Right. At the end of part one of this essay on analog games, I said I’d talk about specific examples of board games to show why you, a video gamer, should be playing them.
“GO ON,” you shout, catapulting burrito filth from your mouth. “HOW GOOD COULD THESE GAMES POSSIBLY BE.”
Well, that’s not really the point. You’ll see. Let’s start with…
You’re sat at a table. The lights are low. Around you are a half dozen of your friends, sipping from beer bottles and eyeing one another nervously.
More than half of you are legitimate members of The Resistance, seeking to undermine the government. The rest are double agents reporting back to that government. The “game” simulates the part of this story where you all meet to argue about which of you can be trusted to go on missions; which of you form the team that plants the bomb or kidnaps the official. The missions themselves are just the members of that team placing a card facedown, either sabotaging the mission or not. These cards are then shuffled and dealt face up, revealing the results of that mission.
You flip the cards… a pass, a pass, a pass and there it is- a sabotage card. At least one member of that team is a spy. But who? Cue frenzied accusations, nervous allegiances, and the leadership of your cell slipping clockwise around the group like a sweaty minute hand.
Which is a fancy way of saying The Resistance is just a game of talking.
Which is exactly why it’s important.
Never mind the fact that The Resistance is a beautiful game. Let’s glaze over the big things, like the fact that the spies know who one another are and must work together to sway suspicions away from their allies and towards the innocent, and also the little things like the rapid exchange of glances when two spies get sent on a mission together (which of them submits the sabotage card? they can’t both do it, or their spy ring will be rumbled).
The Resistance and games like it are important because video games cannot yet challenge our personal charisma, leadership and duplicity. They can’t challenge us socially. Hell, they’ve barely scratched the surface of bluffing. And to state the obvious, to ignore such a vast part of human existence is at best a crying shame.
We’re blindsided by what video games can do with such fierce regularity that we often forget what they can’t do. Like talking.
Or tactility! Which brings us to
This game sees a team of heroes descending into a dungeon, and casts another player to control all the monsters. Are you asleep yet? Don’t be asleep.
The twist is that it’s a dexterity game. The heroes, monsters, arrows and fireballs are all wooden tokens. Want your barbarian to run the length of a room to hit a skeleton? You flick yourself at at that skeleton. If you hit, you kill it, if you miss, you miss. If the evil player wants his spider to envelop a hero in some sticky web, you flick a missile token from the spider to the hero. Want to hide behind cover? Flick yourself behind one of the game’s stone pillars, which socket into the board.
It’s World of Warcraft meets pool. Diablo meets beer pong. But the point is that you haven’t even heard of it. That’s the tradgedy here. This is a wonderful game, and there’s no reason why you, reading this, shouldn’t own it and play it with your friends on a weekly basis. But you haven’t even heard of it. No, it’s worse than that. You had no conception that something like this even existed. Doesn’t that make you a terrible gamer? It might do. I dunno.
Again: The popular conception is that boardgames are somehow primitive, but there is so much boardgames can do that video games can’t. Yet.
Are you starting to get it? Because I’m not even half way done giving examples.
Descent: The Road to Legend.
Descent is a more traditional hero team vs. evil player game. It’s a game of movement points and dice, in the style of Dungeons & Dragons. It’s pretty great. But the Road to Legend expansion is what makes it fascinating. Here’s her map:
What Road to Legend offers is grand campaign that the base Descent dungeon-crawling game sockets into. Essentially, in an ordinary game of Descent the heroes go slicing and bleeding their way through a dungeon, and that’s your evening’s enjoyment. In Road to Legend, those dungeons are all simple locations in a grand overworld full of cities, rivers and secret paths, and the hero party journeys around it as the evil player maneuveres powerful lieutenants to block them, besiege cities and bring about a dark plot.
To complete a Road to Legend campaign takes some 300 hours, taking a game that’s fun in and of itself, and growing a bigger game around it that has the scale and pace of The Lord of the Rings.
This is where things get a bit embarrassing for video games, because unlike the above two examples, video games could do this- something this mad and grand. But they haven’t.
Imagine if Blizzard announced a Starcraft II expansion that let players duke out grand campaigns, connecting 80 individual matches between 4 players into a space opera epic with its own map, its own rules. It would be exquisite. Different. Interesting.
Board games have been experimenting with this kind of scale, these sorts of campaigns, for decades, for the simple reason that they’re incredible fun. In the same way as persistent unlocks have revolutioned the last few generations of multiplayer FPS games, these cardboard campaigns let you take the hours you spend on an evening’s gaming and invest them into something bigger. Except instead of providing hollow, almost skinner box-like rewards, it weaves those games into a story with its own highs and lows.
Course, what I really like about Descent is the asymmetry of the two teams’ roles. The fact that playing as the forces of evil, spawning monsters and preparing traps, is a wildly different experience from being one hero in a party that’s expected to overcome any obstacle. Video games explore true asymmetry pitifully rarely, whereas take something like
Fury of Dracula.
This gem sees one player skulking around 19th century Europe as Count Dracula himself, while four other players slip into the riding boots of Lord Goldaming, Van Helsing, Wilhelmina Murray and Dr. John Seward, trying to hunt the ancient predator down before it’s too late.
It’s a brilliant experiment of predator and prey, with Dracula (who moves around the board invisibly) leaving a secret trail of the last six locations he visited, and four deadly hunters trying to close a net around him. The kicker is that actually arriving in the same location as Dracula can go either way. An aggressive Dracula versus an unprepared hunter might leave the hunter cripple, and Dracula only stronger.
DO YOU SEE HOW INTERESTING THIS IS? ITS PRETTY INTERESTING. PLAY THESE GAMES OR I WILL GO MENTAL.
LET’S TALK ABOUT AUCTIONS
Auctions are an even simpler mechanic that board games revel in which video games studiously ignore. In life, everything has its price. So few video games ask you what that price is.
Cylades, which is a simple wargame that has players trying to build extravagant cities over a network of war-torn islands in ancient Greece, uses auctions excellently. At the start of every turn, players bid like wealthy drunkards for the affection of Ares, Poseidon, Athena and Zeus, with how many fat coins they actually have kept hidden behind a cardboard screen.
Only the player who wins Ares’ favour can train soldiers, move them, and construct forts. Poseidon’s the same, but for fleets and ports. Athena simply provides the philosophers required for actually building cities, while Zeus provides the priests and temples that boost your economy. Course, to do all of these actions once you have a god’s favour costs even more money.
This is as easy to grasp as it is a colossal mindfuck. Do you need Poseidon this turn? How much can you afford to pay? How much do you need your neighbour to not get Ares? And if you bid on Ares to drive the cost up, what are the odds that you’ll be stuck with him when no-one outbids you? Like I say, it’s clever. It also auto-balances the cost of powers which designers might otherwise have to playtest into space to determine their cost.
PRETTY GOOD HUH?
WHAT ELSE IS NEXT??!
I am sorry for my sass. I am. Still, at least board games are such an ancient medium that they see less of the kind of innovation that games have enjoyed since their inception.
Oh wait, no, that’s nonsense. At the moment, my friends are all playing Risk Legacy, a game that’s split the board gaming community like lightning striking a sapling.
Risk Legacy sees players dueling for control of a far-future Planet Earth over the course of 15 games. Except, as the Earth changes in the face of centuries of war, so does the game. Everyone’s copy of Risk Legacy will evolve and devolve in unique ways as cards are torn up, the board is written on, stickers are slapped on it, and the rules of the game itself change. The box actually comes with sealed sections, their secretive contents only to be unleashed when certain conditions are met.
So, it’s a board game with spoilers. More than that, its competitors will build an actual history together, changing the face of the board itself as countries become fortified, irradiated, infested with cybernetic crabs… I mean, I’m guessing. I haven’t played it. But I’ve heard that it does hold some breathtaking surprises, and, more importantly, no-one can stop you from founding the city of Peter Blows or whatever.
This ties into the end of my last post where I said that a table game is just a shrink-wrapped idea. There’s a 1985 German board game called Waldschattenspiel where one of the players controls a tealight. Or look at this, or this, or this, or this. Innovation suffuses this hobby like a tea bag in the boiling water of play.
That analogy didn’t really work, did it?
Anyway, hopefully I’ve given you some food for thought.
We’re almost there now. Never mind all the crap I’ve talked about so far. In part 3 I’ll cover the real reason you should be playing board games. I’ll make a convert of you yet.