For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved dinosaurs. My Mum once told me that when I was about six my primary school teacher had privately admitted that she’d stopped trying to teach the class about dinosaurs because I knew more about it than she did. Dinosaurs are awesome – if it wasn’t enough that they were genuine, real life monsters that dwelt here on this earth millions of years ago then get the added value of the rich storytelling one can weave about the painstaking detective work that it took and takes to discover these extraordinary creatures and piece together their world, and the astonishing variety and bizarre variations on the basic dinosaur theme – such as Therizinosaurus – that abound. I’m certain that I’d have been a palaeontologist had I not had the self-awareness to realise that having the manual dexterity of an elephant and the attention span of a gnat aren’t the greatest assets in a job which requires unbelievably careful and time-consuming digging and preparation of fossil specimens.
You can imagine, therefore, that I am continually frustrated by the lack of descent dinosaur-themed games on the market.
I mean come on. Almost everyone who’s bright enough to spell ‘dinosour’ has a passing interest in the big beasties so there’s a tailor made-market out there. Spielberg knew this when he drummed up funding for Jurassic Park. The BBC knew it when they sunk a ton of public money into the incomparable Walking with Dinosaurs. So what do we have in the designer games market under this particular theme? Two games which are more about evolution than dinosaurs (Evo and American Megafauna) one of which is mainly an exercise in simulation, and the little-known die Schlacht der Dinosaurier which, admittedly, looks like some fun but is at the end of the day a kids game with some thematic elements that even I, a lover of fantasy and science fiction, consider so silly as to be beyond the pale. There’s a bunch of non-designer games one can file under dinosaur of course but, like nearly all non-designer games, they’re likely crap.
As anyone who’s a regular reader of my columns will realise, the question “why” is marching with ill-deserved confidence in the direction of this article. On consideration this actually proves surprisingly easy to answer. Dinosaurs, for all their coolness, didn’t actually do an awful lot. Some of them ate each other. Most of them, inevitably given the food chain, ate plants. Many of the initially cool-looking features of dinosaurs such as the frills and horns of Ceratopsians and those giant claws belonging to our old friend Therizinosaurus turn out to be for tedious purposes such as display, thermoregulation or trimming trees. These are not the sorts of activities which make for an enthralling and exciting game.
So what’s to be done about it? Well, Evo is a good game and I think it had basically the right idea by combining evolution with fighting and manoeuvre but ended up focussing too much on the scientific aspects and streamlining itself into a self-congratulatory Euro straightjacket. Imagine a game in which each player controls two species of dinosaur – a predator and an herbivore. Over the eons the players must control the evolution of both species in a predator-prey arms race and move the predators around trying to munch up the herbivore herds of other players or (in lean years) their own. At game end – which would be a preset number of turns, although we could certainly have player elimination if a prey animal gets eaten to extinction or a predator starves to death – the winner is determined by the sum of total herbivores eaten by their predator over the millennia plus surviving herbivore herds of their own. Does that sound like the basis of a game that might be worth playing?
After thinking this one over my mind inevitably started to wonder whether or not there were other underused or difficult themes. Of course there are. I’m fairly fond of Western films, although I find the reasons as to why harder to pin down than my fondness for prehistoric monsters. But again finding worthwhile games which reference this genre – unless you count the plethora of American Civil War games, which I don’t – is difficult. The only one that’s really worthwhile is Bang! and that has a host of fairly well documented problems and is, at the final reckoning, a filler game in any case. Again when you come to consider the reasons why, the answer seems to be that in many western films, very little actually happens – or at least very little which could be directly referenced by a game. Gunfights are exciting of course but that niche kind of demands a quick, light game and Bang! has already filled that niche. What I find slightly more surprising is that no-one seems to have picked up that a sizable minority of Westerns – “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” for instance – are effectively variations on the age-old mythological quest motif. This sort of plot is, as we all know, readily referenced through the rpg-style game in which players take on different characters and move around the board seeking clues and/or equipment to find and prepare them for a final goal or reckoning. The more I think about this, the more it seems to me that the Western is crying out for this sort of treatment. Imagine a Talisman or Prophecy style game in which different goals or quests are on offer, differing in value depending on a characters’ motivation. There’s hidden gold to be found and bounties to be collected. A potentially interesting twist one could have here is to give each player a bounty value which would increase whenever they performed nefarious deeds and which could be collected by other players if they outgunned the unfortunate. Doing bad things might net easy profits, but would come at the price of making you a more and more attractive target for your fellow gunslingers.
Moving into more specific and distinctly grognard-ish territory, I’ve long been on the lookout for a satisfying multiplayer game which models the political, economic and military struggles of the European powers during the time of the Napoleonic wars. Not a big ask, you might imagine, but you’d be amazed – most of the eligible games are either purely military chit-fests, team games (as opposed to properly multiplayer with individual victory conditions) or both. The only one I ever came across which looked like it might fit the bill was the early Eagle Games production Napoleon in Europe which was out of print by the time I spotted it. To my mind this scenario is absolutely crying out for a Friedrich-style treatment with some added resource control rules, in which all the allies play against France but with separate victory conditions of their own and with some equivalent of the cards of fate to make a direct association between the game and the history. Shame then, from my point of view that the publisher of Friedrich continues to put out Napoleonic games which are 2-player/team efforts and therefore of no interest to me, however good they might be!
The final genre that came to mind is a rather more open ended and troublesome definition that tries to capture the spirit of discovery. There are many kinds of discovery of course – exploration of unknown places, searching through old records looking for secrets, the experimental quest for scientific knowledge – but all share certain basic features which could quite easily be played out in game mechanics. There are many games which include aspects of discovery in their mechanics – playing Twilight Imperium 3 with the Distant Suns option for example allows players to explore the universe and research technology – but there are relatively few in which the discovery itself is the basic goal of the game. One recent example which has pretty much hit the nail on the head is Thebes, but charming and playable as this game is it has the common Euro fault of lacking much in the way of player interaction. This brings us neatly on to why this is rarely seen as a suitable theme for games – because although the elements of exploration and discovery might readily be translated into game mechanics, it rarely has much of a direct competition aspect which is kind of essential if you want to make a competitive game out of the theme. But I would guess that most of us know one or two tales about the times it did get competitive – the race for the South Pole for example, or for the structure of DNA, or the fierce competition that existed between the first Egyptologists and Palaeontologists, which just goes to show what a potentially inspiring theme it could be if treated properly.
Now I’ll happily admit that fascinating as the process of scientific discovery is, it’s not the best theme for an Ameritrash style game. But physical exploration of an unknown space most certainly is, so what can we do to try and bend the theme to the sorts of play styles that we favour? Well one obvious trick is to adapt the setting for our game from the real world to some fantasy or science fiction setting but that in itself doesn’t overcome the inherent lack of direct player interaction. It occurs to me that what any expedition needs is someone to give it some resources and then decide how to spend those resources. Obvious purchases are food and equipment but what if our imaginary expedition leader knew there were others seeking the same goal? Might he be tempted to spend some resources to employ some underhand tricks and dodgy people to try and sabotage his opposition? Immediately we have a situation where players in our game are presented with dilemmas to solve. They have a choice to make about whether to spend more time raising cash versus the advantage of getting a head start in the race – effectively a risk management decision gambling the chance of more money versus a certainty of making some early progress. We’re then into the situation of deciding whether to play nice and sink all your spending into getting to the goal as fast as possible or whether to play dirty and risk slower progress against the chance to severely hinder the progress of other players. If you do this which targets will you choose for which traps? Now we’re introducing a nice psychosocial element into the decision making and that’s always a good one for expanding the skills needed for success and spinning out the potential shelf-life of a game.
So there we have it. I’d be interested to hear if anyone can think of some more underused themes and maybe kick around some ideas about how they might be implemented. I’d be even more interested to hear if anyone is inspired enough by my ideas to want to help me out in taking them further. And I have a little riddle to you – can anyone spot the relevance of my title to the content of the article? The answer to my last riddle by the way, not that anyone cares, is this. And a very fine album it is too.