Hard Copy, pt. 2

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…

The Resistance.

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

Catacombs.

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

Cyclades.

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??!

Risk Legacy.

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.

Comments

  1. You already convinced me; you already convinced me aeons ago back in the RPS days… It is *I* who remains unconvincing. Unconvincing to my friends…

  2. This is the best pro board game blog post written by you that I’ve ever read today!

  3. I’m with Will: I love SU&SD, and I was more than once convinced to buy a game you talked about. (Right know, I’m very close to getting “The Fury of Dracula”.) However, I never play those games often enough, because it’s difficult to find other people who find time to play it with me.

    Anyway, one question re: “The Resistance”.
    I haven’t played that yet, but the core mechanics sound very similar to a Uber-popular game in the German speaking parts of the world, “Die Werwölfe vom Düsterwald”. (Which is, as wikipedia tells me, a re-imagining of an even older and more popular game called “Mafia”.)

    Are you familiar with it/them? Would you recommend getting “The Resistance” even if you’re already a bit burned out by Werwölfe?

    • I was in exactly the same boat when I first started board gaming, but if you keep playing, and keep asking people you meet whether you’re interested, you create a support network pretty fast. At least, that’s what I’ve found.

      And yeah, The Resistance is basically a spin on Werewolf that manages to almost entirely eliminate player elimination. Which is great! But if you’re totally burned out on the whole hidden roles thing, maybe steer clear of it. For now.

  4. Quinns, you’re on fine form here. And gosh, just so devilishly, so enviably clever at this sentence assembly business! When you write

    “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.”

    you of course know that anyone who’s even on this site will more likely than not have a passing familiarity with Catacombs, with all of these games – through SU&SD, through Cardboard Children – and that the frisson of delight that comes with the recognition of being one of the goats, as opposed to the sheep (or whichever is the good one in that biblical metaphor), will have the reader eating out of your proverbial hand (wait, doesn’t something have to BE in the bible to be proverbial? God, this metaphor lark is impossible).

    Um anyway I don’t mean to be a big grump, I really don’t. I found these pieces very entertaining, very compelling. But that’s kind of the problem with enthusiastic, well-written copy: the writer wants it all. They want to entertain their readers, they also want to promote and convey the entertainment these games can provide, and the conflation of these two objectives – well, I can only speak to my own experience, but if anecdotal evidence is good for [prominent public figure and/or memetic punchline] it’s good enough for me, so it’s story time!! I have friends who have rushed out and bought a whole bunch of games based on Quinnsy, Rabbsy, heart-on-sleeve joynalism ™.

    They work hard to get the most out of their new investments. Every social opportunity sees one of these games dragged out again, hoping that this time, THIS time, the magic in one of those breathless reviews will spill out of the box and bring the room alive like a bacardi advert . It never happens.

    For us, I should stress! This is only our miserable little gaming group; a single data point. A speck! Still, we cannot contrive a third of the manic joy suffused in those well-written scenes. The mechanics are the same; we recognise them from four fondly-remembered minutes of DownTime Town. Only, they don’t quite work in the elegant, emergent ways described by Mr. Florence. They don’t quite seem to fit the game! There’s edge cases, polite(ish) arguments. Cue lots of referrals to the manual. Forty minutes in, and we’re still not really playing yet. Nobody really minds.

    Four hours in, though, when it’s still happening? When we’re still on the first game? Everyone wants to go home.

    Usually, and you might have picked up on this, when somebody talks about their friends’ experiences that’s just an ego-preserving way of talking about what actually happened to them (even anonymously on the internet, which is just weird!). So maybe this is about me and my dusty collection of games. That’d explain why I’d be embittered enough to write at such inconsiderate length, taking ranty, scatter-gun pot-shots on the blog of a writer I love, right? Well, no, they really were my friends: I’ve had the cake AND eaten it.

    Um, we’ve veered into metaphor territory again, sorry. The ‘having’ of the cake here is the getting all excited about board gaming having read superbly-crafted reviews of Dixit, Space Alert, Lord of the Rings, Mansions of Madness et al (gratis, of course, because for some reason we don’t pay for great writing on the internet ). The eating of the cake, then, must be the similarly gratis opportunity to play these same games, having built up expectations of the riches promised therein.

    And honestly? I was much more entertained by the having.

    God, what does this have to do with anything! Why did I waste so much time writing it!! Why the frig am I even considering posting it!!! Why am I literally about to press the post comment button in the middle of this

    • raginglion says:

      Hmm. I think there’s something to what is said here. I haven’t played enough board games where the purchases were driven by the recommendations of reviewers to be exactly sure myself but I’ve been beginning to suspect something similar.

      I think the key point is that with board games different groups of people can have wildly different experiences (the same is true with video games, maybe even more so, maybe less so). Take Resistance which I haven’t played but I’ve played Mafia and Werewolf: it’s always seemed flawed in my mind and has often worked out that way in playing them, since there doesn’t seem to be any mechanic which can begin to drive the suspicion usefully. I don’t feel that someone getting targeted by the hidden enemies gives you any information in these games to really start judging who’s behind it – Resistance’s slight change in mechanic of sabotaging things sounds like you could start to build up a useful picture after a few rounds but my sense is that you have to have people that drive the intrigue by making plays. My brain can never come up with workable plays and long-term tactics which I feel this kind of game demands and would work best with and when you don’t have anyone in a group that’s driving this kind of intrigue the game doesn’t have much substance to it – there’s nothing to get people going. But I can see how with the right set of people I’m sure an amazing experience could be had, but I think there’s an importance in acknowledging that this won’t be the same for those who have social groups that operate under different dynamics and don’t have the real characters present in them.

      I played Shadows over (of?) Camelot with a group of friends which is a co-op game which I think might be regarded highly but it never caught light amongst us – I lay the blame more with the mechanics, though I think the social aspect could come into it as well. We were struggling to win as a group against the game even without a traitor so clearly we haven’t really worked out how to play well enough against the game even though I couldn’t see too many obvious improvements on our strategies, but the mechanics while elegant and simple weren’t really fictionally interesting and relevant to draw us into the the feel of the game in a big way. For a different set of people I could see those same mechanics starting to drive the feel of the game the makers of it intended and with a spy on top and a strong group of personalities the intrigue could heighten. You need people with imagination, though, to really make this work and people who care.

      So I guess I just want to point out that it might be something that reviewers should consider, that some games are highly dependent on the personalities of people playing and also the extent to which people will care about winning the game or are prepared to put their imagination into a game and be carried along by its fiction. This all means that just because reviewers may have had an incredible experience with a board game this won’t just translate to everyone – there simply might have just been something special in the air that night that made it work so well (multiple plays of a game can solve this though and mechanics can be looked at somewhat objectively in isolation). The final crowning point is that reviewers, because they’ve chosen to evangelise this past time in particular, got into this position very probably because they get more out of these past times and have a better set of friends to play with than other people generally will which is why it excites them quite so. It might not be the same for everyone.

      I really love SU&SD btw and many board games. Had one of my best experiences with Dominion recently which really made it come alive for me and I picked up Dixit after Rab’s review of it and love it so much, but I could tell from his description of it that it should work for the social circles I mix in really well. I totally believe that reviews are still very useful, but I’m trying to get better at interpreting them for how I think they will work out for me.

    • zipdrive1 says:

      Exactly! (very well written, BTW).
      I must say I’ve had the exact same experience with the electronic, digital, cybertronic Galactic Civilizations 2, where Jim Rossignol’s exuberant AAR was so much more fun to read than the actual game was to play, as I learned the hard way.

  5. WHERE THE F IS PART 3

    No, I’m not a non-contributing zero with entitlement issues. I just like this series a lot. Keep it coming!

  6. Michael D. Mize says:

    Fury of Dracula(1987) looks interesting just as it did for Steve Jackson Games “Undead(1982).

  7. zipdrive1 says:

    Quinns, I’m a bit surprised with your point regarding Descent – isn’t every RPG a campaign made up of smaller games, mostly tactical combat? Isn’t every RTS campaign (including SC2) exactly what you mean – a set of small games connected together? Granted, most campaign are linear and don’t involve choices and mechanics, but games like the Total War series really do!

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