HEY WHERE’S MY FISH getting into it. It is somewhat awkward, and I did find myself thinking that the game was a little dry given the fact that this huge battle really boiled down to something very similar to LIGHT SPEED but with a lot more structure and obviously more game-meat there in terms of strategy and tactics. It is also the kind of game where fun-draining analysis paralysis vampires can really wreak havoc- it’s a 20 minute game that AP suffers can and will drag out to an hour. When I’m playing a simple game and I’m thinking that there needs to be a chess clock on the table then something isn’t going right- but hate the player, not the game.

I like NEUROSHIMA HEX a lot despite the fact that it doesn’t really bring the world of the RPG to life or create a sense of post-apocalyptic atmosphere. Yet, at least the negligible theme is a cool one and I don’t feel like a creep trying to get my peers to play some game about cute animals or food. I think it’s a neat game with ample violence and mayhem but it does give you a lot to think about it. It plays 2, 3, or 4 players equally well and with different considerations so there’s definitely a good bit of replayability and it’s a good wind-down game or something to break out waiting for everyone to show up to play something more serious. “Filler”? Definitely. But the level of competition and depth of gameplay puts this well above most of the worthless piffle in that class.

ZOMBIAKI was the other Polish game I checked out, and that after just recently revisiting a couple of Lucio Fulci pictures (ZOMBI 2 and CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD) so I was primed to play this tiny little game from Ignacy Trzewiczek and Adam Mnich. This is a simple, 2 player card game that finds one player attempting to advance the undead across five rows to reach the human player’s barricade. The humans are basically under siege and get to shoot, blow up, and throw things at the advancing zombies. The zombies have some neat tricks at their disposal, like the ability to take a human shield and (later bite them to make a new zombie), some zombie dogs, and a “boss” zombie that makes one of your gutmunchers extra hard to kill. The humans win if they can keep the zombies off the barricade until the “Dawn” card comes up at the bottom of the zombie deck.

ZOMBIAKI is the kind of simple, dumb fun that you wish Cheapass games could muster. It won’t blow your mind with “elegant” mechanics or “clever” gameplay, but it will impart a really neat atmosphere wherein the human players are under constant pressure to stem the flow of zombies before they can reach the barricade. I actually think the game captures this element from classic zombie films better than any other I’ve played- mostly because it does so in a very simple, relentless manner. The cards feature some pretty decent comic book-style art and even cooler Polish words like “Spadaj” and “Czlowiek”. Fortunately, the English rulebook is extremely clear and after a few turns you’ll likely toss it aside. ZOMBIAKI is a very small game- you could probably toss it in your jacket pocket for an impromptu game anywhere.

So, verdict on the Polish games- both get a healthy “thumbs up” from me. I found both games to feature fun, engaging mechanics as well as cool themes (even if somewhat negligible in NEUROSHIMA HEX’s case) and I believe that both demonstrate that simple, cleanly designed Eurogames do not have to wallow in the routine “family friendly” themes and nonconfrontational gameplay that have pretty much sunk that ship. Although there’s definitely Ameritrash blood running in these games’ veins they are very accessible and approachable to Eurogamers. They’re definitely hybrids, but sort of the “other” side of the hybrid coin. Along with the Czech games (PROPHECY, THROUGH THE AGES), it looks like NEUROSHIMA HEX and ZOMBIAKI bode well for an Eastern European game scene that will hopefully continue to produce high quality, interesting games with a unique flavor.