Thursday, 31 May 2007

Malloc... where the hell have you been?

I have been rather uninspired of late. I could not figure out what it was, but I did not have any desire to get up and post on this blog about how lame BGG has become recently, or how much this or that game rocks or how much I can’t stand reading shitty rules. I have become numb to the whole online game world it seems.

I was sitting here wondering what could be causing this, scratching my ass about it for a few days. (Yeah that where my brain lives) Finally it hit me, I do not have the time to care about this shit right now because I have been, by historic Malloc standards, gaming a whole bunch these days.

You see, I am a married working stiff with 2 kids who plays in a rock band, and usually between making sure my wife isn’t driven bonkers by the children, rehearsals, gigs, and my “real” job, I would get to play games about once every two weeks, or for a few hours on the weekend. This was how it was for a few years, but in April one of the guys in the band (the one whose house we use, and who buys the lion’s share of the gear) started working in Atlanta on a project every week. The band is on hold. (This is ok, I gave up my dreams of being a rock start sometime early during Clinton Administration)

Without rehearsal I was free to become a regular at the local game night, and so I did. I was there every Wednesday, playing things like Titan, Warrior Knights, BattleLore and Friedrich. Having a great time playing games (even when eliminated), drinking some really good beer ( The boys do a good job of keeping a healthy supply) even meeting a few new folks.

In addition to this, I started playing games on the Twilight Imperium Wiki site, this site rocks for those of you without the time to play the game face to face. I even managed to get a few of the F:AT bloggers into a game (more on this later).

Now that I am “getting my game on” with some regularity, I don’t care as much about who thinks what about the games I play. I am far too busy enjoying them, learning the ins and outs of the strategies; talking trash to the guys I am about to smack down and generally having fun. Games that don’t interest me stay on the shelf without me giving it a second thought; the urge to bitch about them is gone. I simply pick up something that looks good, throw it down on the table and start lining up opponents.

So everyone, next time you feel have a burning desire to get online and bitch about a game or come up with asinine guidelines for what makes games acceptable. Stop! Take a deep breath, go to the fridge and fetch a beer, sit down and play a game you know you like. In the end you will be a better person for it, and I won’t have to read as much crap online when I am searching out the latest TI3 FAQ updates.

-M


PS. Frank... its your turn!

Wednesday, 30 May 2007

The Right Way of Thinking

I'm a cold hearted bitch.

A while back a house guest was looking through my games for something for us to play, and noticed El Caballero on the shelf.

"That's a good game," she said.
"I don't like it," I told her, "You can have it if you want it."
"No thanks," she replied,"I don't like it much either."
"Let's play Talisman," I suggested.
"Talisman is so chaotic and random, we might as well just roll a die, see who's highest, and call it a day."
"Sorry, I thought you liked Talisman."
"I do, but it is a bad game. I rather spend my time playing something more worthwhile."

Then my head spun around like that chick in the exorcist.

I was confounded and bewildered. How can you say that a game you don't like is a "good" game, but a game you do like is a "bad" game? Clearly I was missing something.

So I crawled out of my cave, looked around and discovered there were these things called "Game Clubs," and "Game Groups," and "Game Nights." People went to these to meet other "gamers" and play games. More importantly, they discussed games. Not only were people discussing games in person, they were also discussing them on the internet. Through these discussions, a set of objective criteria had evolved by which it could be determined whether a game was objectively "good," or "bad." These criteria included elements such as randomness, meaningful decisions, player interaction, perfect information, playing time, and elegance. Apparently benchmarks had been set. It took me a while to determine what these benchmarks were, but eventually, I think I figured it out. I may be mistaken, but it seemed that Chess and Go were towards the top of the scale, Monopoly was towards the bottom, and, the most important benchmark of all was Settlers of Catan. Games whose various criteria fell above Settlers and Chess were "good" games. Games whose criteria fell below Settlers were "bad" games. It was an epiphany. Here I had been happily playing Talisman, Arkham Horror and Merchants of Venus, unaware that these were "bad" games.

I decided that I had to find more worthwhile games. In fact. I decided I had to find the best game. After years of searching, I finally found it: Hey, That's My Fish.

Hey, That's my Fish has variable set-up. I learned that that's important for replayability. All this time I had been playing games on the same board, over and over. I'm such a dope. It has perfect information. That sounds impressive doesn't it - PERFECT INFORMATION. Player interaction. Yep. Meaningful decisions. Yep. Short playing time, and short rules. Absolutely. I think you can teach someone to play in about a minute and a half, and the whole game takes only about ten minutes to play. And most importantly, zero randomness (well except for the set-up, which, I am told, is an allowable randomness).

In Hey, That's my Fish, you play a penguin trying to catch fish, while attempting to set all the other penguins adrift on small ice floes, so that they can't get any fish, and die or something. I know kids who like this game. I know adults who like this game. I know adults who like playing this game with kids. But, crap, I just don't like it. I really tried, but I just don't give a damn about my penguin. Shouldn't I feel something? I should feel happy when my penguin gets a two fish tile, instead of a one fish tile, right? I should feel bummed when he is set adrift, facing certain death on that tiny ice floe, shouldn't I? I should at least feel annoyed that my stupid penguin can't swim? If he could swim, he could just jump off that ice floe and save himself, right? Maybe I am supposed to feel compassion for him or something, because of his disability?

So, Hey That's My Fish is a good game, but I don't like it. My friends think it's because I'm too stupid to understand it's depth of play. But the truth is, I'm just a cold hearted bitch that doesn't give a damn about my lame penguin.

...And May the Dice Gods Smite Thee

Tuesday, 29 May 2007

Mr Skeletor’s Mailbag, 29th May

No mail came in this week, so I thought I would just put up some naked chicks in place of this column. But then at the 11th hour a letter came, so instead of naked chicks you get naked molerats.

Ryan “no breasts for you” Walberg writes

Dear Mr Skeletor,

I find myself the subject of disparaging remarks on BoardGameGeek whenever I criticize Yspahan, one of this year's Spiel des Jahres nominees. Can you recommend to me some sort of treatment by which I might come to love Yspahan so I may "fall in line", as it were? Failing that, is there somewhere else on the Internet I can post honest remarks about lousy games?

Your faithful reader,

Ryan Walberg (GeneralPF)


Ahh, Yspahan, a game I have never played but figured out an unbeatable strategy to after watching one game. I’d let you in on how to win, but Doug Adams swore me to secrecy, as he plans to win the Yspahan world championships with it and hand me the cash (he can keep the glory.)

To love Yspahan is simple, just stare at the Board Game Geek top 200 list and pray until its little wooden camels come to life and touch your heart. Besides it’s got dice, how bad can it be?

As far as a place on the internet that you can post honest remarks about lousy games, I’m not sure such a utopia exists. I was going to say you can do that here, but then I remembered that if you bag Fire and Axe in the comments section Barnes will cry.

If you have any mail or nudes for this segment (or my personal collection) send them to fortressat@gmail.com with “[mailbag]” in the header.

Sunday, 27 May 2007

Tide of Iron - Under the Havoc Staff

Tide of Iron is Fantasy Flight Games’ World War 2 squad level game, designed by the oddly named John Goodenough. Riding the line between Wargame and Ameritrash, it’s the latest mega hyped game of the board game masses everywhere. But does it live up to the hype?

You can read the rules on Fantasy Flight Games website (www.fantasyflightgames.com)

The “Wow” Factor.

Tide of Iron is the 4th “coffin box” Fantasy Flight Game (FFG), which are a series of games that come in boxes big enough to bury your mother-in-law in. With such a big box and hefty price tag, the game sure looks impressive, but in comparison to the other coffin boxed games the “wow” factor falls short. Twilight Imperium 3 took a week to punch out all the tokens and cut the minis from the spurs, Descent knocked it out of the park with its hoard of oversized minis, then World of Warcraft seemed to up the anti again having more cards then a casino and more plastic then Paris Hilton’s purse. After experiencing these mammoth games, Tide of Iron (TOI) seems a little bare and less impressive. In fact I have managed to squeeze the entire contents of the game into the smaller Twilight Imperium Shatter Empires box, which is something I would never be able to do with the other 3 games in this series. Still this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as the game is now more portable, and the original box left a lot of room to so later expansions can fit in quite easily.

Components

The game comes with a hefty 48 page rulebook, so a bit of reading is involved. A lot of people have trouble with FFG rulebooks, but I found this one quite clear and easy to understand, with plenty of illustrations and examples. Interestingly FFG broke from tradition and made the rulebook a standard A4 size, as opposed to the big square size they normally use. While I like the square books for their uniqueness, I have to admit the standard size is easier to wield while referencing the rules during play or doing a spot of reading in bed or on the shitter. The rulebook also has an index on the back, something other FFG rulebooks are sorely missing.

The scenarios come in a separate book, and there are 6 of them in total. While 6 doesn’t sound like many, the scenarios are quite detailed and range from middleweight to complex (for the system), and seem very replayable so they should last you a while.

Strangely enough one of the ‘weakest’ components in the game is the miniatures. There are a lot of them, but they are quite small (especially as they don’t come attached to bases) and somewhat rough, with some having moldlines and prominent spur nubs, and a few of the tanks even having messy glue marks. The miniatures clip into bases (4 minis per bases) via a little peg at their feet, and a lot has been said about the risks of breaking this peg off as some of the minis are a very tight fit. The plastic is quite soft however so they should take quite a pounding without damage – I got pretty rough with them and so far, so good. Putting them in and out of their bases can be quite fiddly, but after a while I got a technique down and can now do them quite fast. The bases do make actual game play easier (moving one base sure beats moving all four minis) so overall I like them.

The 2 player reference sheets are, to put it bluntly, crap. For starters rather then being on cardboard like the World of Warcraft ones were they are on floppy paper, the same type as the rulebook. I’d be tempted to laminate them, except that the information found on them is terrible - the description for resolving an attack isn’t detailed enough leaving out crucial steps (such as choosing your attack type), some information is misleading (such as an officer’s rally ability neglecting to mention attacks are made with half firepower) and they don’t even list terrain and cover rules! Very poor overall.

Thankfully things improve dramatically when it comes to the boards. These things are awesome, thick, sturdy and impossible to warp unless you’re using an oxy torch to do it. In fact these things are so solid that they feel more like light wood or masonite then cardboard. I dare say if you walloped your opponent across the face with these you’d do a fair bit of damage, so watch out of someone decides to overturn the table in a fit of rage. They were well worth the release delay they gave the game.

Finally, you get a fair (but not ridiculous) amount of counters, chits, and board overlays on very thick cardboard with lovely artwork. No complaints there. A deck of 110 regular sized nicely finished cards are included. The artwork on them is attractive, the font clear, and they have a white boarder so they should last for the long haul. The dice are small (9mm) with rounded corners, very similar to the basic chessex ones.

Overall contents wise you certainly get your moneys worth, even if it does feel like bit of a step down from the other coffin boxed games.

Setup

The game itself is scenario based, with most missions having a defender and an attacker. While the scenarios get progressively more complex, even the first one isn’t that simple, introducing vehicles and multiple strategy decks from the start. Therefore I recommend downloading the early bird scenario from FFG’s website and playing that as your first game. For some strange reason this actually can’t be found in the scenario section of the site (go figure) but rather under one of the design notes: (http://www.fantasyflightgames.com/tideofiron_designnotes5.html).

Setting up the game is relatively quick, simply involving configuring the boards and slapping on a few overlays. The only time consuming part is force construction (which involves snapping the different units into the squad bases in different configurations), but I’d argue that comes under game play as it actually involves making choices, with a feel similar to constructing your army in a miniatures game.

The great thing with squad construction is there doesn’t seem to be any ‘obvious’ way to construct your force, with different choices having well balanced advantages and disadvantages. For example grouping your mortars gives you one devastating attack which will hold off anything, but separating your mortars allows you to try and suppress 2 targets rather than one. Grouping your elites together means your opponent will be hard pressed to suppress them, making them excellent units for assaults and objective captures, but it will also make them bullet magnets, and since they die just as easily as regulars you may be better off spreading them out. Should you put your officers in with your regulars to give them faster movement or place them with the machine guns to allow them to keep shooting even if they come under fire? There is a lot to think about, and the way you construct your forces will greatly influence how you will end up approaching the scenario (and vice versa.) In short this part of the game offers real choices, and we have yet to see any ‘pre-scripted’ setups in our games where people are always using the same force configurations.

Gameplay

The game is of what I would consider medium to medium long length – expect 2 hours for a scenario, probably stretching to 3 when you get the bigger ones. Despite it’s length the game moves at a brisk pace, with players alternating moving a few units each at a time, so downtime is minimal.

The underlying mechanics are robust and quite simple, and even inexperienced players should pick them up after only one read through of the rules. Where new player will struggle is in the details, since there are a lot of modifiers, special cases and exceptions to remember. Expect a few games for most board gamers to become comfortable enough to play without constantly referring to the rules, though wargamers should be able to master the rules before breakfast. There is nothing which sticks out as amazingly groundbreaking, but what is there is very solid and works wonderfully well.

The game basically involves issuing commands to squads and playing strategy cards. The game plays like a standard wargame where you can issue whatever order (there are bit over half a dozen to chose from) to whichever squad you like, which while some may argue is not ‘realistic’ makes a nice change of pace from the card driven games like Combat Commander (which I have been playing a lot of lately) where you feel the need to scream “JUST GIVE ME A FUCKIN' MOVE CARD ALREADY!” at the deck every so often. Like all war games you are mainly capturing and holding things, in this case it’s either objectives which give you victory points or an outright win, or objectives which give you “command” points, which is a currency in the game that allows you to use strategy cards to do things like grab the initiative, call in air strikes, or summon reinforcements.

One of the great things we have noticed with the scenarios is that they tend to encourage people to play all over the map, as opposed to some games where 80% of the action occurs on 20% of the board with obvious choke points and the like. Here we have found scenarios can be approached in different ways and from different angles, which gives them a lot of replayability since you don’t get that sense of déjà vu that happens with some games where the same areas get fought over every game.

Combat involves a ton of dice giving the game a nice epic feeling; there is nothing worse in my mind then simulating the expenditure of several hundred rounds of ammunition with ONE die roll. There are no combat resolution tables in the game, instead you modify the dice rolls themselves and score hits on certain numbers depending on your range. There are 2 types of attack you can make in the game – normal, which inflicts casualties, and suppressive, which pins and possibly routs squads. While some may argue this isn’t a great simulation (after all, wouldn’t a squad receiving casualties make them stop and go to ground?) from a game play perspective it’s a real winner, and the calls you make here is what will probably win or lose you the game. While the temptation is to always perform normal attacks (bloodthirsty lot we are), suppressive attacks are essential to any good offense or defense, especially considering that scenarios have a time limit so each turn is crucial.

Don’t get too attached to your little toy soldiers as the casualty rate in the game is very high. In fact the worse thing you can do is play this game after playing Combat Commander, a game where dislodging a squad from a building is a real pain in the ass, and normally involves multiple squads to pull it off. In TOI I moved my squad into a building thinking they’d be safe for a few turns only to watch in horror as they were torn apart within thirty seconds. Vehicles are a little sturdier but even they don’t tend to last too long. With combined fire squads can and do take out tanks, though by the time they do most of them have already been turned into pate. In short, stuff dies.

The strategy cards represent things like off board artillery, reinforcements, special commands and just general story events and are divided into different decks of which each side will get a few depending on the scenario. A familiarity with what each deck has helps a lot during the game, so I recommend allowing new players to read through there decks before the game so they have a basic idea of which deck they want to draw from and how much effort they will want to expend capturing objectives that gives them command (the games currency) in order to bring these cards into play. The strategy cards are a simple and effective way to not only bring a bit more depth to the game, but also give a unique feel to the different operations and forces in the game. My only complaint with them is that the Germans kind of got screwed with only getting one ‘reinforcement’ deck, I would have liked them to get another unique deck to make them feel more, ahh, German. The Americans got a reinforcement deck and an air strike deck, with the rest of the decks being generic. Can’t wait to see what a Russian expansion deck will get, lots of cards allowing you to shoot your own men I suspect.

Multiplayer

Don’t believe the box – this is really a two player game. The game comes with 2 shades of bases for each side to allow up to 4 players to play, but apart from a few restrictions the game is identical to the 2 player game, with people simply playing on one of two teams, similar to War of the Ring. It’s still fun to play like this, but to me it’s a stretch to claim it’s a real three or four player game.

Overall

Tide of Iron is pretty much what we expected it to be, a lavish, epic ameritrash / wargame hybrid (though it seems to fall more towards the ameritrash side) that sacrifices some detail and realism for gameplay and is perfect for those who want a squad level World War 2 game without the overbearing detail that often accompanies wargames. Strangely, the game has a feel not unlike a miniatures game, with its emphasis on force construction, maneuvering, targets of opportunity completing objectives within a strict turn limit.

Recommended for those who:

Like the setting but found Memoir ’44 too basic.

Enjoy medium to high level ameritrash games.

Want to play a wargame but consider gameplay more important than simulation.

Like to explore a game in depth.

Enjoy excellent production values.

Avoid if

You don’t like dice.

You’re a high level wargamer and don’t see the point in playing something simpler.

Don’t like games with more that 3 pages of rules.

Don’t like violence or war glorification in games.

Tide of Iron gets a definite stamp of approval from me.

Saturday, 26 May 2007

"I thought we were COOL with each other!"...or Who to Attack, and When

I think we've pretty well established that the games we like are going to involve some attackin' and some killin'. Those are two pillars that AT games are founded on.

But who? Who do we attack, and why? Well, that's the real trick, isn't it? Who will be the victim of your wrath tonight? Who are you going to send into a table-flipping rage? Here are the common criteria used for whom to attack, and some of the pros and cons of each.



Love Thy Neighbor:





Sometimes you need to open a can of whoop-ass on the guy sitting closest to you.

Pros: First off, you have the excuse, "sorry man, you are closest to me." Secondly, attacking those positioned next to you requires the smallest expenditure of resources and actions; it makes sense to try to be efficient. Also, in games of territorial conquest taking spaces close to you allows you to consolidate your area of strength, remove a potential attacker from your flank before he does the same to you, allow you to thin out and strengthen around your borders.

Cons: Meta-reasons, mostly. In a game like Risk, Australia is king precisely because it puts one players back against a wall, removing a direction of potential threats. Most modern games try to alleviate this advantage by limiting the map to not include territories that have such a stark advantage.

What this means is that although attacking your neighbor might make for the most efficient use of actions, diplomacy might instead allow you to create this "back against the wall" advantage for yourself. In A Game of Thrones, the Houses in the middle of the board will frequently agree to such an arrangement, allowing them to spread out in different directions rather than spending the entire game pounding on each other. Twilight Imperium definitely has the "efficient attack" syndrome where your immediate neighbors are closest within striking distance, but diplomacy in this case can allow each of you to move forward rather than worry about defending or moving laterally; trade agreements with neighbors can help give such agreements some tangible "teeth".
Lastly, attacking your neighbor sometimes just doesn't make strategic sense; maybe he's putting pressure on the leader on another flank and your attacking him will divert him from that aim (which would essentially be your aim as well--to curb the leader). Sometimes what you will take from a particular neighbor just isn't as rich as what you could take from someone else, if you were just willing to march a little.




This is For Terroring My Serra Angel!





It is likely in the span of a gamenight that at some point, someone is going to have to pay for the "sins of the father", or what they've done to you in a previous game. This sort of thing is frowned upon by "Social Contracttm" gamers, but it can have its uses.

Pros: There's no denying that the threat of being mired in a revenge war with another player for the rest of the game can be a strong deterrent. Maye they'll think twice about screwing you over late in the game if they know you are going to extract revenge in the next game where you might have more resources at your disposal.

So long as they are concerned about winning, even if you're in a losing position in one game the knowledge you will rise from your game in the next to extract unholy revenge.

Cons: There are those who argue that introducing this metagame element "breaks" games, or at the very least makes gaming sessions less fun. I think that it's okay so long as you keep it within the same gaming night, when memories for all are still fresh; carrying it over to next week's or next month's game night is probably pushing it.

Also, you can go too far with such things. If *every* time someone attacks you it causes you to rage and vow revenge, eventually they're going to specifically target you, every game, just because you're being unreasonable (face it, some games it's just going to make the most sense to attack you--absolutely nothing personal and no sense taking it that way EVERY TIME). You also run the risk of becoming a bit of an outcast in your gaming group, especially if your rage is out of proportion to the original sin. "Attack ME to strengthen your border, will you? We'll just see how things go down in Blood Feud in New York in a little while, then!"



It's The Theme, Dummy







Sometimes the game itself dictates who you attack. This can be a hard and fast thing--Germany cannot suddenly decide to initiate hostilities with Japan in Axis and Allies. Othertimes games will shoehorn you into who you attack, based perhaps on geography, or the goals of the faction you're playing.

Pros: This definitely makes "who to attack" decisions much less strenuous. The pool of potential victims is limited in some way, taking some of the command burdens off of you. Having clearly defined objectives or alliances also cuts down on the "hard feelings" factor--sorry guy, I'm *supposed* to attack you.

Cons: If you aren't careful, such games run the risk of becoming "scripted", a common complaint lobbed at A&A. Also, some players don't like having their choices limited, even by in-game strategic considerations--if I want to attack you, don't limit my options! (Maybe I owe you one from last game...)



Save Your Pity for the Weak




This one's tough. Sometimes Johnny there is on the verge of death, clinging by a thread to his in-game existence--but man, claiming those territories of his sure is tempting...


Pros: Unless you have allegiances, one player is just as valid an enemy as another. By *not* finishing him off--and I've seen this before--that player may be able to claw their way back in it and suddenly become a threat to you again in the late game. By polishing him off when he's weak, you make sure that you won't be seeing his Greek warriors beating your doors down in later days.

Also, it goes back to efficiency; it's often easier to take out a weaker player. You usually spend less and risk less by going after a player who has no teeth left.

Cons: Like I said, this one is really tricky. First, from a metagame standpoint, some groups really frown on "vulturing"--meaning picking off someone who is weak but is not in this position based on your actions. This is sort of like "claiming the kill" and can get you into hot water with another player. Plus, there's the aspect that you are bullying or pounding on another player who just isn't a threat right now, making you look very much like "the bad guy". This can also cause some pretty hard feelings from the victim themselves if they feel your attacking them is unfair. That, of course, is in the eyes of the beholder.

There is a valid in-game concern with this, though; if the other player is weak, they're obviously not the leader and attacking the weak player probably isn't getting you any closer to hurting or taking out the current game leader. There are plenty of situations where time can be of the essence in reigning in a dominant player. Making an ally with the weak player now allows them also to build up a bit and help in the effort of taking down the stronger player.





So there are just a few considerations for making your attacking decisions. Each have their pros and cons and of course some game situations are going to cause you to choose one or another.

Do you or your group have any special attacking rules? How do you feel about some of these, particularly the "revenge for a previous game" concept?


Friday, 25 May 2007

The Weekly AT Snapshot - 5/25/2007

Exclusive Titan Interview!


Fortress Ameritrash has arranged an exlusive interview with an anonymous source close to the game's production whom we will call "Titan" :

Fortress AT: Congratulations on securing the rights to a Titan reprint!

Titan: Thanks, we're very excited about it.

Fortress AT: I have to ask about the box cover. Is that guy some kind of wizard?

Titan: No, that's actually Tiziano Vecelli, a famous Renaissance era painter.

Fortress AT: ...

Titan: Our market research indicates that wizened, sage old men on box covers result in higher sales volume. So we thought we would go with it. We've rethemed the game so that the "Titans" are now "Titans of the Art World". Da Vinci, Van Gogh, Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso, Warhol - all of the great masters are there.

Fortress AT: But doesn't that completely blow away the classic Ameritrash theme of the game?

Titan: We were a little worried about that, so we gave each of the Titans a special power. Da Vinci has a spiked tail attack. Van Gogh regenerates. Picasso has plasma breath. Andy Warhol changes colors and spits acid.

Fortress AT: Weird. What about player elimination?

Titan: We're pleased to announce that we've eliminated player elimination!

Fortress AT: Really? How did you pull that off without fundamentally altering the game?

Titan: Well, when your Titan is "killed" (which we now call "shamed"), you're allowed to throw your hands up in the air and exclaim, "All this fighting is for the birds!" At that point, you can play a little card game we call Titan: The Collecting.

Fortress AT: That's an interesting approach. So you include an extra game to play when you get "eliminated" from the main game?

Titan: Exactly. The idea is to prevent players from having to engage in conversation, fetch chips and soda, that sort of thing. It gives everyone something to focus on.

Fortress AT: Tell us how this extra game works.

Titan: Well, it's basically a retheme of one of those Reiner Knizia flea games. You're an egg collector trying to amass sets of eggs in a small basket. You bid on gargoyle eggs, giant eggs, troll eggs, pegasus eggs - you get the picture.

Fortress AT: Trolls don't lay eggs.

Titan: They do now!

Fortress AT: So what's the point of this extra game? Can you win somehow?

Titan: It's all about impressing the Titan. The player with the most eggs doesn't have to help clean up the game. Isn't that clever?

Fortress AT: Yeah, that's pretty good. Anyhow, that about wraps up our time for today. Thanks for sharing with us.

Titan: Glad to be here. ATREYU!!!

This week's snapshot was submitted by our own Matt Thrower. Very elegant work, Matt!

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

If you've got a great image that just screams Ameritrash, email us the image or a URL. It can be an image you created or an image you found on the web. We don't care! If it meets our strict quality standards, we'll publish it in The Weekly AT Snapshot, instantly making you an undeniable global celebrity. We'll even pimp your website if you send us the URL for that. Send all submissions to fortressat@gmail.com with the word "Snapshot" in the subject line.

Wednesday, 23 May 2007

The Horror in the Game Box

It sucks to be really into horror and really into board games given all the crap that comes out with various zombies, vampires, and other horror images slapped across cardboard surfaces.

The horror genre in board gaming is a graveyard of half-assed, poorly designed titles that traffic more in sophomoric jokiness and crude mechanics than in the atmosphere and frisson that the genre offers in other mediums such as film and literature. Every time a new horror-themed game arrives I feel compelled to try it even though I realize that it’s just going to be another disappointment, having weathered abominations such as THE TESTIMONY OF JACOB HOLLOW and WHEN DARKNESS COMES. This weekend at Atlanta Gamefest 11 I got to try White Wolf’s new game MONSTER MAYHEM with a full group including Frank and Sandi Branham (two of the biggest horror junkies I know) and although we had fun as a group the game itself was a complete disaster of clichéd, overused, and amateurish mechanics dressed up in faux-Famous Monsters artwork. Some novel concepts such as each player’s monster requiring a different type of sustenance (zombies eat brains, vampires drink blood- you get the picture) and a city full of scurrying victims seemed like a great setup for a fun game but it boils down to stat numbers and die rolls with little or nothing interesting to do. The clunky gameplay- it’s one of those games that relies on 8-sentence paragraphs of text to tell you what your fundamentally basic special power is- immediately relegated this disaster to the pile of failed horror themed games. But it could have been great- the concept of classic monsters running amuck could have been great, and who doesn’t want to see a mummy fight a zombie?

It strikes me that horror games like MONSTER MAYHEM have a few key points where they fail, and one of the primary ones is that it seems that designers of these games (such as Twilight Creations) depend on the theme perhaps a little too much to carry the game- I mean, if you’re into George Romero pictures you’re going to want ZOMBIES, right? And sure, ZOMBIES is a fun enough game with the right crowd but mechanically it’s pretty dull stuff- not to mention the fact that the game is usually twice as long as it ought to be. Horror is such a broad and rich theme with the potential for countless interesting game applications- zombie games are practically a genre unto themselves these days but there’s also haunted houses, possession, werewolves, witchcraft, vampires of several different persuasions, and any number of other possible material for games to cover. However, simply dressing up a game in horror drag doesn’t really cut it with me and I think there are far too many games that reek of this approach. Even though BETRAYAL AT THE HOUSE ON THE HILL collapses under the combined weight of boring gameplay and “buggy” execution it at least had an interesting concept wherein the villain or other horror-causing agent was unknown until halfway through the game- a fun mechanic that rendered the first 50% of the game useless. And of course, BLACK MORN MANOR did pretty much the same thing years earlier also couched in a fairly routine and uninteresting structure.

I believe that another reason that horror in games fails so often is that the game medium simply doesn’t lend itself to the psychological, emotional, and sometimes deeply personal reasons that horror film and literature work on us. Games strike me as a much more egalitarian medium wherein the audience is able to largely shape the tone, direction, and outcome of a narrative or situation. Films and literature are much more dictatorial and there is also a lot more control over what is given to the audience on a very discreet level. One of my favorite scenes in any horror film is in Dario Argento’s SUSPIRIA, when a girl looks out a window into the night and the night responds by opening its eyes. It’s an incredible scene that works on a deep psychological level (that sublimated fear we all have walking by a window at night) and there’s a conjunction of visual, audio, and compositional elements that work in concert to create a near-perfect instance of horror. The things I find really scary in films are things that create a sense of almost surreal displacement, like the scene in Werner Herzog’s 1979 NOSFERATU where Dracula attacks Johnathan Harker. It’s very subtle, but you can see that the set was built with a smaller-than-average door so as to make Klaus Kinski look out of place and supernatural in a very subtle way. These are examples of things in horror that games just can’t reach or likely even begin to approach because the mediums are just so different. I also suspect that real horror, terror, or fear is impossible in gaming largely because the medium simply works on a more logical, processional level than a film or piece of literature does.

Could it be too, then, that horror games can’t be very horrific because we’re playing and interacting with friends as much as we are interacting with the medium? Sure, we can see a film in a group of people and comment and cajole throughout but we aren’t directly involved in how it unfolds, in the act of recreating it. In a book or story, the author gives us a verbal framework with which we generate imagery. With film, there is a complete package of light, sound, image, and word that is essentially reproduced for us by mechanical or electronic means. Even in video games like RESIDENT EVIL or SILENT HILL where there is a level of interaction and control over outcome it is possible to experience fear and terror (of course I’m thinking of the “dog scene” at this point). Regardless of setting, we still experience those mediums on a personal, intimate level. Yet gaming is more communal, social, and interactive. I think this was one area where MALL OF HORROR was _almost_ great- the zombies were very much a sideshow to the actual drama and horror generated by human nature and greedily trying to survive whilst resigning your fellow humans to die at the hands of the undead. I think the designers really captured the social element of films like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD extremely well while also incorporating them into a social game.

It comes down, really, to the simple suggestion that horror is something very personal and internalized- even if we vocalize how much something scares us or if we shout at a sudden shock. Horror is a genre defined by its shocks, its atmosphere, and its ability to function as both a psychological stimulus and analyzer. Yet are we ever really scared when we flip a tile or roll a die to prevent a character from dying? Do horror games really invite us to explore what disturbs us or why? As for atmosphere, how much is really possible when we’re sitting at a table engaging in small talk, shuffling pieces around, and reaching for the box of Crunch n’ Munch?

It would seem though that if we can read a really atmospheric and haunting story like the August Derleth/HP Lovecraft Pastiche _The Lurker at the Threshold_, with a tremendously horrifying vignette that finds the protagonists pursued by these milky, streaming white hands, then we ought to encounter a sensation of horror when we imagine the goings-on in a game like ARKHAM HORROR. I think the flavor text in that game is particularly well done and pretty evocative in its sometimes amusing vagary (“You look into the jeweled skull and realize that there is no point in life. Lose 2 sanity.”) but does it really scare us? Not really, even though the stakes in a film and a game are basically the same and there’s no real threat of danger. And of course, few are the people who would be bothered or disturbed by the art in such a game, let alone by what they might imagine as they play through it- I find myself laughing a lot more in a game of ARKHAM HORROR than feeling sensations of dread or doom. It’s not a negative mark on the game, since it is obviously intended for fun and amusement but so too are horror films and literature.

Games like ZOMBIES also fall into a common trap in horror game design of overdoing the humour element- no doubt, horror and humour can be great partners (witness the sublime SPIDER BABY or even SHAUN OF THE DEAD) but in gaming there have been so few attempts at serious horror that it’s disappointing to the potential of the theme diluted by designers who have seen too much ARMY OF DARKNESS and not enough Val Lewton. Getting back to MONSTER MAYHEM, I thought that the overwhelming coolness of having proper gothic horror monsters running amuck was practically ruined by the uncredited designer or designers’ insistence on incorporating “modern” or “urban” material like a “Crack Addled Whore” and a “Street Smart Pimp” as victims. Sorry, but I just don’t find a vampire hunting down a “Crack Addled Whore” to be very funny, and it certainly doesn’t speak to the things I love about horror. I love the trashiest of the trash horror films but I love “classy” horror much, much more. I’ll take the original HAUNTING over SAW, thank you very much.

So what of the “good” horror games? I’d rank FURY OF DRACULA and ARKHAM HORROR as the best in the genre, easily. Yet I think FURY OF DRACULA is much too epic and broad in scope to really bring out the discreet elements of horror that are so elusive to board games. In its favor, it has a system that generates mystery, suspense, and surprise and there is sufficient lip service to the same themes that make the novel the masterpiece that it is. ARKHAM HORROR, to me, isn’t really much of a horror game at all despite the Mythos elements- it’s much more of a two-fisted pulp adventure, which is completely fine with me. I do think the inevitable approach of the Great Old Ones adds a fun sense of dread and pending doom, but there again I never feel “scared” by it, let alone seriously threatened.

How could horror games be better? A couple of months ago, David Ausloos, a young Belgian designer sent me the rules for a zombie game that he had been working on called DARK, DARKER, DARKEST. Aside from the totally kick-ass title, the game actually sounded very intriguing and it really demonstrated that he understood where games like ZOMBIES and other horror titles went wrong- and where films like DAWN OF THE DEAD get it right. The game has three “acts”- an initial phase where the players must work together to break a zombie siege, a second part where the cure for the plague has to be found, and a third act where it was time to get the hell out of there. Throughout the game (I’m assuming as I haven’t played it), there are shifting alliances engendered by completely situational ethics in addition to non-stop zombie attacks. The story provides a tense, dramatic scenario. The possibility of death lingers throughout the game. But will it be scary? Will it be a true horror game? It definitely has potential, and I feel safe to say that it won’t be another MONSTER MAYHEM.

In terms of design, I think that for one thing, the designers of these games have got to stop leaning so hard on the theme as a selling point and deliver a better game, a full package to complement the themes and ideas of their material with mechanics that illustrate and give structure to the theme with thorough narrative. I believe that interaction that brings out the larger psychological themes is absolutely critical, like in MALL OF HORROR- you can’t rely on tiny plastic figures or flavor text to make the game “horror”. Narrative is an essential ingredient as are high stakes and the possibility of death, since all horror is ultimately about death in some form or another. The things that work in film and literature- suggestion, psychology, creation of atmosphere- _should_ work in games yet so far no game has really delivered on this potential. It may be that the game medium simply can not.

Monday, 21 May 2007

Mr Skeletor's Mailbag, 22nd May

Pretty empty bag this week. I feel unloved.


Panzer “I love my DM screen” Patching writes:


What's the difference between a true role-playing game and a pseudo
role-playing game/board game hybrid?

There are many answers to this hoary old question but to my mind the most
accurate response would be the fact that in true role-playing games monsters
know how to open doors. In RPG board games (whether they be old favourites
such as HeroQuest or state of the art dungeon crawling fares such as
Descent) the dungeons are always populated by a buch of cretins who can't
figure out which way to turn the door handle. Even velociraptors could work
that out!

Any thoughts on this?

Regards
Panzer-attack


Now now Panzer, let’s not re-write history here. Monsters can open doors, just not into un-revealed areas. They are afraid of the dark you see.

The real answer of course is it depends on how strictly the rules are enforced. If the game has a tight, structured sequence of play that isn’t meant to be deviated from, it’s a boardgame. On the other hand if the rules are meant to played fast and loose by the DM, then it’s a roleplaying game. On thing I always found interesting about RPGs is that the DM is allowed to fudge things as he sees fit “for the good of the game”, but players are not. Always came across as dictatorial bullshit to me.

This ‘rules difference’ also leads to the other big tell, if the DM is a game referee, then it’s probably a roleplaying game, whereas if the DM is an opponent then it’s a boardgame. I remember in my younger days being quite blown away (I was easily blown away back then) when reading the rulebook for the Advanced HeroQuest Terror in the Dark expansion, which told the DM in the final room of the final quest quite clearly not to pull any punches and go all out, after all the heroes wont be pulling any punches on you! I thought that was badass!


Franklin “Me love Starwars” Bob writes:

Panzer,

This is Ken...I like your question, if Mr. Skelly doesn't gobble it up for his mailbag within the next two weeks, I will devote a column to your letter and my thoughts on it. Good question though, thanks for submitting!

--Ken B.

OI! Get your own segment you thieving prick!



Finally some captain anonymous sent me a private mail directing me to a thread on BGG started by Eddie the Cranky Monkey about Boardgame Elitists (link here: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/thread/165297). In it on page 3 Sam Healey drops this lovely morsel about Eddie’s criticism of The Dice Tower:


So, I guess I’m trying to say that there are a lot of mean-spirited people out there (in our hobby), of which neither I nor Tom are a part. Be careful not to put yourself into that group of people. You’ve not done so…just a *friendly* warning, and I mean that *friendly* part of it. I thank you for listening to The Dice Tower, and can only hope that you will continue to do so, as you have said.

Until Next Time…Sam.

Sam, from the bottom of my heart to yours, you really are an elitist piece of fucking shit. Just a *friendly* warning from one of the mean-spirited people out there.

Send your mail to fortressat@gmail.com with “[mailbag]” in the subject line.

Different Hats, Blah Blah Blah--The Expigated Version

Alright, so maybe this isn't a topic worthy of multiple columns, so you're getting the shortened version.


Though my heart lies with AT plastic-filled dicefests, sometimes there just ain't time. Or you're dealing with a crowd that won't be able to roll with that. Still, you're a game junkie; get your fix in quality ways, I always say.



Two-Player, One Hour, AT-Inclined Opponent

Man, these are really, really rare games that fit here; an hour is tough to fit in anything that has a lot of theme. Still, there are some notable titles.



  • Lord of the Rings: The Confronation: Stratego for the modern audience. Knizia somehow manages to capture the theme of the characters (Boromir's sacrifice, Sam's steadfast defense of Frodo, the Balrog as guardian of Moria) in a game that plays in 15 minutes. Ridiculously good.
  • Hellas: AKA the big wargame in the little, tiny package. Seriously, the box is the same size as Lost Cities, but contains 30 plastic troops, 20 plastic ships, several tiles, and three decks of cards. The combat is deterministic but the cards add a crazy amount of chaos--they are very "Magic-esque" in their power levels. Great two-player war game that plays in 30-45 minutes.
  • Blue Moon: For reformed CCG addicts like myself, Blue Moon is a godsend. Scratches the CCG itch without all the nasty blind-booster aftertaste. You can buy additional decks but instead of a weak-assed deck with just enough cards to entice you to get more, you get a fully powered deck for the race in question. Takes 15-30 minutes to play, you can squeeze two games of this in easily.
  • Card Football: Now, you may not be a Sports geek, and that's okay--this is more poker and hand management than true football. Also, this is some serious quality from a small publisher with lots of tokens, a fold-out mounted board with a magnetic referee as a yardage marker, two specialized dice, and an awesome stand-up plastic scoreboard usable in any Football game you could imagine (I will use this for Pizza Box Football from now on). This one can run a little long until you get the hang of it, but after a few plays this will fit inside of an hour.
  • Navia Dratp: I know Barnes is a big Dreamblade guy and I probably will be too once they hit the clearance bin, but for now you've got to go with this excellent two-player chess variant. All the pieces have differing powers to give you your "variable power" fix, and the best part is that this is one of those rare Collectible games that plays fine with a pair of starters, available cheap online. Get 'em before this does become hard to find.
  • Memoir '44: This one is supposed to easily fit two back-to-back games in a lunch hour, but we've yet to pull it off; it's probably because we're slow at setup still. However, one scenario will easily fit in a lunch hour if you're only playing one side. I think this is probably as AT as a game will get inside of a lunch hour.

Two-Player, Lunch Hour, Non-AT-inclined Opponent

I'm not a gaming evangelist but I like to create new opponents whenever I can. This can be rough when you're dealing with someone who either isn't a gamer or hasn't played anything AT-ish before.

At this point you're practically required to drag out the Euro-standards, which I won't list too many of here (Lost Cities and its cousins). Though you may hate yourself in the morning, just remind yourself that you are creating new opponents. Once they realize that there's a bigger world than Monopoly out there, they may be more receptive to your AT wiles. Time, patience. Learn them, and use them.

I will make a special note of one game that I think goes over well with this kind of person--IF they can handle a little meanness. That game would be Travel Blokus. I'm not the world's biggest "absolute abstract" fan but this game has a mean-streak a mile wide; it's notable that after your very first play you will have blocking options available to start to hem in your opponent. It's nasty, and it's mean, and it's just colorful and pretty enough to lure your non-gamer associates to try it with you. Pick this up at Target for $20, it's worth it.

Multi-Player Lunch Hour, Mixed

I'm not going to cover an AT crowd for Lunch hour because if you can find a sizable group like that at work, you have my congratulations and envy.

Our group at work is a quartet; me, my brother, and two other ladies from our office. For them, their boardgaming horizon was fairly limited before we started these gaming sessions, and we've managed to work in some pretty nifty games. We've had a few bombs (Oasis was seriously the epitome of boring, mechanical Euro; maybe I missed something the first time, I don't know), but also their days of only knowing Sorry! and Candyland are long, gone.

  • Ticket to Ride: This is hated fairly vehemently by some of my AT colleagues, so let me explain. First, anyone can learn to play this; if you're asking someone to make that leap into hobbyist gaming, this is a nice baby step. Two, it helps puncture preconceived notions--certainly, you've just introduced them to a game with a map and plastic pieces that IS NOT RISK (this is *huge*, man). Third, the game can be mean, a fact that its critics sometime like to gloss over. There's enough possibility for blocking, counter-drafting available cards, and hoarding to make for a rather tense little game, all-in-all.
  • Ra: Continuing with the "Euros that Don't Suck" theme, comes one of my favorite games, Ra. Initially I was worried that it wouldn't work with a more casual crowd, but I underestimated how its simplicity makes it so accessible even while you struggle to master it. On your turn, you bid, or you draw. That's it. Teaching the scoring actually takes longer than teaching the game. Easily fits in an hour with three; it's pushing it with four but it can be done.
  • Roborally: Another game deceptive in its simplicity; much more "trashier" than other items on this list. You'll get some nice "attack your opponent" or push them around moments, and the wonderful feeling of driving your bot right off a conveyor belt into a pit beyond. Ridiculously good game with broad appeal.
  • Verräter: This one is a little ambitious, so be sure your group is ready for it. This is actually the best of AT games crammed into a little card game; alliances that shift, combat, back-stabbing, variable player powers, gang-up on the leader, and picking conflicts strategically (know when to hold 'em, and when to fold 'em). The math in the game will sometimes give you a headache--sometimes it's more fun just to let the cards fly. This will also fit in an hour due to the very short, tight number of turns.
  • San Juan: I can't explain why I like this game as much as I do. You do get the nice variable player powers thing with the role selection every turn and perhaps my favorite thing is how you string together combinations of buildings to give you an edge. Having Quarry, Carpenter, and the Library out will let you build purple buildings at -3 when you choose Builder AND get a card draw afterward to boot. I think I like this game so much because it is focused on an old CCG chestnut; card advantage. Anyway, this has been a runaway hit at work, I think the fact that it is a card game makes it more accessible. Even if you hate Euros and couldn't be bothered to piss on a burning copy of Puerto Rico, you owe yourself to give this a look.
  • Drakon: Now you're really getting sneaky, getting them used to the idea of little plastic warriors in your game. Drakon has been a hit, though my only problem with the game is that it's always over too soon--the game is getting interesting, then BAM it's over. We're thinking of using the official variant in the book of having to make your escape, that might solve it. Anyway, with this game you get the cool theme, plastic bits, player screwage, and variable powers. Really, if you can get them to play this you're almost ready for full-blown AT.
  • Mall of Horror: I hesitate to mention this one because it's right on the brim of an hour with three--and with three, it's much more a tactical "optimize your move" game than the much better five and six player versions are. But with that many, it probably won't fit into an hour. This is another case of if you can get your co-workers to play a game with little plastic zombies in it, you're more than half won the battle already. YO JOE!

So that's it, for now--just some recommends for those scenarios when you're pressed for time or you have a "Not Ready for Prime Time" gaming crowd. Some Euros ain't so bad; it's just a matter of weeding through the ones were you "Go Three" for the ones that have a little bit of meanness in them.

LATER THIS WEEK: An article about the different criteria used for attacking other players and when, and my thoughts on each.

F:AT Spiel Des Jahres Coverage- Nominees Announced!

Rather than comment on today's announcement of the 2007 Spiel Des Jahres nominees, I'd like to hand the mic over to TORO, an octopus-worshipping viking chieftain. Take it away, Toro.




NO FIRE AND AXE? WHO FUCKIN' CARES THEN????


Friday, 18 May 2007

Who wrote these stinkin' rules?

"All players go through these steps simultaneously.
The active player goes first in each step."


HUH???? I kid you not, the above rule is from a game that I have spent the last three days trying to figure out how to play.

In the past month I have read the rules to three new games. None of these games are particularly complicated. None of them were translated from another language into English.

One set of rules was clear and understandable.

One set of rules had about a half dozen instances of ambiguity, and one out right contradiction. It required three trips to the publishers web site, and a print out of the errata and the FAQ's to clear up the confusion.

The last set of rules read like they had been run through babblefish. After reading them three times, visiting the publishers website several times, printing out the new revised rules and reading those through twice, and printing out the eight pages of FAQs and reading those, I'm still not clear on a couple of points.


Poorly written rules are inexcusable. Hire a technical writer for heaven's sake. Hire a proof reader. At the very least, hand the rules to someone who is completely unfamiliar with the game and see if the person can understand the rules well enough to play the game. I'll volunteer. Send me a copy of the game and the rules and I will gladly tell you how friggin' awful they are. God, I miss the old AH rules with the cross referenced, numbered paragraphs.


Things in Game Rules that Piss Me Off

  • Grammatically incorrect sentences. All a publisher has to do is pick up the phone and call the nearest Catholic school and hire a nun to proof read the rules. While the publisher is at it, they should hire that nun to teach a workshop on ambiguous reference, general reference and weak reference. "Take the top card from the deck and place it face up in front of you," means "Take the top card from the deck and place the deck face up in front of you." In this case I know that the writer's intention was that the card should be placed face-up, not the deck; however, grammatical mistakes of this nature can make more complex rules incomprehensible. Futhermore, I don't want to waste my time diagraming sentences, and argueing with rules-lawyer friends over the strict gramatical meaning of the rule vs what the author really meant to say.


  • Rules written by someone so close to the game that they leave out what is obvious to them. In one of the games mentioned above, a player has to move one of their pawns onto a "challenge space" to attempt a "challenge." The opponent player can increase the difficulty of the challenge by playing cards out of their hand. What the rules fail to mention is that the opponent must have at least one of his pawns on the challenge space in order to be able to play those cards. This one omission makes the difference between an interesting game and a stupid game.


  • Rules that attempt to be funny, or that are written in a conversational tone. Extra verbiage is annoying, confusing and just makes the rules longer. The babblefish rules mentioned above contain the following gems:


"like...uh"
"Yep. Another two-player passing thing."
"Duh."
"Yikes!"

  • Rules with a section entitled "Sequence of Play" where every third line is "see page xx." If you are going to include a sequence of play, write it in sequence, damn it!


  • Important rules that are buried in a paragraph of a section that is about something else, such as healing rules buried in the section entitled "Movement."


  • Rules that don't define words that have specific meanings in the game but have other meanings, similar meanings or multiple meanings in the English language. The most common examples are games that have "turns," "rounds," "phases," and "steps," and games that have "skills," "traits," "attributes," and "talents." Games that have thematic names for things like points and money are also guilty of this offense.


  • Rules that use "player" and "character" interchangeably. My favorite example of this error is, "You can do X to the player next to you." The intention of the rule is "you can do X to the character whose pawn occupies a space adjacent to your character's pawn," not "you can do X to the person sitting next to you." How about "You can attack a player that occupies the same space that you occupy."? I claim that this rule breaks the laws of physics, however my husband claims this rule means that if I sit on his lap, he can attack me.

The Weekly AT Snapshot - 5/18/2007

"Zed" to Promote Titan


Sean Connery has agreed to take on the mantle of his most beloved character Zed to promote the release of the classic Ameritrash boardgame Titan. Connery, garbed in signature red underwear and suspenders, will visit suburban malls to bring America's "lost generation" of Titan players back to the table. Connery also hopes to promote the latest installment in the Zardoz series, "Zardoz 4: Revenge of the Stoned Hippies". Look for Zed in a mall near you!

This week's snapshot was submitted by "Macho Man" Mike Chapel.

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

If you've got a great image that just screams Ameritrash, email us the image or a URL. It can be an image you created or an image you found on the web. We don't care! If it meets our strict quality standards, we'll publish it in The Weekly AT Snapshot, instantly making you an undeniable global celebrity. We'll even pimp your website if you send us the URL for that. Send all submissions to fortressat@gmail.com with the word "Snapshot" in the subject line.

Thursday, 17 May 2007

The Epiphany

Last night, I had a visitation.

It'd been a tough day - during work I'd had to spend the afternoon chairing a meeting instead of using the whole day to prepare for my first ever shot at playing War of the Ring like I'd planned. It was going to be a PBEM game via Cyberboard with a long-time PBEM opponent of mine. Our baby had decided that being awake and playing of an evening was a much more fun alternative to going to sleep - can't say as I blame her really - so home time had been awkward too. As a result, I'd wound down by scoffing a curry and then polishing off maybe a glass too many of a cheeky French Shiraz that smelled of violets and tasted of plump, ripe blackberries on a summer morning.

Perhaps the chillies and alcohol were to blame, perhaps not.

I was awakened from my slumber by a strange noise. Out of instinct, I turned over and looked at the baby monitor but it lay quiet. It was then I noticed that the room, instead of being dark as it should be at 3am, was filled with a cold glow.

I sat up in bed and saw before me the indistinct outlines of the EON design team trio, shimmering and ephemeral.

"We are the ghosts of Ameritrash past!" They moaned, and rattled their shrink-wrapped copies of Dune and Cosmic Encounter.

The first thing that struck me was that this was very odd, considering none of them were actually dead yet, but before I could consider the situation more, the spirit of Bill Eberle spoke again.

"You have sinned! You have been seduced by the Euro and it is time to atone!"

With mounting horror my thoughts raced back to the Gaylus boxshot that got posted a few weeks ago.

"No wait! I can explain!" I stammered. "It was just that blue eye-shadow, I couldn't help ..."

Jack Kittredge cut me short. "Not that, puny mortal. Tell me, did you not give your second ever ten-out-of-ten score to Wallenstein?"

"Well, yes. But what's wrong with that, it's a great game!"

"It is indeed a fine game, but is it really fit to even lick the boots of Titan?"

I had to consider this. "No" I said. "But it's so short and simple in comparison."

"There you go" replied Jack. "Seduced into playing inferior games on the basis of complexity and play time." He looked at the baby monitor. "Okay, maybe we'll forgive you on the play time, but the complexity angle ... " He shook his head sadly.

My initial shock had faded and I was starting to enjoy myself here. It was pretty cool to be debating games with three of the best designers ever and I was determined to face them down. After all, what the hell right did they have to be invading my bedroom in the small hours of the morning? Bastards! Gaming legends or not, I wasn't going to let them leave without bagging me one of those shiny copies of Dune!

"Allright, I accept that" I said. "But I kind of only gave it then ten because I could see how playing face-to-face would be better than over on SpielByWeb, especially with a real life dice tower. So that's a pretty feeble basis on which to make any accusations."

It was Peter Olotka's turn to chip in. "Don't presume to tangle with us, boy. We've been in this business long enough to have become omniscient when it comes to games. We remember when you posted an article in this very blog about how low complexity games are cool."

"Well yeah but that was ... that was ..." I rallied. "That was just to generate discussion!"

The next question came, like a barrage. "What was the last face-to-face game you played?"

"Tigris and Euphrates. Oh but I'd been waiting to play that for months. And it made it into the Ameritrash top 25 games!"

"Did you, or did you not" Peter thundered "have Santiago on your wish list for a considerable period of time?"

I could see that they were all starting to get angry. "Er, yeah but I took it off in the e..."

"WHAT'S LISTED AS YOUR MOST PLAYED GAME OVER THE PAST 12 MONTHS?" Peter was screaming with rage now.

I broke into a cold sweat. Guilty as charged. They had me.

"Attika" I said in a tiny voice and started to weep uncontrollably into the duvet.

Between sobs, I managed to gather myself sufficiently to speak. "Masters. What must I do to absolve myself?"

Bill piped up once more, more gently this time. "You have accepted your great sin, grasshopper. That is the first and most difficult step. Your atonement shall be easier - indeed you have unwittingly already begun it."

I lifted my head in wonderment. "How so?" I asked.

Jack spoke. "Recall the time you spent this morning, reading the rules to War of the Ring. What did you think."

I cast my mind back. "Well ... I can recall thinking that I'd never learn all the rules in one step ... but they seemed to have a logical consistency which made them a bit easier than I'd been expecting."

"Good" said Peter. "Remember that game of T&E you played - your first ever? What did you think of the rules to that?"

"They were easy but really unintuitive and I had a really tough time remembering them. And like with a lot of Eurogames the strategy was just mathematical and stupidly obtuse because I had no real-world anchors to start to build on. With WotR I could see there would be lots of play options, but I could immediately see how to put some into effect."

"Better" said Bill. "You realised that complexity is often necessary to build a great game and that the time invested in learning is repaid during play. Yea, verily, even tenfold for the very best games. What did you think of War of the Ring?"

"Erm, it seemed to be a game of considerable strategic depth, with lots of decisions."

Jack frowned. "You're sounding like a Eurogamer again. Strategic depth is important, but there's more to a good game than just that. What else did you read, apart from the rules?"

"Some strategy articles and .. and .. session reports."

"And how did they make you feel?" Chorused all three dread spirits together.

"Wow, they were great. Made me remember how much I loved reading the books - I could really piece the games other people had played together in my head, and they made such great stories. Not like all those Euros - I can never follow what's going on in the session reports."

The cold radiance in the room had extended to a warm glow. The three were smiling broadly now as I continued.

"Yeah, made me really want to play the game - test out some of the strategy ideas I'd formulated and make up some narrative of my own. I mean some of it seemed a bit silly - rolling a dice for corruption with that Shelob tile was a bit much of an extreme random mechanic to use in the endgame - but most of it was so great I could forgive that. Anyway, I guess it's just up to the fellowship player to get to Mordor with as little corruption as possible - and phew! It'd be one tense roll!"

Lost in thinking about how much fun I'd had anticipating the game ahead, I didn't notice the spirits begin to slowly fade.

"And the balance? Who cares about that! There's some easy fixes to apply by the sound of things, without spoiling the theme - maybe put a city in South Rhun like they originally intended. And when I get the game and play it face to face, it'll probably be four-player and that's more balanced anyway. Man, can't wait to get the game, take it round to Graham's house and play in that room he has with all the Tolkein posters on the wall! Even if it takes him hours to learn, he's gonna love it! I don't remember the last time I was this excited about trying a game!"

I looked up and the trio were gone.

Instead of a shrink-wrapped Dune, they'd left a sticky mess of ectoplasm on the carpet. Bastards!

I leapt out of bed, went downstairs and put on some coffee while I waited for the computer to start. Half-past three in the morning. If I was lucky, I'd have just enough time to download and read the rules to Twilight Imperium 3 before breakfast.

Wednesday, 16 May 2007

"But it's STAR WARS Risk!"


"All I'm saying is that they should know we're not
down with having the victory dinner at the Sushi Barn"


A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away lived a French guy named Eddie Lamborghini. He fought in the Werewolf Wars against the Nazi mechanauts and grew tired of fussin’ and feuding so he made some lame-ass, Academy Award winning film called THE RED BALLOON, about a titular red balloon that did some very red balloonish things like floating and popping. Somehow this made children realize that war makes people die. Anyway, at some point he decided that he missed conquering countries in the name of French bread and ooh-la-la so he decided to make a board game about the subject whereby one player could amass a gigantic pile of pieces and then proceed to rule the world from an island fortress called Australia. Andy and Larry Parker of the famous Parker Brothers (who would later go on to direct the MATRIX trilogy) played the game at the first Gathering of Friends in 1957 and decided to publish it just to piss off a bunch of spielfrieks. It, my friends, is the game that would become RISK. Some 5 million family funroom fistfights and countless tossed boards later, it remains popular even today through a variety of incarnations including several themed editions including RISK: THE BATTLEFIELD EARTH EDITION, TERMS OF ENDEARMENT RISK, and RISK 2002-2210AD: THE IRAQ WAR.

Alright, so I don’t remember the story off the top of my head. But it goes something like that.

A few days ago, F:AT’s own FRANKLIN COBB posted a great article about asymmetry which somehow made me remember this new-ish STAR WARS RISK: ORIGINAL TRILOGY edition that has been floating around. A friend of mine (who appears to have vanished) called Duke was a playtester on it, and I recalled him telling me about how it had three factions (Rebels, Empire, and Hutts) with different goals and an assymetrical setup. So I decided to give it a shot since it sounded fairly interesting even though I’m not a big supporter of the RISK system for the usual reasons- for one thing, I played it too much when I was a kid and for another even the gussied up varieties RISK 2210 and the LOTR editions didn’t really excite me all that much since they pretty much fell into the same patterns and routines that plagued the original game. You know, the whole bulldozer thing followed by 3 or so hours of trying to scrape together more than three guys to fight back…anywhere. Sure, there were nifty things like cards, leaders, and timers but I thought they still fell short if only because there’s little reason to play a 3 hour game of LOTR RISK when you can play WAR OF THE RING in the same amount of time.

The short answer after a test play of the new STAR WARS RISK is this. WOW. Hands down, this is the best RISK game published to date. It’s a streamlined version of the CLONE WARS version from a couple of years ago but it’s even more stripped down, direct, and smartly redeveloped. It won’t change your mind if you’ve already decided that you hate the game on a fundamental level because of the somewhat archaic combat system that forces a 30-unit strong army to march down a funnel in threes or the inevitable turn when somebody gets a giant pile of reinforcements and lays waste to the whole board. I think the game compares favorably to NEXUS OPS in terms of depth, playtime, and fun and I’m happy to say that, despite the clucking disapproval of Robert Martin and other observers who couldn’t believe I was stooping so low as to be playing RISK in public, it’s one of the better games I’ve played in recent weeks.

If you don’t already know how to play RISK at this point, then chances are your F:AT credentials aren’t in order and I’m not going to go through the mechanics here- it will be your responsibility to play a remedial game of it so you can see where everything from AXIS & ALLIES to TWILIGHT IMPERIUM came from. Suffice to say that all the usual mechanical suspects are here- territorial control, trading in sets of cards for reinforcements, getting bonuses for holding regions, and the attacker rolls a maximum of three dice to the defender’s two- just as God and Eddie Lamborghini intended. Of course, it all occurs this time in the STAR WARS milieu so instead of our world we get a map of the Star Wars galaxy. And for the first time in what seems like forever, it is the right and proper STAR WARS galaxy that doesn’t contain any Gungans, Neimodians, Clone Troopers, or terrible fireside love scenes. That’s right, this is the real deal. So here we have what is pretty much the first real Original Trilogy STAR WARS grand-scale light war game- it’s not as rich, detailed, and sophisticated as WAR OF THE RING but it hits the right notes and it may even make you remember the good things about the license for a change.

As I’ve already mentioned, the factions are the Empire, the Rebels, and the Hutts. Each faction has a unique goal (a definite improvement over the usual “take over the map” scenario) tied to the theme and entirely appropriate to their place in the story- the Empire has to simply wipe out all the Rebel forces, the Rebels have to locate and destroy the Emperor, who hides in an Imperial base, and the Hutts have to take 10 of the 13 green-haloed resource planets. The Empire is disadvantaged by going last but they start with more troops and a clear focus from the first time- not to mention the planet-destroying Death Star which also acts as a practically impenetrable defensive barrier to any planet it occupies. The Rebels only have to eliminate the base containing the Emperor to win the game but they have to find it and since the Empire only places one out per turn it can be a difficult search- and the bases let the defender roll d8s. Both sides have to police the Hutts because their goal is the most direct and easiest to win- it’s not uncommon for the Hutts to win in the first two or three turns if the Empire and Rebellion aren’t careful. There’s some really dynamic asymmetry going on in the game with each faction dealing with different goals, different challenges, and the constant need to keep the others in check.

Of course, the last several RISK titles have all had action cards and even some unit variation and the OT edition is no different. Each faction has its own deck so they match up perfectly with the types of play each requires and there’s plenty of theme offered in terms of effects, film stills, and flavor text. A card has three functions so a neat hand management aspect works its way into the RISK formula as well. The cards have a stated effect as well as a silhouette of a ship- fighter, bomber, or capital ship. A card can be used for its effect or it can be exchanged in a set for extra reinforcements just like in every other edition of RISK but the card can also be used to build the ship pictured. Ships basically provide die roll modifiers to attacking and defending armies- fighters give a re-roll on 1’s, bombers add +1 to the highest die, and capital ships let the army replace a d6 with a d8 for maximum death-dealing potential. The ships add another strategic layer to the game not only in terms of when to buy them, but also where to place them for maximum efficiency and best use.

Needless to say with the Hutts tossing bounty hunter cards, Star Destroyers converging on Endor with a legion of Stormtroopers in tow, and X-Wing fighters leading the attack on the Death Star there’s plenty of theme here that will certainly excite even the most lapsed STAR WARS fan. There’s even a Force track (now Midichlorian free!) that shifts between light and dark, conferring extra cards and bonuses to the Rebellion and Empire respectively. The different goals, like the Rebels gunning for a one-in-a-million shot against the military might of the Empire, bring a lot of excitement and drama to the table and there is definitely a diplomatic/power brokering element that the Hutts’ presence engenders. And the specter of the Death Star, which is activated by Imperial card play and requires a summed roll of 18 (that’s three sixes without modifiers) is a constant threat to the entire galaxy.

There really isn’t much that STAR WARS RISK: ORIGINAL TRILOGY EDITION does wrong other than the usual faults that any RISK title has, but those faults are much less egregious in a game that lasts in a 45-75 minute range. What’s that you say? Impossible? Am I giving this figure in “Michael Barnes Time”? It’s no exaggeration, this is a game that can play to completion in around an hour and it still manages to provide a full, well-developed narrative without excess. Sure, you don’t get the level of detail and richness that a game like TWILIGHT IMPERIUM has but it’s definitely a good alternative if you are looking for a space conquest game that is more accessible and immediate both in terms of time commitment and complexity. This is a game that you can get pretty much anyone to play, if only because of the theme or the familiarity of RISK.

I do have to say though that my biggest disappointment with the game is that it is still RISK- you’re still going to see things happen like one Gamorrean Guard holding off 10 AT-STs due to crap rolls and it really feels like a missed opportunity to match a great theme to a more interesting game system. If this game had been designed with, say, the NEXUS OPS system at its core it would likely be one of the coolest games ever made and definitely the best STAR WARS game ever published. However, this is a game that is made to appeal to the “Sheeples”, as those decidedly un-snobbish BGGers have called mass-market game buyers, and the RISK name ensures a lot of units sold so it’s hard to fault smart business decisions. Regardless, if you’re willing to give RISK another shot in a completely modern and excitingly thematic edition then I think you’ll find a lot to enjoy in STAR WARS RISK: ORIGINAL TRILOGY EDITION.

Different Quacks, Different Hats, Part I

When I was in Junior High, I hung out with some guys that would have been referred to as "metalheads". When you're that age, you look for things to identify with, or to help you identify yourself; I listened to bands like Anthrax, Slayer, Metallica, Danzig, most of the "power metal" and "gloom and doom" type stuff.


Yes, some of us actually took something like this seriously...


One thing was obvious, though--once you'd "identified" yourself with something at that age, you were not allowed to venture outside of that boundary, generally speaking. You didn't try other types of genres for fear of disassociation; you often blindly and blatantly judged other genres, dismissing them out of hand. "Pfft! Top 40! I'd rather have my eyes gouged out!"


What I find funny now is to see this happening in the boardgame world, except this time with grown adults who have long since left Junior High and should know better. I'm no saint--I've been guilty of this myself--but it's too easy to fall into divisions and schisms, to look down on the "other side" without ever trying them. "Pffft! Party Games? I'd rather have my eyes gouged out!"

I was supposed to get "Bungee Jumping" from THAT?!



Which is a pity, really. I think even the driest of Euro player (such as those who would in all seriousness talk about "social contracts" in gaming) would be well-served to cleanse the palette with a night of heavy dice-chucking, yelling, and backstabbing. Just for something different--something raucous and removed from what they're used to.

"But wait!" I can hear you saying. "You're writing this from a blog focused on Ameritrash games. Isn't that hypocritical?"


Ha! I'm glad you (hypothetically) asked that question.

Ask any of us--"do you ONLY play Ameritrash games?" The answer will be a resounding "No!" I mean, I can't say that with absolute certainty, but from my own experience that answer holds true. Sure, our heart may lie with the plastic-filled smash 'em ups, but most of us have a soft spot for at least a handful of Euros, and I know for one I've been roped into plenty of Party Games in my day.

I'm supposed to get "Black Christmas" from that? Can I have another partner?


I think the difference for us, for gamers *like* us, is the need for us to wear "different hats". Let's face it--when we're not gaming, we're scheming how we're going to game next time. Every family gathering, work group, whatever gets our minds to churning about how we can work a game in. Hobbyists are usually at least slightly addicts by nature, and that's how we operate--looking for the next gaming fix.

Most of us learned a while back that not everyone will be into "our" types of games. Even on a site devoted to the hobby such as Boardgamegeek--not even in that subcommunity will you find everyone willing to play an Ameritrash title. It's understandable, to a degree; grandma isn't going to know what to say when you hand her a Marine card, two special power cards, some ammo tokens, and turn her loose in the bowels of hell in Doom: The Boardgame. Fact is, she probably won't make it past the cover with the beast slobbering and screaming at her. The uninitiated at work would take one look at Quest for the Dragonlords and think you've just invited them to join the occult--sort of a "Noontime Necromancers" support group, if you will.


So we're forced to look for games that fit those different hats we're often forced to wear. What games will fit in a lunchtime? What games have rules that won't scare Uncle Hank away? What games won't have my co-workers thinking we're going to ritually sacrifice them at the 5:00 whistle?

Over the next few weeks, using my own experiences as examples I'm going to detail the "different hats" that I often wear in terms of gaming. I'm also going to give examples in each instance of what did and didn't work, some short reviews and suggestions, hopefully something that you can use if you find yourself in the same boat and need some help finding the right hat for the right occasion.


And no, I will NOT have a "hat" for "Games to Play With My Wife/Husband/Significant Other". For those who have significant others who will game, consider yourselves very fortunate. The rest of us have seen this for what it is--folly. A fool's errand. I will speak no more of this thing.

Thanks for reading, be sure to check out the next installment--I'm going to start small with the "two-player lunch hour" stuff and work forward from there.