Take that, Ken B., I've scored my own interview with an international boardgaming celebrity designer. You got pwned, I'm in ur base killin ur dudes, and so forth. So here's a little email interview I did with Corey over at FFG regarding the STARCRAFT board game, which as we all know Frank already has and we don't. Of course I don't own a copy of SHEER PANIC so I guess that balances everything out in the end.
OMG Zerg Rush on over to Gameshark.com!
Thursday, 27 September 2007
Take that, Ken B., I've scored my own interview with an international boardgaming celebrity designer. You got pwned, I'm in ur base killin ur dudes, and so forth. So here's a little email interview I did with Corey over at FFG regarding the STARCRAFT board game, which as we all know Frank already has and we don't. Of course I don't own a copy of SHEER PANIC so I guess that balances everything out in the end.
Tuesday, 25 September 2007
Lets face it, if you read this blog, and or familiar with the boardgamegeek, or comsimworld websites then chances are you are probably certifiable when it comes to buying and well hoarding games. Now if you are single and live on your own you can allow these prized collections to just sit about on whatever horizontal surface will support them. However, if you somehow like me managed convince a member of the opposite sex to marry you, then your ability to use boardgames as home decor are probably limited. Not to mention that if you somehow managed to spawn with the aforementioned member of the opposite sex then you have to consider the destructive properties of your litter when storing games.
Now I consider myself lucky, my wife is somewhat reasonable. She granted me sole possession of a small room 10' x 10' or so in the basement. complete with a lockable door. (If you look closely you may be able to see the infamous crotch jewelry)
I am in complete control of what goes on inside what I refer to, in my best Dr. Evil Voice, as "my lair'. A place my wife convinces herself doesn't exist on the same plain of existence as she does, and a place my children believe holds within all the wonders their little heads can imagine.
The cold Truth is that my obsession hardly fits inside these walls. Between my many hobbies, yes board games are but one of too many distractions, I have filled this space nearly to the point where it ceases to be useful.
So thats the state of my game room. I have designs on expanding to the entire basement. These have actually started in that I have furnished the "Play Room" with plenty of shelves. What would we gamers do without IKEA? Currently games nights are allowed upstairs, mostly due to their relative infrequency, we enjoy playing games in light and open spaces like my sunroom. If they ever become more regular then my guess is we will be banished to the darker, damper recesses of my home. When that happens I will have to expand "my lair".
Feel free to post comments about how it is you like to store games, or the negotiations required to get that closet under the steps away from your spouse's wicker basket collection.
Until next time... have some fun gaming, drink some good beer and enjoy life.
Sunday, 23 September 2007
Disclaimer: I received a copy of this game for free (though not necessarily for review purposes.)
Fantasy Flight Games love affair with Blizzard continues with its fifth coffin boxed game, StarCraft. For those who never encountered the hugely successful game (and I have found there are a surprising number of you), it was released around a decade ago as a spin off to the WarCraft series. The real time strategy game was set in space and featured 3 very different races – a bunch of redneck humans called the Terran, a swarming alien race who use living technology called the Zerg, and the powerful but expensive religious race called the Protos.
You can read the rules on FFG’s website here: http://www.fantasyflightgames.com/starcraft_support.html. I’m assuming you have at least skimmed through them in this review.
Not much room left on that bottom shelf
Comparisons to the Video Game
It was always going to be interesting to see how Fantasy Flight Games tackled this property, as they already had designed a game for the very similar WarCraft franchise, which was not their most successful design. Indeed it appeared that this game went through some growing pains, with the title being delayed over a year from its projected release and apparently changed designer at least once (interestingly
While it has the basic flavour of the computer game, and certainly apes it’s theme well, it feels less like its computer game parent then World of WarCraft does. This may disappoint some, but the game is all the stronger for it as it doesn’t inherit any of the weaknesses that would have gone hand in hand with a direct translation. In fact I would say any thoughts or feelings you have for the computer game will not affect your opinion of the board game at all, and people who don’t have any experience with the computer version will probably enjoy this game as much as the fanboys do (if not moreso since they don’t have any pre-release hangups!). Where experience with the computer game does come in handy is in the learning curve for the different elements. For example those who are already familiar with the StarCraft universe will know that Terran spaceships can turn invisible, whereas players new to the setting will only discover this when they are attempting to blast those ships out of the air.
Whereas I was a little disappointed with the amount of content within the previous big boxed game, Tide of Iron, I am back to being very impressed here. There is certainly a lot of bang for your buck.
The miniatures are fantastic, the best FFG have created yet. It may be because I grew up with Games Workshop games (who still hold the award for gold standard in board game miniatures in my opinion) who love their exaggerated biology, but I often find FFG miniatures to be a little skinny and meek. That is certainly not the case here with the sole exception of the Ghosts, who look like catwalk models in desperate need of a sandwich. All the spaceships and other units are nice and chunky. Another nice feature is that the spaceships come on clear stands, which looks great and really helps them to stand out. Unfortunately the stands come glued to the miniatures, which is a problem for 2 reasons. Firstly they are made of hard plastic, which means there is a good chance you will find a few snapped upon opening the box – I found 5 broken ones. I reglued them using plastic cement which worked a treat. The second problem is that if you want to paint the miniatures you will have to mask the stands, especially if you undercoat with spray paint as I do, which will be a pain in the ass. Hopefully in future if they use the clear stands again they will come separate from the miniatures to avoid these issues.
The cardboard is the typical nice thick stuff that comes in all FFG games. There are a lot of tokens and map pieces, but not an excessive amount as found in Descent or World of WarCraft.
Many people will be happy to know that all the cards are of the standard size. Personally I wouldn’t have minded if some of them were half size in order to save table real estate, especially the planet cards which contain no text, but this is a minor nitpick.
There are no dice in the game so there is not much to say about them.
Overall it is a very impressive package, not quite as impressive as World of Warcraft but certainly on par with Descent.
The Boastings on the Box
The board is modular and its size scales depending on how many players you have. Each individual’s play area does take up a fair chunk of real estate as well, so while you can get away with using a small table for a 2-player game, you’ll need a good sized table for 6.
The game scales wonderfully amongst the full range of player numbers. The 2 player game does feel different; it’s more aggressive and nasty, and requiring a different tactical approach that 3+ player games which have a little more breathing room. Games from 3 – 6 players have a similar feel so player numbers won’t be an issue.
I’d estimate an experienced group should be able to knock a game out in around two to two and a half hours. The game moves at a quick pace with little downtime, but it does suffer from what I call “World of WarCraft” syndrome – that is new plays really drag the play time out as they sit there reading all of the card in their technology deck while it is there turn, scratch their heads in dumbfounded confusion while deciding what to buy, and generally don’t think ahead until it’s actually their go. For this reason it takes a few plays before you start to get a proper feel of the game unless your group are AT veterans.
Now you really know what was in Marsellus Wallace's case
There are two things one will notice about the board very quickly into their first game if they want to survive. Firstly, the board scales so that there are 2 planets per player, which isn’t much at all, so if you want territory you are going to have to fight for it even in the very early game. The second is that due to the Z-axis navigations, ‘corners’ don’t tend to exist – wherever you are on the board, you will be next to several opponents and you will be fighting on multiple fronts. Don’t expect to be able to pull a “take
This is a capture territory game, and all of the options and mechanics help you toward that end. There are no politics or trade or anything like that here; everything boils down to attempting to get advantages over your opponents in combat. This is a very bloody game, and unlike games like Nexus Ops or Twilight Imperium 3 where the first 3rd of the game is simply scripted exploration and preparation, the bloodshed and heavy action starts from turn one. The game encourages aggression like you won’t believe.
You have a total of 3 orders to choose from each time it is your turn – build, research technology and move and fight. You have to preplan your entire round in advance similar to A Game of Thrones, but with some big differences. With only 3 very flexible options to choose from you will be able to do everything you want in a turn, so it doesn’t have the agonizing choice of orders AGOT has. Instead planning orders is all about spoiling your opponent’s plans as much as possible, while avoiding them spoiling yours. One of the most interesting things about this game is that everyone really does fight everyone – the normal pairing off of enemies you see in most Ameritrash just doesn’t happen here. It’s pointless to hold a grudge against someone for hitting you, because everyone will be hitting everyone by turn two. In fact I have seen games where two players are fighting each other over one planet on one side of the board while the same two players have a temporary alliance on the other in an attempt to pincher a third player. The wheeling and dealing I have seen with this game is odd to say the least, and it all stems from the fact everyone is in each others faces from the very start.
Building costs resources, and the whole building mechanic is handled in a very clever and, dare I say it, ‘elegant’ way (don’t shoot me Barnes!) Because you don’t ‘get’ the resources in the form of goods, you can’t save resources up between turns, meaning you may as well spend everything you can each turn. On the other hand like all good games involving resources you never have enough each turn to do everything you want, so a lot of tough choices lie ahead. Workers tend to be the limiting factor at the start of the game, since you can’t spend more resources then you have workers. You want to amass more workers as quickly, but the game never gives you the breathing room to do this – spend your first turn building up workers and you won’t have a second to use them in. Instead you just have to squeeze extra ones in whenever you can, ditto with transports.
Buildings are essential as they give you access to new units, and believe me, you want new units! It takes a lot of discipline to be able to get to the stronger units in a timely manner, but if you can get access to them before your opponents have done the same, you will find yourself at a big advantage. While it is possible to ‘build up’ to any unit you like, what you wont be able to do is build enough buildings to have access to every unit for your faction, so you are going to have to decide early on what types of troops you are aiming for. I really like this aspect as not only does it add real decisions to the game (unlike games where you’ll have access to everything by the end) it also means you see different forces on the table each game. The balance seems pretty spot on – swarming with cheap units can work, but so to can concentrating on building fewer high powered units.
Modules are the only area of the game that I am a bit disappointed in. Most races have 3 (Zerg 2) different types of modules to choose from, and they do the same thing for each race. While the three you get to choose from are very good, I would have liked more to choose from, with different races having access to different modules. This is the only area of the game which kind of screams ‘wait for the expansion’ to me, which is a bit disappointing. Well nothing is perfect I guess.
Research helps stuff your hand with combat cards, as well as allowing you to customize your combat deck. This aspect feels similar to building a deck for a CCG, as you select technologies that will form the basis of your combat strategies; the main differences being you build this deck throughout the game instead of prior to it and these cards cost you resources instead of your lunch money.
Most of the combat cards you start with are very straightforward, so you are going to have to research to get the cards with the ‘wrinkles’ that will help you pull of surprise moves and combinations against your opponents. Research is also important as it adds combat cards to your hand, so you are going to want to research before going into battle. The downside is research is tied up with the event deck, meaning if everyone starts going crazy with research the games clock is going to run out very fast. Of course if you are set to win, going mad on research is a winning strategy – not only are you bringing forth your victory sooner, but you are also gaining cards that will help you fend off your opponents who are no doubt ganging up on you!
Tide of StarCraft
Fighting is the raw heart of the game, and while it can be a pain in the ass to teach, I’m happy to say the combat system works a lot better in person that it reads in the rulebook. In fact I’d go so far as to say this is one of the best combat systems I have encountered, it grants the participants a lot more control then the typical dice fest while still remaining tense and exciting to watch unlike other more dry combat systems such as that found in Dungeon Twister. It also plays out pretty quickly, so those who were scared it sounded a lot like Age of Mythology’s ‘stop the game’ system need not fear.
The issues relating to combat are actually the inverse of what one would initially expect. I remember reading a lot of comments to the effect that it was in your interest to build up a diverse portfolio of troops so that combat card management became easier – after all the more different troop types you have the higher the chance that the cards in your hand will be of use to you. In fact the opposite is true; because you draw a lot of combat cards in the game (I have yet to see a players hand run dry), organizing you hand so that you have a fist full of marines and firebats is easy. Hand management actually becomes more of an issue as the game wears on, as suddenly you have five different types of units on the board but have to discard down to a hand size of six cards which isn’t enough to cover them all, so you have to decide what units are in important enough areas to keep cards for, and which units you will leave defenseless.
It’s almost enough to stop you from diversifying your troop types, but sticking to only a few unit types has its own problems. Much like the computer game, matching opposing units with the correct counter units is the key to victory. All the Zerglings in the world won’t help you if your opponent is building up an air fleet. When reading the rules for combat I was afraid that all of the units would feel the same, but I’m happy to report this is not the case. Between the different matrixes of what can hit what and the different technologies that each unit can buy, the units all have their own unique flavors and nuances.
Broadly speaking you can group the different units in two types – what I like to call the direct hitters and the spoilers. Combat, especially at the start of the game, is very calculable. With basic units 4 times out of 5 you can correctly guess the outcome of the battle, meaning attackers who know what they are doing will win more often than not. Direct hitters are units that rely on combat card numbers, and winning combats with them involves simply overpowering your opponents either with bigger forces or more powerful units. These types of units keep combat predictable which is advantageous because you’ll know what fights to start, but disadvantageous because your opponents will know the same! At the opposite end of the spectrum are the ‘spoiler units’, who tend to be the units with lots of technology upgrades and are often assist units. These units add a controlled chaos to the combats, bringing in different combinations of effects to mess up the best-laid plans of your opponents. Card management is more difficult with these units, but often simply the presence of these units is enough to give your opponents pause. After all, your opponents have no idea what cards lie in your hand, so he’ll be hesitant to risk his expensive units when a queen is floating around “just in case” you have that Broodling card in your hand.
All in all I love the way combat works; it provides lots of strategic flexibility, many different viable approaches, enough control to feel fulfilling while maintaining enough chaos to ratch up the tension. It really is the crown jewel of the game.
The End Game
Each player has his or her own unique victory condition, which isn’t anything new amongst the world of AT. What is unique is the designer’s approach to these victory conditions, which are written in such a way that every player will end up being a knife’s edge away from victory. This really causes the endgame to be an incredibly tense and exciting affair, with the ‘lead player’ changing hands several times a turn causing all the players to pull out all stops. In fact rare is the game in which a player is in a position where he feels he can not win, as players who fall too far behind tend to be eliminated. Make no mistake, this game does have player elimination and unlike most modern games you will see it happen.
Fight, fight for Blizzards love!
Comparisons to Other Games
I have heard several comparisons made between this game and others currently on the market, here are my thoughts on them:
Twilight Imperium 3: TI3 is much more epic in scope, with politics, trade and diplomacy featuring heavily. StarCraft is much narrower in its focus; it’s all about victory through force. The two games are very different.
Nexus Ops: Both games share theme and scope, but from there the similarities end. Nexus is a much lighter ‘beer and pretzels’ affair, with a much higher dosage of luck. StarCraft is a lot meatier, with many more choices in strategic options, much more variety, and a lot more planning and thought required. Basically it’s more of a ‘gamer’s game’.
A Game of Thrones: AgoT is more concerned about diplomacy, positioning, and out planning your opponents. StarCraft concerns itself more with managing resources and getting the job done. Whereas in AgoT you often hold back waiting for the right time while attempting to set into place the events that will set your victory into motion, in StarCraft you’ll be on the attack from the get go.
StarCraft is a very refined, clean and thrilling game that offers its players a challenging and fun experience. There is a hell of a lot to like here, and very little to be critical of. This is one of FFG’s best designs to date, and easily justifies its hefty price tag. I’ll be surprised if this doesn’t end up being one of the best received games this year. The ameritrash hall of fame better start making some room.
Recommended for those who:
- Want to experience how far AT design has come since the 80s.
- Want a clean, smooth moving game with a host of options and a lot to think about that still boils down to beating the living shit out of your opponents.
- Want to give their life for Aiur.
Not Recommended for those who:
- Start crying when their mates attack them.
- Still think trading cubes for VP is cool.
- Only buy games to play 3 to 4 times before moving onto the next purchase.
A big thanks to Mike Z, Thaadd, Jeremy and the rest of the FFG crew for the early copy of the game.
Friday, 21 September 2007
"Including a total of over 180 mini booze bottles and dozens of drunk types, Barcraft: The Board Game features an innovative modular bar of varying sizes which guarantees a new experience each and every binge. An exciting card driven puking system allows drinkers to modify and upgrade their belt notches with a wealth of powerful whores. Players can unleash a Yuengling rush, use powerful Prairie Fire shots to halt an sober enemy, or even send cloaked Zombies out to guide uncontrollable piss missiles to the fake plant in the corner."
Thursday, 20 September 2007
Well, since we seem to have a lot of "visitors" lately from the link a noble Dutch AT'er posted over at the Leading Board Game Site, why don't we talk about Eurogames for a while! Maybe that'll get 'em to stop bitching. So, SETTLERS OF CATAN. It's on Xbox Live, and has no expansions. What a shame. In this edition of Cracked LCD, I talk about the CATAN expansions and why they rock. SETTLERS is the one true Euro, and the only one that at the end of the day really matters.
Let's all go over to Gameshark.com!
Wednesday, 19 September 2007
A year ago today- September 19th, 2006- a crude nuclear device was detonated at the very heart of the online board gaming community at Boardgamegeek.com. There were many casualties, measured chiefly in wounded and shaken Eurogamer sensibilities, and a breach was opened whereby the glorious Ameritrash games of the past, the present, and future would return to prominence alongside the countless non-confrontational, family friendly Eurogames that had seized control of the hobby for nearly a decade- the era we know now as the Eurogamer Occupation of Hobby Gaming (1996-2006). The incident was a rallying cry for those who never gave up on TALISMAN, DUNE, AXIS & ALLIES and the like in favor of penguin games and train games with rules that could fit on post-it notes. It was a call to put down the meeples and pick up the dice, to beat the plowshares back into swords, to stop bidding and start kicking some god damned ass.
Of course, this act of revolutionary terrorism was disguised as a Geeklist, and that Geeklist was Robert Martin’s “A Tribute to Ameritrash”.
It’s hard to believe now, looking at the current state of the Leading Board Game Site, that something so volatile- as well as vigorous and vital- happened there. It was something different, something that was a lot more meaningful and relevant to the state of the hobby and where it was going than the usual suggestions for “girlfriend games” or “games I like to play” fare that populates a huge percentage of the online discourse there. People who had rarely posted- like myself- suddenly became regular participants in discussions and overnight the conversations became intensely passionate and increasingly irreverent. We talked games the same way we played ‘em and found out that some of us didn’t really belong- or want to belong- in the politically correct, “friendly” society there. It was interesting, exciting, and most of all fun- even if during the course of it all we found out just how deadly serious some people take their boardgaming.
Looking back on it, I think the most thrilling part of watching the aftermath of Robert’s list was seeing people come out of the woodwork to say “Hey, this list made me realize how fed up I am with playing PUERTO RICO every week!” or “This list has helped me find my identity as a gamer- an Ameritrash gamer”. It was also terribly amusing to see the Eurogamers and other Ameritrash detractors wander into the threads and proceed to play directly to the “Eurosnoot” stereotypes we were mocking all along, lobbing personal attacks with enough frequency to somehow completely blind the administration there from taking any action as they lodged their passive-aggressive comments about everything from the Ameritrash name to my avatar. I think the list revealed a lot of things that weren’t really talked about before, like the bias against Ameritrash-style games that had existed from the site’s very beginnings and subtle double standards that existed in a community that had intimate beginnings but had grown to something much larger.
I remember going to a game event sometime late last year as BGG and its old guard of “familiar avatars” were still scrambling to to adjust to a shift in the zeitgeist and a revolutionary change in tone. I heard these guys- none of whom I had ever seen before in my life- talking about how a game they were playing was definitely “Ameritrash”. At that point, I knew that Robert’s list and everything it precipitated had made an impact on board gaming culture. It was a little odd, to be honest, to hear strangers referencing something that was rooted in kind of an in-joke between Robert and I- we had a laugh about this customer of mine who called me an “Ameritrash apologist” and thus the concept for the list was born. That Ameritrash- despite all the dense-headed literalists unable to grasp the concept of irony flustered over the “negative” connotation of the word “trash”- is a significant marker in boardgaming history. That it matters, is significant, and important. Whether you like it or not.
So here we are now a year later and Ameritrash style games are everywhere, and publishers are eager to bring back canonical AT games via high-profile reprints. Thanks to the innovations brought about by Eurogames Ameritrash titles being published today are every bit as good as- and in some cases better than- 20 and 30 year old classics that we still play and love today. Enthusiasm for the latest Alea game or whatever mediocre crap Hans Im Gluck is cranking out for Essen is the lowest it’s been since middle-aged hobbyists gave up on model trains and got into ELFENLAND back in the late 1990s yet excitement over the Fantasy Flight production schedule is high while publishers of games like LAST NIGHT ON EARTH are enjoying great success with hardcore and casual gamers alike. Even at BGG, the front page shows a lot more interest and content related to Ameritrash games than the typical Eurogamer fare. People are still stepping up to voice their frustration with the stagnate state of Eurogame design and more and more people are discovering both new and old AT titles. The Ameritrash badge is everywhere, the games are everywhere and being played by gamers of all persuasions, and despite the desperate “can’t we all just get along” pleas of gamers who foolishly believe that there’s no fundamental difference between a game like NUCLEAR WAR and one like DUCKLING DANCIN’ the Ameritrash genre has come into its own as a permanent fixture of the hobby gaming environment.
So it's a year on from Robert’s list and considering both all that has passed in its wake as well as the direction that our beloved hobby is heading, I have to say that I truly believe that we have witnessed the first year of an Ameritrash Golden Age. Let the nukes fly.
Tuesday, 18 September 2007
To a gamer of any stripe, the humble dice remains an object of near mythical levels of awe and reverence, a potent symbol of what it means to be a gamer. Proof of this is absurdly easy to come by - however the Eurogame crowd might style themselves as shunning random mechanics even for them the dice remains a staple in shared names and images - witness "the cast are dice", "the dice tower" and the ever-popular images of big piles of dice on BGG.
Those of us who are happy to enjoy our Ameritrash and Wargame classics need not worry about being proud of this particular piece of symbolism because our games are rife with dice and we know well how much drama, excitement and variety they can bring to a game. But we've been there before and we know there's a suprising variety of mechanics you can employ to make good use of dice to add to a game.
However, it would be foolish to proclaim that "dice are good" without qualification because there's a whole host of dice-based games that aren't worth the plastic it takes to make the little universal hexidirectional randomising cubes including in the box. Snakes and Ladders for an obvious example, and much as it pains me to say this, an uncomfortably large swathe of instantly forgettable AT games from the eighties. In the brave new world of the Euro there are also designers who've gone back to the beloved dice without shame with mixed success.
The first and most obvious thing you need to know about dice is that throwing lots of them evens out the luck over the course of a game. Spreading out fate in this way is a good thing because it means you get all the joy of chucking dice across the board but you can still retain a satisfying level of strategic play in your game. Most game designers seem to have got this point now - there are few, if any hobby games released in the past ten years that hinge on using small amounts of dice. What doesn't seem to have quite got through yet is that in order to get away with using this old-fashioned but still popular approach to dice, you need to make sure that the game points in which you employ dice don't vary hugely in importance, otherwise you're back down to a long, drawn out luck-fest again.
Consider the recently re-released AT treasure Talisman. A fine game in its day but nowadays I have to join the ranks of the naysayers on this one if for no other reason than the whole theme has been done much better by large number of other games. Talisman makes heavy use of dice - to the detriment of good decision making, but that's another story - for movement, combat and resolving non-combat encounters too. However, the actual impact of a good or bad dice roll in the game can vary enormously - if you're fighting a very powerful creature, or hanging around trying to hit the space which leads from the outer to the middle ring then the outcome of the dice roll is much, much more important than if you're up against something weak or just making an early movement roll to start finding things on the board. That's a bad use of dice - effectively the outcome of the game can be decided by a relatively small number of dice rolls.
I'm going to contrast this with my old favourite, the soon to be re-released Titan. In Titan, combat almost always involves rolling so many dice that combat outcomes which hinge on a small number of dice results are fantastically rare. It can happen - if you've got a round or two of dice rolls to finish off a Titan piece for example - but these occasions a few enough that they simply make memorable gaming experiences rather than a dull game, and making memorable gaming moments is one of the maky cool things that dice can do in a game. The movement mechanic is rather less prone to the standard distribution curve however because only a single dice is thrown each turn and this can make a big difference - you might get a good recruit, a poor recruit or not recruit at all, or you might be able to attack a weak enemy stack or avoid a strong enemy stack. However, the movement and terrain rules in Titan have a much bigger impact on where you can or might want to move than the dice roll - so, again, you're left with a situation in which you've got the excitement potential of a good roll making a big difference but where good decision making is a surer way to win the day.
A more recently fashionable way to utilise dice in game, and a particular favourite of mine, is to employ some sort of mechanic whereby fewer dice are rolled but the distribution curve is built in to the mechanics of the game so things tend to even out over the long run. Apart from anything else this is good because it reduces the chances of some ham-fisted idiot like me rolling dice across the board and knocking all the pieces over. And yes, I know about dice towers but following the little buggers across the room and then having big arguments about whether a given dice is "cocked" or not, or whether it counts if it's been retrieved from under the sofa is part of the charm.
The obvious game in the distribution curve category is, of course, Settlers of Catan. The dice in Settlers work well for a number of reasons - the dice get thrown a lot, the outcome affects all the players and there's an inherent balancing mechanism for a slew of bad luck known as "trading", although you'd never know this from the number of social rejects who chime in and complain that negotiation is Settlers is all a matter of dry mathematical odds and the dice impact is far too random to make it a game worth playing. However, the nice thing about Settlers is that it embraces a large number of play elements - negotiation, analysis, positional play and luck - and balances them well so that no one aspect is allowed to dominate. So if you do get screwed by the dice it's really doesn't rankle too much.
Another recent title to jump on this particular bandwagon is Yspahan. Yspahan has a slightly crazy way of utilising that distribution curve which is very clever and in no way as obvious or intuative as that employed by Settlers. It's kind of hard to explain if you've not played in the game but in effect it makes more common rolls less useful, and less common rolls more desirable. It also throws in a tantilising little mechanic whereby the player rolling can up his chances of getting what he needs by buying more dice that no-one else can use. So far, so good. Now Yspahan isn't a bad game but it's no favourite of mine either because beyond the dice (and cards) the bulk of the game is cold, hard analysis. And this leads to a problem encountered by far too many Eurogames that have attempted to cash in on the average gamers love for dice - building random mechanics into a largely analytical game makes the two aspects of play clash badly. If you've been working hard playing a game with requires you to crunch the numbers to get an edge, being cursed by the Random Number God is utterly infurating. If the game you're playing has a balance of elements (like Settlers and many AT games) or is unashamedly based on randomness or gambling then you're much more inclined to take it in your stride and just relax and enjoy the ride.
Another factor which deserves mention is the small number of Eurogames which offer the player a choice as to how much they want dice to influence the game. A good example is Traders of Genoa. While this is primarily a negotiation game - and thus has one of those built-in balancing factors for bad luck - it also makes cards which allow a player to forgo the dice roll and pick a space instead easily available. So if you're fond of riding with lady luck you can try that, or if you prefer to impose your will on the game then you can do that too. Each has their place and each is a valid path to victory in Traders - because if you're picking up special powers cards then you're not picking up goods, messages or contracts.
Finally I have to make mention of the humble Combat Resolution Table so beloved of the Wargamer. the CRT is a fantastic idea because building in odds to the equation is an easy, satisying way to ensure that you get all the fun benefits of random dice rolls without allowing luck to dominate or the need to throw buckets of dice. What I find startling about the CRT is that with the exception of a few old fantasy and sci-fi wargames it's a mechanic which has been shamefully ignored by AT designers. I even know of one Euro which has a (admittedly absurdly simple) CRT - the dinosaur evolution game Evo. So get your thumbs out, AT designers, and let's see if you can borrow and improve on some old favourite wargame mechanics in the same way you've brilliantly improved and integrated some Euro favourites into modern AT games. Diversity is our strength!
It is with some regret that I have to announce this is going to be my last column for a while. I'm about to start a new job and until I've settled in to the extent where I can be comfortable surreptitiously typing out blog posts in Word and then pasting them and posting them at home there will be no more posts. I do mean to return, sooner rather than later and hopefully I can use the break to come up with some interesting ideas for discussion and debate. So, see you when I see you!
This week, Matt has been:
Reading: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Watching: The Cider House Rules
Drinking: Gilles Bouton 2004 St Aubin "En Creot"
Playing: Citadels, Ra and (on the PC) Championship Manager 4
Friday, 14 September 2007
"Sound advice, except for the 'giving money to the (evil) Wal-Mart part...."
Does this seem familiar? If it doesn't, you haven't been spending enough time in the boardgaming forums. For whatever reason, gamers seem to have a tangible hatred for "The Mass Market".
Why is this? I have no idea. It probably has something to do with that "us against the man" vibe that runs through many hobby communities (though I don't see this as much from video game communities--and even if I did, it would be laughable...what, don't buy from Wal-Mart but Amazon.com or Gamestop instead? Yeah, Gamestop only owns *every videogame store outlet* there is...buy from them, that will show "The Man!")
Personally I've always gotten the warm fuzzies when any game that could be deemed "geek-worthy" finds its way onto mass-market store shelves. And if people really cared about the hobby as much as they claimed, they'd cheer too.
I can't tell you how many times I've been browsing the boardgame section (such as it is) at the local Wal-Mart when I'll see someone--maybe a young couple, or maybe just an older guy--hobble through the aisle. You can see it in their eyes; a listless but at the same time relentless, hopeful search that SOMETHING is out there that will catch their eye. You see them pick up game after game, showing it to one another, but maybe with a slight shake of the head put it down again. And who can blame them? I don't doubt for an instance that these folks have bought a game blindly in the past from these very same shelves, only to be wildly disappointed.
Still, that something...that urge...brings them back. There has to be more, right? Maybe they've heard or seen some of our "geek" games out there and are puzzled when they can't find such things on Wal-Mart or Target shelves. And very likely they don't have an online resource such as BGG...they probably haven't the foggiest clue that such a thing exists!
How do I know this? I used to be that guy. Of course, I'd seen great games like Space Hulk in the past, but still I would browse the store shelves looking for something like that. And part of me still does that. I still catch myself looking over those tired shelves hoping that something "geeky" has punched its way through.
That's probably why I celebrate games that do make that breakthrough. I sing the praises of games with a geek pedigree such as Battleball or Epic Duels or Heroscape...probably disproportionally so. Sure, they're good games, but you cut them a little slack because they rise above the muck such as Spongebob Monopoly or High School Musical: The Game or even Failed Party Game Where People Shout Words at Each Other #3718. Seeing a game like Crossbows and Catapults or Laser Challenge mixed in with that lot of rubbish is cause for celebration.
For a lot of people, that's the only hook into our hobby that they'll ever have. They've seen the "Game Store" but shy away because of (mostly wrong) stereotypes of mouth-breathing CCGers and bespectacled D&D nerds and old men carrying big tackleboxes full of Warhammer figures painted with frightening detail. (I said mostly). They just don't think that such a place holds anything for them. And to turn the tables, the same would apply to you if you weren't into a particular hobby; imagine not being much of an outdoorsman and having to entertain thoughts of going into a Hunting hobbyist store filled with live bait, expensive gear you couldn't possibly tell one apart from another, and orange-clad "Good Ol' Boys" chewing tobacco and talking about getting up at 3 am and covering themselves in Deer essence just to get the drop on an unwitting Buck. Stereotypes RULE!
So where does that leave our potential "normal" would-be gamers? Shuffling the aisles of Wal-Mart. Or Target. Or whatever. Looking, endlessly looking.
I don't usually take it upon myself to be an evangelist, but I can't help myself in such situations. One time when doing my own Wal-Mart shuffle, I noticed a man and his young son pick up the Heroscape box. It was obvious that the man was interested--his son doubly so--but the price tag of $40 was certainly scary on an unknown entity. Still, Heroscape grabbed them, peering out with its attention-getting large shelf profile, indicating its dominance over the weaksauce titles that surrounded it.
"It's a great game," I said to him. He turned to me. "Is it really?" he said. "Yep. Your kid is going to love that."
And that was enough, that gentle nudge, that assurance from someone who seemed to know what they were talking about. Now, I would've never talked this guy into going to a hardcore hobbyist store, but the bait was there in a place where he would find it...and ultimately, he took it. Did he and his son become boardgamers for life? Eh, not so sure about that. But this was the only shot for that to ever happen.
So I'll keep on shopping those big store shelves, looking for new champions of worthiness among the drek that's out there. And yeah, I'll cut it a bit of slack...and more importantly, I'll buy it from a big store too. Even though I'm just a datapoint, hopefully I'm one that says, "More, please". So I'll buy Heroscape stuff at Wal-Mart. So I'll buy Travel Blokus from Target. I'm probably naive, but maybe we can shape "Mass Market" into our own image, or at least enough to hook in another father and his son into a lifetime of memories.
Thursday, 13 September 2007
Yeah, I actually like CARCASSONNE...the funny thing is, I thought it was just a silly puzzle game until the expansions made it a very nasty silly puzzle game. I thought it might make for a good article to let the Xbox Live CARCASSONNE adopters in on what we've had available for years now. Next week, I'm doing the same thing with SETTLERS.
So y'all line up now to take a shot at me for championing the game that launched a million unbelievably lame t-shirts, pictures, icons, coffee mugs...how in the world a hobby that used to rally around Avalon Hill succumbed to the cult of cute is beyond me...it's like Hello Kitty worship for paunchy, middle-aged folks.
Anyway, have at it. Special Guest Star- Christopher Lee.
Saturday, 8 September 2007
Although I didn't recieve any boardgame gifts today, I did recieve Prophecy from KingPut a few weeks ago (early b-day gift). My trade arrived today - Mare Nostrum. Mordred should arrive eventually. Al says since I got so much other loot for my b-day, he may have to hide Mordred away until Chanukkah. I told him "NO WAY, plus Mare Nostrum doesn't count since it was trade, not a b-day gift"
Other cool b-day loot includes the Harry Potter Lego Castle, a black lace shrug, and a pair of black peek-a-boo stilettos.
Editing to add: In case you are wondering why this incredibly dopey post is on F:AT, I accidentally posted it here instead of to my personal blog. Also, thanks everyone for the birthday wishes.
Friday, 7 September 2007
Thanks to isirotin for providing today's image.
Thursday, 6 September 2007
So it's old news now...but it deserves repeating. FFG is reprinting EON's best games. Imagine if THE WHITE ALBUM or LONDON CALLING had fallen out of print for almost 30 years and were suddenly coming back into circulation. Yeah, it's that signficant.
Which is why, I think, the DUNE debate matters the most- not necessarily because it's DUNE, but because most people want the game available in its original setting. Just take a look at that petition and all the incredibly intelligent, grammatically correct, and insightful comments people made on it. How could the Herbert estate resist comments just short of "DOOD DUN3 ROX"?
But I didn't write about the DUNE debate for Gameshark.Com since board game politics don't mean much over there. I thought it would be more beneficial to write up a little primer for those who might not be aware of how awesome these games are and why we should be out in front of FFG HQ holding a candlelight vigil until they release them.
The Games of Eon
Wednesday, 5 September 2007
Whatever you might think of individual Eurogames, or the Eurogame in general there's one thing that AT fans everywhere ought to be thankful for - the fact that Eurogames revitalized the stagnant boardgaming hobby in the late nineties and lead indirectly to a new wave of games in other areas of the hobby. What these new games had in common was that they had learned some lessons from the lean, mean design paradigm of eurogames.
For a long time there didn't seem to be much traffic the other way. This is hardly surprising - the Euro was a pretty new concept, at least to those of us outside Germany, and we hadn't yet seen where those sorts of designs might have the shortcomings that we've discussed ad-infinitum before. Besides the fact they were new meant they had plenty of potential for exploration and play before people started to get a little jaded and look for something new. Eventually some Euro-American hybrid games started to appear and as regular readers will probably know I, for one, am immensely enthusiastic about their future as the next big thing in the gaming hobby.
We're all perfectly well aware that these sorts of vague categorisations are fairly meaningless. People like to categorise - as an ex-biologist who's sat through the vagaries of a number of different taxonomy systems I can well attest to that. But the fact is that the concept of "new wave" AT games and Euro-American hybrids have such immense crossover as to make the terms virtually interchangeable. Twilight Imperium 3 is often given as an example of the former, and War of the Ring as an example of the latter. When it comes down to it, aren't they both basically wargames that have imported wholesale a variety of mechanics first seen in Eurogames?
Amongst the AT fan crowd there also seems to be a slightly ridiculous attachment to old school games from the eighties, many of which were in fact pretty crap. Sure there were some absolute gems to come out of that time and which are still completely worth playing today - and most of them either are being or already have been reprinted by FFG or Valley Games! But people still harp on about how great it was to stay up until four in the morning playing game X, when in reality a play of game X now would probably reveal it to be a massively overlong turkey with virtually no worthwhile decisions in it. Nothing wrong with highly random games, but they need to be short, short, short to engage the attention of the modern gamer. I suspect what people remember is that playing game X provided a fantastic social framework in which you could sit around with your friends, drinking, smoking, chatting and generally having a good time to which the game contributed very little apart from a talking point and a reason to stay up until the small hours of the morning. That's how I remember most of my university-days games of Risk in any case.
So, with all this in mind I thought it might be interesting to make a list of all the useful things that AT designers learned from Eurogames, and all the things that I feel Euro designers ought to learn - and are now starting to pick up - from AT games. Well do the latter first.
- Engaging game play is all about meaningful decisions
- You can do good theme without a ton of pointless chrome
- Movement round a board isn't the only way to make a game.
Far, far too many old AT titles were essentially overlong gambling games without any real decisions to be made or even any sort of framework on which to hang a strategy. I have no doubt at all that this is largely the fault of Talisman - a game beloved largely because it allowed RPG fans to recreate some of their favourite genre in a boardgame and whose recipe was copied ad-infinitum by far too many games at the time. Too many mechanics basically came down to either risk management or passing over the important aspects of the play to a dice roll. This just doesn't wash anymore - random mechanics are good and an important inclusion in modern games but they need to take something of a back seat to good decision making and strategic planning. I reckon that a good game should be decided by random factors no more that 20% of the time - and 10-15% is probably a better mark. Less than that and you start to loose much of the value that randomness adds to a game.
I have a big, fast nostalgic soft spot for a fantasy wargame called Dragon Pass - it's the game my bat-counter avatar comes from. The rulebook is some 32 pages long but the actual core game rules take up about six of those pages. The remainder is dedicated to the bewildering variety of "exotic" units that break the base rules in any number of colourful ways. Although this makes the game bewildering it also lends a lot of flavour to the play and indeed is partly what makes the game worth playing. But consider - amongst said exotics is a column of rules dedicated to a character called Hungry Jack. I've never seen Hungry Jack appear in a game of DP: he's not very powerful and you need to temporarily send a dragon (which is a powerful piece) off the board to collect him. In other words the rules space and playtest time dedicated to Hungry Jack are completely wasted. This is the sort of thing I'm talking about - too often old school AT games were so into implementing the theme that they forgot about what effect it had on the play experience. A number of Euro designers have shown that it's possible to have a satisfying level of thematic integration and still keep the rules size down. This has resulted in games like TI3 which, although "bloated" with different concepts, is not "flabby" like Dragon Pass - in TI3 almost everything potentially serves a purpose as a strategy lever to help progress the game. In DP, there's lots of stuff in the rulebook that doesn't.
Virtually every boardgame I can think of that I played as a teenager involved manipulating playing pieces on a board which was intended to represent a stylised version of a physical space. I assume this came from miniatures games and to the popularity of family roll and move games and although this basic premise does allow for an awful lot of variety in terms of mechanics and strategy, it eventually because just as limiting as any other self-imposed paradigm design goal, like keeping things fast and simple for instance. In fairness it has to be said that this remains the dominant way in which AT designers choose to approach their theme. What they've become much less shy about though is utilising mechanics borrowed from other games to represent supporting aspects of the game play, and having a much more innovative approach to using different mechanics to go about representing the space in which the pieces move. There are also a number of hybrid games, Bootleggers for instance, which have managed to move away from this entirely and either jettison the board or use it for something completely different - in Bootleggers it's used mainly for record keeping and area-majority play. The result is that modern AT games have become much more diverse, and as a result, much more interesting, than they used to be.
And on the other hand, when it comes to Euro designers, I'd say ...
- Mathematical strategy needs to be balanced by something else
- Random mechanics have value in largely strategic games
- Simplicity and short play times shouldn't be design goals in themselves
There's a variety of places on the internet where you can play puzzle games that involve moving various board elements in accordance with simple, logical rules to effect a "win" scenario - escaping from a maze or having a laser hit a target or somesuch. I usually find these games to be engaging for a short while but they quickly get tedious for me because the approach to solving the puzzle is often the same in every case. There is, in effect, a scripted "best" approach to the problem. I've explained before in this blog how I feel that reducing a game to the simplest possible rules results in gameplay which is essentially logical and mathematical in nature and games which have been reduced in this fashion tend to have the same problem. They reveal that there's a single best approach to the decision making and/or they end up feeling the same after every play. There's plenty of ways to counter this problem without resorting to randomness such as positional play on a board, piling on the variables until analysis becomes virtually impossible or allowing some sort of trading or negotiation metagame to take place. Indeed, Reiner Knizia has some particularly ingeneous solutions to this and I don't doubt that that's partly why he's such a highly regarded designer. But many Euro designers keep on turning out games which are, in effect, logic puzzles and which have correspondingly low replay value.
Amongst the Eurogame fanbase there seems to be a lot of love for the old-fashioned two player abstracts like Chess and Go. This is hardly surprising since they conform well to the basic Euro design paradigm - nonrandom games in which deep strategy flows from simple rules. The problem is that most gamers enjoy multiplayer games and when you export those same design paradigms into a multiplayer scenario it plays havoc with game balance as the decisions of the third player start impact more positively or negatively on one opponent than on the other. Euro designers have recognised this and struggled manfully to solve the problem and, in most cases, they've succeeded in making more problems like the left/right player binding in Puerto Rico. The obvious answer, as far as I can see, is to stop trying to emulate non-random two player games and just allow a bit more chaos in, as properly handled, a little entropy can actually help balance a game in the long run and doesn't need to frequently, if ever, trump skill in deciding a winner. It's also a potential solution to the problem mentioned above as it stops players relying on scripted techniques for problem solving and keeps them on their toes as well as providing a variable seed to ensure that games turn out differently each time. However, the glut of vastly random family games around seem to have made "random" a dirty word in the Euro community.
This one probably needs some justification - what I'm really trying to say here is that while it's okay to take a game and try and work down to the minimum possible play time and complexity for your design goal, having that swiftness and simplicity you crave as a goal in itself too often results in poor, empty games. There's plenty of places to start your design - you might want to try an unusual mechanic, you might want to implement a particular theme, you might want to take the basis of a game you've played and throw a new element into it to improve it. But far too often it seems that in the cry for quick and easy games to play the original goal gets forgotten and indeed often gets trampled and destroyed by the ruthless slimming-down process resulting in a fast game that just isn't very interesting to play.
So there we go. I hope people will feel these are fair and interesting points on both sides of the debate. But then again, if you did there wouldn't be any debate. So come on and shoot me down!
Monday, 3 September 2007
The observant and not so observant among you may have noted that my contributions to this blog have rather dried up as of late. I do assure you I have had very good reasons for this occurring:
- I moved house. And by “moved” I mean every weekend I was transporting stuff from my old location to my new one because I was too lazy to get boxes and pre-pack everything.
- I discovered that living on your own means that you have to do everything around the house. I have yet to come home and find the lawn mysteriously cut or a phantom did the dusting.
- I am now much closer to drinking establishments than I was previously, meaning every weekend has been spent hung over.
- I brought the entire series of Farscape on DVD and have been quickly working through them.
- In anticipation of the boardgame release I started playing Starcraft on the PC. I’m nearly finished the zerg missions.
- I was devastated after being suspended from BGG and so walked the desert for 40 days and nights in self reflection, living only on a diet of goanna testies and Kangaroo milk.
So all of this shit has been sucking up my time, plus I have been rather lazy. Despite that, I broke my silence to bring some tragic news which no one else has reported.
I made the discovery last night when I opened up my copy of Starcraft the board game. Hidden amongst the miniatures and cards I was shocked to discover the following:
That’s right, the rulebook is rectangular. The square floppy rulebook is no more.
Now we have seen this rulebook before in the last in-house game FFG released, Tide of Iron. At the time when quizzed about it by yours truly on the site that Barnes is not wanted on, Christian T Peterson wrote the following:
“There is so much stuff in TOI (many molds, etc) that we needed to cut a few corners to keep the game sub-$80. Also, there is pretty much an even split of customer preference between standard and square (I prefer square myself!)
"Sad but true!"
This made it sound like the switch was temporary, a one off forever condemning TOI to be the bastard stepchild in the FFG range, cursed to look forever at his brothers with envy at their nice sexy big square floppy rulebooks. But now the starcraft rulebook is also rectangular, and evidence in the form of a PDF suggests the Burning Crusade expansion to World of Warcraft will also be rectangular.
My friends, I think it is time to come to terms with the shockingly obvious, Christian and his cronies have taken the square floppy rulebook out the back of the chemical sheds and done away with it, without so much as a granting them a going away party or a gold watch for its' years of dedicated service. Let us mourn it’s passing together.
2003 – 2006
FFG Square Floppy Rulebook went missing under mysterious circumstances late in 2006. Though you may have been unwieldy, and often spilled the pieces on the board when you were handed around the gaming table, and sometimes whored yourself out to Euroes like Beowulf and
, we love you still. I will never forget the times we spent together in the toilet, keeping my mind of the chilli I ate the night before. Or the mornings I woke to find you sprawled across my chest opened on page 10 because I tried to cram in a reading before the next night’s game. Your three column page layout and super big example diagrams will be sorely missed. Closing the box lid will never be the same again. Blue Moon City