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
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.
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.
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.
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.