Open Day at the Hate Fest

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A while back I saw a thread where the inestimable Ubarose, who makes everything happen around here, said that she found it very useful to know what games frequent reviewers really hated, because it helped give a wider picture of their taste. Not being one to let inspiration for a possible column slip by, I grabbed this one with both hands. I’ve gotten too good at picking out games I’m going to like and it seems like a long time since I’ve had the opportunity to really savage something, so I’m looking forward to this. Not that I can dismantle a game in an entertaining a fashion as Matt Drake, nor in as vituperative a manner as Michael Barnes, but it’s still going to be fun to try.

It’s worth mentioning that I’d been planning a piece like this for some time before that discussion. My inspiration was simple: it suddenly struck me one day that I call myself an Ameritrash gamer more because there are very few Ameritrash titles that I really hate then because there are lots I really love. In other words my very favourite games are an eclectic mix of lots of different styles, but my least favourite games are largely Euros and abstracts. Having said that when I actually compiled a list for this piece I found that my absolutely most-hated games were pretty eclectic mix as well, but that’s because I had to pick a relatively small number for this piece.

Of course I had to choose some games to bully, but that’s actually harder than it sounds. My all time most hated games are Tic-Tac-Toe and a godawful piece of children’s garbage called The Very Hungry Caterpillar Game but what use is it to you lot to know that I loathe and despise those games, or why? I shudder at the memory of playing some relatively obscure older titles such as the shockingly derivative Warlock of Firetop Mountain board game or the easily broken Elixir but is that’s hardly relevant to my modern taste in games. My distaste for some popular games such as Power Grid and Hive is well-known but would I truly call them terrible games? No, just not games I’d choose to play - I can see the appeal. So I had to select games that were well-known enough to be relevant and which enjoyed at least a reasonable level of critical approval amongst gamers. Using this criteria I managed to whittle the list down to six. I shall now review these six in increasing order of awfulness, starting with.

A Victory Lost. A game hailed by many as a near-ideal starter wargame thanks to the marriage of a fairly well-known bit of history, accessible rules that teach pretty much all the basics of hex and counter games and deep strategy. What they don’t tell you is that this also boasts an eight-hour play time, sufficient downtime for the German player to write a couple of novels while the Soviet player works through his STAVKA commands and enough chits to bury your grandmother. But that’s such a familiar fault amongst wargames that it couldn’t make this list on that alone. No, what really and truly appalled me about this game was that the strategy is reliant on a quite hideous level of spatial micromanagement. The game works by you pulling HQs from a cup and then you get to move all the units with command range of that HQ. So it doesn’t take a genius to work out that it’s generally a good idea, if you can, to have a unit move from the command radius of one HQ into another so that it can be activated more than once per turn. Queue endless poring over the map, adjusting every moving counter by one or two hexes as well as lots of hex counting and movement point calculating to try and optimize the combination of getting it closer to where you need it and ensuring it’s in the command radius of a yet-to-be activated HQ. And of course the HQs themselves can move too, adding to the agony and analysis paralysis. Not to mention the gamey fact that when pushed to extremes this tactic can pretty much allow a panzer division to travel the length of Russia in one turn. How anyone can enjoy this endless fiddling, optimizing, repositioning, repeated ad nasueum for a vast number of different units, is wholly beyond me, let alone be sufficient to hand the game a number of awards.

Next in order of dreadfulness is the well-known turkey Zombies!!!. Too well known, arguably, to be particularly worthwhile singling out for a slating. But it has its defenders, particularly on here. The defence usually seems to be that it’s an entertaining game with the right crowd who are just in the mood for fun: chuck some dice around, make some zombie noises, drink beer. That became no excuse at all the second that Last Night on Earth appeared on the block, doing exactly that but a whole, whole lot better than Zombies!!!, but even before then it was pretty thin. If memory serves, Zombies!!! works like this: you draw a tile and place some zombies. You roll a dice, and move. Then you roll a dice and move that many zombies one space. If you’re lucky you might end up in some combat but that doesn’t happen every turn and the one-space movement means you rarely get to swamp other players. So basically most of your turn is spent doing administration. Pulling a tile. Adding it to the board. Digging zombies and other crap out of the box and placing it on the tile. Making zombies mill around in a meaningless fashion. Yeah, sometimes there’s some exciting combat and sometimes you get to land a nasty event card on another player but mostly playing this game consists of doing nothing at all. I first played this game with five players and I honestly do not remember the last time I was so bored playing a game. I sat and watched four other players do nothing for ten minutes, and then did nothing myself. Repeated for 90 minutes and we were lucky it ended that quickly: in addition to its other many faults, this one is capable of dragging horribly. I’ll admit the game might be improved significantly playing with two or three, and apparently some house rules can help a lot but my games with it have been so utterly awful that I have no inspiration to find out. Especially when I could just play the excellent Last Night on Earth instead.

For the next slot I had to pick an older game, albeit a relatively well known one thanks to a (now defunct) Flash implementation that was doing the rounds a few years back, and one that like my previous choice has its share of passionate defenders. I had to pick it because Chainsaw Warrior totally deserves to be here. Let’s skip over the wisdom of releasing a full-price, full production quality solo board game in an era when video games were really hitting the mainstream. Let’s pass by the atrocious design decision to give the player individual numbered chits for everything instead of tracks or dice, leading to unbelievable administrative overhead if you don’t bypass them. Let’s talk about the game itself. You flip a card, fight it if it’s a monster, move the time track on. And that’s basically it. For 90 minutes. Yeah sure, there are lots of different ways you can die: running out of time, accumulating wounds or radiation poisoning but they’re all handled in exactly the same way by just shifting points up a track, and all combat is reduced to the same two dice roll, effectively making encountering a feeble zombie the same as encountering a dreaded mutant. There’s no attempt to actual explore the simple mechanics to actually prise some strategy or even - heaven forbid - some variety out of it. Everything looks, feels and is handled exactly the same thus ruining the one thing that might save this dire game from oblivion, the generation of some interesting theme and narrative to keep the player engaged. There is one interesting thing that happens at the start of the game, which is that you get to choose your starting equipment from different decks, the only point in the entire game in which you have some actual control over what’s going on. Unfortunately what’s in each deck varies wildly in power, making this aspect of the game as much of a crapshoot as everything else. Indeed I strongly suspect that what you draw at the start almost always determines whether you have any chance of winning or not. In the modern day and age why anyone would spend time with this rather than some version of Resident Evil or some such is entirely beyond me unless, perhaps, they were cannibalistic savages living in a cave totally isolated from the entirety of human civilization and lacking basic amenities such as electricity or the company of other people.

We’re into the real depths now. The previous three games have extremely limited redeeming qualities. The remaining three have none. It’s well known that I’m not a big fan of co-operative games, so no big surprise one made this list. The choice was easy though: quite the worst co-operative game it has ever been my misfortune to play - even worse than Knizia’s travesty of a Lord of the Rings franchise game - is Red November. It gets the vote because it not only suffers from every single thing that makes the majority of co-ops insufferable in the first place: alpha-dog boss player syndrome, lack of variety, mechanical approach to strategy and no actual co-operation amongst players, but also amazingly manages to not even get the basics right. There’s no sense of escalating tension, just a series of unconnected random events, no sense of meaningfully being able to rise to the challenge, and it manages to be slow and turgid when it should be fast and exciting. It’s also totally, totally derivative - there’s not a single thing in this game that hasn’t been done in another co-op previously except better, so there’s no reason at all to play this over one of it’s superior predecessors except for the mindless cult of the new drive to collect and play every single game ever, regardless of quality. And the sprinkles on top of this stinking turd is a painfully adolescent theme about drunken Russian Gnomes trapped in a submarine, a theme which thinks it’s hilarious but is in fact grindingly unfunny and bears little, if any, connection to the mechanics. It clearly only exists because one or both of the credited designers decided they wanted to jump on the co-op bandwagon when it was in full swing and is an absolute poster child for everything that’s wrong with co-ops, Eurogames and the modern game industry.

For my penultimate game I have, sadly, had to pick a game from one of the few mass-market franchises that’s actually plenty of fun, Risk.Not the original - there’s some life left in that old dog yet, even though for hobbyists it’s been superseded by titles like Nexus Ops and Conquest of Nerath. No, the various Risk spin-offs I’ve played haven’t varied in quality all that much because the core concept and mechanics remain intact with the notable and unfortunate exception of the Lord of the Rings franchise game. Let’s be clear that I’m not talking about the more recent Trilogy Edition which I have never played for the very good reason that it’s direct predecessor is so utterly, inexcusably awful. The reason is very simple. While the basic concept of playing Risk with some Lord of the Rings themed pieces on a map of middle earth is appealing, and beefed up by the addition of some nifty mechanical extras, Lord of the Rings Risk fails totally thanks to its idiotic win condition. The game ends on a random turn, determined by a dice roll each player makes at the end of their turn as the fellowship nears the edge of the board, and the winner is the player with the most territory. But remember how Risk works, mechanically: each turn you grab some re-enforcements (hopefully lots by cashing in some cards) and go rampaging across the map, capturing territory. Then your turn ends. So, unless you’re playing long-winded world domination style games the player that’s just been usually has more territory than everyone else. Read that statement again, and then recall that the game end is determined by a random roll at the end of each player’s turn. So … the player on whose watch the game ends nearly always wins. I’ve played this a couple of times, and the guy I know who owns a copy has played a couple more with his kids and we’ve found this to be invariably true. So if you want the experience of playing Lord of the Rings Risk without spending a penny, just grab a copy of the rules, get some thematically-related material to set the scene and then run through the end-game mechanic to see which player gets to end the game and declare them the winner. You’ll not only have saved money but several hours of wasted life as well. How the hell such a glaring, dreadful, obvious mechanical problem escaped the play-testers at a company as big as Hasbro is beyond me. Unless, of course, they just decided to quickly cash in on the licence and didn’t bother play-testing, but obviously that’s too cynical to be realistic. Because it’s not like they’d rush this out and then shortly afterwards release a Trilogy edition to coincide with the third film that includes everything in this game plus some more stuff, just so fans would have to buy the same game twice, would they?

And now we’re at the bottom of the pile. And I’m sad to announce that it’s going to be something of an anti-climax because they game I’ve chosen to fill this putrid slot is not, in many ways, a terrible game. I’ve played it more times than several of the other games on this list. Unlike many of the games that have come before it, it has no obvious mechanical deficiencies. It actually has some features that I’d normally associate with good, or at the very least acceptable design: a smidgen of randomness, a dab of player interaction. It’s fast playing and fairly cheap which are normally ways to ameliorate even the most destructive flaws in a game. Worst of all I find it hard to express just why it is that I’ve come to loathe it with such a passion. So this isn’t quite going to be the hatchet job you might have been expecting, but rather me stumbling to find words to justify blind hatred on relatively thin ground. But basically the problem with Samurai is that it’s so, so boring. Boring to the extreme. Boring to the point of pointlessness. Mechanically it ties itself in a strange knot whereby it appears to be a game of analytics but throws in just enough randomness and screwage to make anticipation and planning completely pointless. And that should be enough to inject some tension into the game were the randomness and/or screwage actually at all interesting, but as it is you’re doing, what, swapping a hat for a fat man? And in a move that borders on the offensive, the game takes one of the crowning themes of nerd-dom - the Samurai of feudal Japan - and sits it on top of a fucking abstract. I mean OK so it’s played on a map of japan, but a perfect, optimized map where everything is precisely equidistant from the scoring centers, meaning there’s no hot-spots, no desperate choke-holds of competition, nothing so much as a terrain effect, nothing except placing tiles and wishing you were doing something more interesting like watching some flies circle a yak’s arse. The “high point” of this yawn-fest occurs when a scoring piece on the board is surrounded by player hexes, at which point you get to … add up some numbers, thus transforming the single part of the game that might have had some momentary excitement in it into an accounting exercises and depriving it of any sense of spontaneity at all. Same goes for the conclusion which is saddled with yet another patented Knizia pointlessly-convoluted-scoring-system. It’s true there are a lot of boring, cookie-cutter Eurogames with pasted on themes, but Samurai takes the biscuit thanks to an unholy combination of critical praise amongst the cognoscenti, stealing what ought to be a really compelling theme and pasting onto a complete dog of a game and being really quite unbelievably dull even by the standards of its brethren.

So there you have it. Six of the worst. I hope you found enlightening. Personally I found writing about those games a whole lot more fun than playing them.

Matt ThrowerFollow Matt Thrower Follow Matt Thrower Message Matt Thrower

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Matt has been writing about tabletop games professional since 2012, blogging since 2006 and playing them since he could talk.


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