Fantasy Flight's previews for Descent: The Road to Legend repeatedly mention that the game can be played in "bite sized portions." Preview 6 spotlights the special boxes that players can use to store their stuff in between sessions, thus allowing for sessions as "short as one hour." I'm clearly not the only one who needs bite-sized Ameritrash games. For whatever reasons - work, family, kids, other interests and priorities, schedule conflicts with our gamer friends - many of us only have an hour or two at a time to play games.
Have you been following the ongoing drama of Glory to Rome? The original game by Carl Chudyk has been a gamer favorite for several years, but it’s impossible to have any conversation about the game that doesn’t eventually come back to the artwork. Cartoony, garish, and loaded with gradients, Glory to Rome wasn’t exactly easy on the eyes. Cambridge Games sensed an opportunity to Kickstart a do-over of the artwork. The ensuing fracas over the protracted production cycle of this reprint could fill its own article. But it’s hard to argue with the new look of the game, now rendered in stylish black and white with appropriate splashes of color. It makes the game look far more professional and attractive. There’s just one problem: I kind of miss the old artwork.
"Well, Bob, here we are on the verge of another season of rampant violence and mayhem! Let's take a look at all of the leagues and see who's going to come out on top in each one and then in the interleague playoffs leading to the Blood Bowl!"
The list of tasks a game designer has open at any one point in time can be very long and it is constantly evolving. Designing a game is a long journey, even for the simplest of games. It can be a battle between what's good for the game and what the game designer wants the game to be. It comes with a lot of changes, some of them very painful, some of them creating the long-needed breakthrough that breaks an impasse. Elements get added, others get taken out until eventually, the final product bears little resemblance to the notes that were scribbled on a piece of paper when the designer had an initial idea.
So many choices.
"Today is Christmas. There will be a magic show at eleven hundred hours."
That's one of my favorite lines in FULL METAL JACKET. In context, it's bizarre and almost completely alien.
Anyway, it's not Christmas yet but it may as well be over at Gameshark.com because like a much slimmer Santa, I have delivered my annual Christmas Message to the World and this year it is "Fruitcake is a better present than board games". Fruitcake tastes good and makes you think of the holidays. A crappy, ill-considered board game gift is an emotional and psychological burden.
When I was in college, I discovered Roger Ebert’s series about “The Great Movies.” For the past 10-15 years, Ebert has been steadily releasing essays on films that he considers to be particularly entertaining, moving, or otherwise significant. There are several hundred essays collected now, including such varying subjects as Lawrence of Arabia, Groundhog Day, and Goldfinger. Say what you will about Ebert as a critic, but his command of language is remarkable. His gifts are best used in this context, where he doesn’t need to say whether a movie is worth paying to see, but rather he can focus on the details of what brings greatness. He’s a good candidate to write such essays as well, simply because of how many films he has seen.
A couple of years ago I wrote an article talking about the lack of historical context within the board gaming hobby, especially when compared to other mediums. There is a pervasive ambivalence about old games in the hobby today, which is increasingly focused on the newest Kickstarter campaign and the churn of the right-now. At the time I thought that there was hope for those of us who really enjoy older games, because I believed we were living in the age of reprints. Back then old classics like Wiz-War, Merchant of Venus, and Survive! were getting top shelf reprints from major publishers. But now that a couple of years have passed, I fear we are more disconnected with our roots than ever before. This time however, it’s not because of the ambivalence that I complained about. It’s because the games that brought many of us into the hobby are quickly vanishing, to be replaced by games with vast expansion lines and fancy miniatures.
For many of us, me included, playing board games is about escaping from the day-to-day worries, thoughts and general dross and give us an hour or two, maybe more, to think about something else, to occupy ourselves and to have fun with friends, old and new, family or alone. We don't want to think about the horrors going on in the world. We don't want to worry about politics. That's fine and that's what board games can help us achieve. However, the hobby itself isn't apolitical and we do need to consider what games we play and why we play them.
The latest wargame I've covered on Shut Up & Sit Down is the kickstarter-funded War Stories. I mention that it's a kickstarter project because it's got a lot of the things we've come to associate with kickstarter projects. While it's far from the worst offender, it still has that nagging sense of something not quite finished, not quite complete. And the FAQ document is beginning to build toward epic lengths.
But while there's a fair number of disgruntled backers out there, I think War Stories deserves more patience than some seem prepared to give it. Because it's packed with excellent, unique, inventive ideas and there's nothing else quite like it. It's the fastest, smoothest playing tactical wargame I've ever played. And it has total fog of war, which I had long ago written off as impossible outside of digital ConSims.
So while it has its problems, I think it deserves support. Not least to encourage the designer to keep on tweaking until those ideas come together into a better whole.
Speaking of kickstarter, a friend of mine is running one for his new design. This is his second professional game, and I can assure you there's no sense of half-finishedness about his designs. It's called Pocket Imperium and is very much what it sounds like: a super stripped down 4x game that plays in under an hour.
Hearthstone. So much Hearthstone. Been enjoying the way Gnomes vs Goblins has temporarily upended the meta into a glorious free for all. I'm playing so much Hearthstone it's narrowing the number of other games I'm playing, and making it harder for me to come up with article ideas.
I have, however, found time to get into Portal. It's one of the big gaming franchises I've just never gotten round to playing until now: I don't usually much care for puzzle games so it didn't feel like I was missing out on much. But the first-person perspective and creative ways you can solve some of the levels make it fun. To say nothing of the story and the humour, of course. It's a shame it's so short and there's a sudden difficulty spike at the end.
My 8-year old daughter started playing it. It's great training for other, more reflex-intensive WASD games.
I got struck by a sudden urge to see American Beauty again. What an amazing film, so rich with layers of image and text that it's almost impossible to decode, yet ferociously entertaining for all that. If I enjoyed it as a young man, I think I enjoyed it more now I understand what it's like to be the middle-aged protagonist. One of my top ten films of all time.
Finally got around to watching Django Unchained. Which was 75% awesome and then just trailed off into a feeble ending. Having built up unbearable tension with such patience and skill, why did Tarantino go blow it all for an unnecessary second ending? Sometimes I think big-name directors end up making yards to celluloid masturbation, convinced of their own brilliance. It happened to Peter Jackson. After this and Inglourious Basterds, it looks like it happened to Tarantino, too.
Also caught Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Which was okay, although the opening thirty minutes were so preposterous that I almost gave up there and then. But Andy Serkis pulling an amazing performance as the miming ape saved it.
But it made me wonder: why do studios remake films that are famous for their twist endings? Money is the answer, obviously. But there are so many great old films that might make a cool reboot. Why pick ones like Planet of the Apes or The Wicker Man that rest on classic plot switches that everyone now knows? How can the result ever being much better than a train-wreck?
When I was a student, it seemed that all my friends ever listened to was Bob Dylan and Pink Floyd. The latter became a regular fixture for me, but I never quite embraced Dylan in the same way. I thought he didn't make a single decent album after Highway 61 Revisited.
I could see why he was such a profound influence on music, and why he was so acclaimed. But I always felt his skill was as a lyricist, not a performer. A lot of his words could stand alone as poetry, something you could say about few other musicians, but a lot of his songs sound better covered by other people.
I got a sudden urge to go back through his catalogue and try it again, to see if I could get it this time. So over the course of several days, I queued up his studio albums in chronological order and ran through them again. And you know what? I was right. Highway 61 Revisited was his last good album.
It did leave me with a heightened appreciation of his early music. Freewheelin' and Bringing it all Back home are the highest points, and I've been spinning them a lot. Both albums that have become genre templates in their own right, and incredible achievement for a single artist. But I remain mystified by the appeal of many others. Even Blonde on Blonde. Even Blood on the Tracks. I'd rather go back to Pink Floyd.
Does a spear travelling at terminal velocities toward an unsuspecting target make any noise if there's no-one around to hear it? And if there's no one around to hear it, how can there even be a target? Those are just two of the questions that won't get answered in todays pre-festing Bolt Thrower.
Last week I got the pleasure of reviewing A Distant Plain on Shut Up & Sit Down. It was the first game in the COIN series I'd played, and I had mixed feelings about the system: while it's full of intreresting strategy and detail, it's head-breakingly hard to do well and sometimes makes you feel like an accountant with all the tallies going up and down. It sometimes feels a bit too much like hard work, basically.ÂÂ
But on the other hand, its evocation of the politics of modern Afghanistan is jaw-dropping. It deserves plaudits for tackling such a hot subject without flinching and with so many shades of realistic moral complexity. There's a particularly wonderful jealous co-dependency between the Afghan government and coalition players which is pretty much unique.
You'll notice that I haven't done an awards column this year. That's partly because I'd have struggled to find five games that I was really impressed by: two of my favourites this year have been re-prints. I have enjoyed some wargames but they've tended to be extensions or expansions of existing rules sets, which isn't quite the same. I haven't played a couple of games I'd have like to, mind, such as Pathfinder and Space Cadets: Dice Duel (I have now played Robinson Crusoe) - so maybe there's hope of an early 2014 rally.
But also, to be honest with y'all, I'm finding it increasingly hard to find time to blog in the wealth of other stuff I have to get done. I'm sorry I've been less attentive of F:AT than I would have liked, but life is the way it is and other things have to come first and I don't see them letting up any time soon. But I'll still be here, just less regularly than I used to be.
I finally got around to upgrading to a new HD set. It's lovely. And as a result I've been watching way more films than usual lately.
The one I enjoyed most was Prometheus. After watching it I was amazed by the confused reaction to the film from much of the internet. Yes, there were plot hole and yes, there were points that were never explained but most of them were quite easily filled from the imagination and intuitition and it seemed a coherent and satisfying whole to me. And it was gruesome, scary, stylish and unusually intelligent for big-budget sci-fi horror.
Pacific Rim, by contrast, was unusually dumb for big-budget sci-fi. It was big, brash and fun, and I enjoyed it, but it was also incredibly shallow and predictable. Del Torro has made so many nearly-great films that it's getting a bit frustrating.
Mary & Max is a peculiar Australian claymation film for adults about two lonely, damaged people in Australia and America who end up as accident penfriends. It's beautifully produced and shot, stuff with pathos and wound through with a thick vein of black comedy. But while there's much to admire in it, I found it incredibly bleak and depressing.
I also watched a couple of Johnny Depp films. What's Eating Gilbert Grape was critically acclaimed, and Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas was not, but I hated them both. The former, while graced with an astonishing performance from a young Leonardo di Caprio, was excessively slow-burning and the latter was such a pathetic, gurning send-up of Thompson's incendary, angry novel that it made me cross.
Gaming recently has beenÂÂ all about the iOS, mainly due to a slew of reviews I had to push out for other sites. We'll wind through these quickly. Before I wrote most of these I did another top board games for iOS list, which is a bit of a shame because at least one of these releases would have made it into the list in place of Stone Age.
Pathogen is a surprisingly good and stylish abstract. Really not my usual cup of tea at all, but a combination of presentation, accessibility and top use of the digital platform drew me in.
Civil War 2: 1862 is a competently delivered but soulless and slightly repetitive strategy game. It's super-cheap but there's so many great strategy titles on iPad that you're better off spending a little more.ÂÂ
Lords of Waterdeep is a faultless translation of the original and you should go buy it now. It's probably the best thing Playdek have done to date.
Razzia is a very slick implementation of its source game, but whenever I played it, I kind of found myself wishing I was playing Ra instead.
Quarriors is pretty weak. It's functional, in the sense you can play against the AI or other people via hotseat or online, so I can't slate it hard. But everything else about it, from the AI to the UI, reeks of lazy, sloppy coding and corner cutting.
Pixellated adventureÂÂ Legend of Equip Pants is free and very funny and worth a bit of your time Platformer.Nightmare: Malaria is free and for charity so that probably is too.
I really liked the iOS version of Space Hulk. I thought the graphics and sound really added to the experience, and the campaign really hooked me in. It's just a shame it was obsviously such a rushed PC port and so little thought was given to the touchscreen UI.
Gun DogsÂÂ is a new gamebook, graced with illustrations by industry legend Gary Chalk.It's very much a by-the-numbers affair for the genre (pun intended) but it's got enough energy and quality art to make it worthwhile.
Drive on Moscow is stupendously good. It keep everything that made Battle of the Bulge so special, but the new scenario looks and feels qualitatively different and poses lots of interesting strategic and historical questions.
Tiny Games is what you need for the family this Christmas. You tell it where you are, what mood you're in and how many peopel want to play and it suggests a super-simple real-life game to play. Most of them are amazingly good fun. Oh, and you get a sub-set of the games free so you should definately, definately try it.
MULE Returns is awful, but you probably knew that.
Is anyone still here after that cascade of links? Blimey, you've got a stronger stomach than me.
I haven't been fixated on any particular band or style of late. At the moment I'm listening to TV on the Radio, a band I really ought to listen to more but never seem to be in the right mood for.
But it's Christmas, and that means we ought to talk about Christmas Music. I have a little playlist of favourites I drag out this time of year, in defiance of all the awful shit you're bombarded with in shopping centers. It's mainly singles and mainly not on Spotify so I can't give you a big playlist and instead will point you toward to examples of that rarest of things: festive long players that are worth your time.
The first is appropriately entitled Christmas and is from Minnesota band Low. It might be the most Christmassy feeling record ever, full of bells and bright eyed childhood nostalgia without ever feeling cloying. The highlight is the magical Just Like Christmas, which is notable for being the best Christmas song that barely mentions Christmas.
The second, highlighting a more alternative approach to Christmas music, is Christmas Thanks for Nothing from lo-fi UK band Slow Club. It's a little uneven at times, although the slightly dischordant rendition of Silent Night is excellent. But the standout title is the finale, Christmas TV, a quiet and wonderfull uplifting evocation of seasonal love.
Have a good holiday, everyone. And I'll see you all in the new year.
This time last year, I was so tired of the generic nature of most new board games that I'd started to wonder if my favourite hobby had passed its glory days. I've never been happier to have been proved wrong. After a couple of years of wretched releases, 2015 has been a stellar time for tabletop gaming.
When there was so much chaff in the machine, I couldn't bring myself to do much more than pick a top three for my best-of-year posts. Sometimes it was difficult to find even three. This time I'm faced with an embarrassment of riches. I've never liked the idea of honouring games by category: it feels artificial. If the two best games this year were both dexterity games (they weren't) then both deserve a mention.
So here's what were going to do. I'm going to run through my favourite games of the year and, at the end, pick one for game of the year. But they're all fantastic. All worthy of your time and money.
Before we get stuck in, I have to admit that there's one title that ought to be in the running which I haven't played. That title is Pandemic: Legacy. Not being an enormous fan of the original, I passed on this at first. By the time it became a must-have game and I wanted to review it, everyone else had it already. Hopefully there'll be time for a review in the new year. I might think that Pandemic is merely average. But since I opened Risk: Legacy this year and it became my sixth-ever top scoring game, I ought to see how the legacy concept works with other systems.
Now, on with the show.
Star Wars: Armada
X-Wing looked fantastic on the table, but it felt more like a crapshoot than a tactical combat game. That's slowly changing but, however good it gets, it'll never offer as much game as Armada does. And even with unpainted fighters, Armada still looks the biz when it's laid out. I was playing in a pub once, and a complete stranger came over and started taking photographs, muttering "that's mint. That's fucking mint."
I'd argue it's actually more accessible than its older brother due to fewer ships and upgrades and a more predictable play time. So, easy to pick up, fantastic looking, rich and deep to play: what's not to love? Well, the price, I guess. But you don't need a lot of ships to build a fun, functional fleet.
The sorts of games we love are often bloated with rules and components in place of actual theme. Sometimes this works, more often it just gets in the way of enjoyment. Yet when designers try to strip these things away to make shorter, simpler games, often all that's left is a hollow shell.
Specter Ops is the grandest refutation of that conclusion I've ever seen. You can be up and playing in minutes yet you might end up playing for hours and hours over the shelf-life of the game. It's built taut, asymmetrical and full of cunning deduction on a foundation that looks flimsy, but is rock solid.
Fury of Dracula 3rd Edition
Hidden movement is one of my favourite mechanics, so getting two top titles in one year is a real treat. And with the original Fury being one of my favourite games, it's no surprise I see 2015 has being an out of the park year for quality.
You'll need to put in a bit of work to figure this one out, but it does play fast and it'll reward you a hundredfold. Dense, claustrophobic and slipperier than a box of frogs yet still full of depth and crazy see-saws of fortune. It'll suck you in and never let you out.
People have been mining the seams of social games and word for so long that it's rare anything of value turns up. So imagine my surprise when a designer known for mediumweight thematic titles turned up a great title that was novel in both genres.
The best thing about Codenames is its chameleon-like ability to be all things to all people. It works co-operatively or competitively. You can play it hard or for laughs. Teams can play it just as well as individuals. Whichever way up you turn it, it's still just as much fun.
You'd not think, to look at the box or read the rules, that this is perhaps the deepest game I've seen in years. It looks and smells like a negotiation game, and there's plenty of that to do. Yet underneath are layers and layers of mechanics to puzzle over and perfect.
That it presents such a compelling piece of alternative history too is just the icing on the cake. With such variety and replay value, Churchill would go on my "if you only had 10 games" list without a second thought.
And the winner is...
In keeping with the quality of this year's games, this is the hardest choice I've had to make for some time. So I'm not going to make it: I'm going to let my friends and family do it, without them knowing.
They've had a great time with all of the games on my shortlist. But there was one that got asked for over and above the initial wow-factor of any well designed. One that got worked over, worried at, examined in a fierce competition to be the first to be best. One that shut out the world outside more effectively than the rest.
That game is the new edition of The Fury of Dracula.
I had always dreamed that one day, someone might be able to shoehorn the best bits of the two previous editions into one box, but I never really believed it would come true. Yet there it is, a special Christmas present for me. And for all of you, too, if you're lucky enough to find one under the tree. Have a great solstice.
A while back I interviewed Volko Ruhnke, the designer of Labyrinth and the COIN games, for a feature about political games. I knew it wasn’t going to be a long feature, so I ask for quick, snappy replies.
He gave me a 4,000 word essay.
This week's companion piece is a list of my five favourite games in my least favourite genre. Yep, that's right, it's Worker Placement time. You can see the results of my ruminations over at Rollin' Dice.
Perhaps the most interesting thing I discovered while compiling the list is how badly lots of randomness fits into the mechanic. Normally, tons of dice or cards is a fine addition to any game and, indeed, some of my picks showcase how well they can work in Worker Placement. But raw chaos and aggression alongside heavy strategy just doesn't sit well for me. Too much chalk with too much cheese. Or perhaps too much milk with too many pickles.
Why am I back to compiling listcicles? Because it's been a long time since I was really excited by a board game new release. I can't even muster any enthusiasm for Warhammer Quest: Silver Tower, not when I've got Descent, DungeonQuest, Mage Knight, the Adventure System and lord knows how many other fantasy adventure games kicking around already. Instead, we're still have tons of fun with Automobiles and X-Wing. There will be a review of the latest wave coming soon, but other than that, I'm content with what I have.
Sometimes though, even when you're immersed in ennui, something can come along and jerk you out of your torpor. That happened recently when I got given a copy of Twilight Squabble via its designer, who lives near me. It's a tiny thing, just a small deck of cards and a few cubes, and it's got nothing to do with its Struggle namesake, except for a cold war theme. But there's a surprising amount crammed into that little box.
At first glance, it's a simple bluffing game. Each turn you get three cards valued at 1, 2 and 3. You play two face down, one on the "space race" and the other on "balance of power". Highest card wins, except you can use your third card to either counter an enemy card or buy bonus points to allocate the following round. There's also an Agent you can use to find out what card your opponent has played. After a few rounds, highest balance of power wins, with ties settled by the space race, unless one side has accumulated two much power and started a nuclear war for an instant loss.
On first play, it turns out to be surprisingly convoluted. You need to read and stick to the rules very closely, and there's a lot of mechanical elements which don't serve an immediately obvious purpose. Halfway through the first hand of this supposedly short game, with flip of the rulebook on every play, I was ready to give it up as rubbish. But once we got the hang of things and the game flowed, it proved both fast and fun.
The cleverness in the game is the way it marries bluff with probability. We encountered several points when, in spite of the hidden information element, there was a "right" and a "wrong" play and making a bad call had the potential to lose you the game. If you're ahead on the balance of power, for instance, failing to negate one of your own cards with your own cubes (which you can do) can mean instant armageddon.
I was also atrociously bad at it. So, if you fancy an unusually quick and deep bluffing game for two, or just a game you can beat me at if we ever meet, it's worth checking out.
For as long as I can remember, from my earliest childhood, a huge part of me has been drawn towards escapist activities and creative play that contained a sense of agency and interactivity. A flight from the chocolate box uniformity of suburban life and rote learning for vocation. From the dog-eared pages of Choose-your-own-Adventure books to the endless playspace of a bucket of Lego and on into my nascent dabblings with red box era 80’s D&D, there’s been a constant desire to create stories and interact in worlds of myth and places of ‘other’ to which I keep returning. And I know I’m not alone.
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