Articles

  • At times when I’m reading I unexpectedly wade into something much deeper than it initially appears. A turn of the page reveals a moment when the author suddenly stands on his head, and these are the moments that make it worthwhile.

    “Clausewitz likened war to a game of cards rather than chess because he saw chance and uncertainty as being just as important as precise tactical calculation. More recently, it has become popular for scholars like Culham and Kagan to apply modern scientific concepts of nonlinearity and 'chaos theory' to warfare, just as Clausewitz had appropriated earlier scientific ideas such as 'friction' and a 'centre of gravity'.

    claus

  • What can I say? I had my Essen editorial already in the can over at Gameshark.com before the news about the Mayfair decision broke so I didn't write about it. Yet, somehow the rampant consumer feeding frenzy that always follows in the wake of Essen is still relevant in the discussion. Are Eurogamers willing to pay full price for CONTAINER, KINGSBURG, and fucking HAMBURGUM? Probably not.

    This is a copy of an article originally published on the old F:AT blog. Read original comments

  • In a previous article I touched on two very different games that had something very much in common -- they had the ability to provide a level of complexity and immersion that lifted their play off the table, put the play into the players as much as the pieces.  And for the obvious reason I find that very rewarding.  These are big games with small rulesets, games that sneak up on you.

  • Mayday Mayday

  • Baby it's cold outside

    This time of year, you'll find plenty of radio stations who are on a constant 24-hour Christmas music rotation.  Most of them start around midnight Thanksgiving and carry straight through Christmas.  The idea is to gorge yourself on a veritable buffet of cheerful holiday sounds, sending you into a glazed but mostly pleasant Christmas mood.

    Here are the five songs you're likely to hear this season that will not engender the desired holiday spirit...in fact, enough exposure to these, and you might go on a Feliz Navidad-fueled killing spree.

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  • An infrequent look at gaming with the solo player in mind……


  • When he paused I knew he was a Cylon.  He didn't need to do anything.  Pause, Cylon.  As he stuttered I imagined a brig door at the far end of the huge ship swinging open.

    Alright maybe you need a little bit of background into the group to appreciate that this has nothing to do with strategy or tactics.  I'm a tactical guy don't get me wrong; I can work the decision tree with the best of them.  But sometimes it's even easier than that, and maybe even more dependable.  Commander Adama was Commander Adama for a reason, and that's pretty much all I needed to figure out where this guy was coming from.

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  • I don't like to do end of the year lists. Some games get overhyped, some games will be overlooked and nobody really knows how any of them will stand the test of time. So I'd like to do a retrospective and look back at how games from 2011 are doing. I feel like five years is plenty of time for a game to cement itself as a success or failure. So let's hop in my time machine and head back to the days when Charlie Sheen was #WINNING, Deathly Hallows Part Two was concluding and I sang Katy Perry and Brit Brit nonstop in my car. Oh, for those of you wondering my time machine is a giant oversized shoe. Nobody ever suspects a shoe.

  • 2013-textEvery year I like to indulge myself in a slightly more personal article about how I'm feeling when it comes to gaming and writing and the year gone by. Not too much detail, of course: I'm British and as we all know, the British never talk about their feelings, only moan about the weather, the loss of empire and how other nations constantly misunderstand our wonderfully self-depcreating sense of humour. But if you're expecting someting a little less insular and game-focussed well, you have been warned.

    Regular and observant visitors to the site will have noticed that I've slipped a long way from the weekly schedule I upheld at the beginning of the year. There's a lot of reasons for this. Partly it's because I've had a tough year, with a lot of real-life things occupying my time. Partly it's a lack of inspiration - I feel I've covered most of the big topics that originally motivated me to write. But those aren't the big issues.

    So, what gives?

    Motivation

    I said toward the end of last year that I thought 2013 was a bad year for board gaming, and got a fair amount of opprobrium as a result. It's 2014 now and I've played some of the games that everyone was feting at the end of the previous year and I still think it was a bad year for board gaming. I've yet to get round to Pathfinder (which doesn't sound my cup of tea) or Space Cadet Dice Duels (which does) but I don't think two games are going to transform my opinion of the whole year's crop. I still think the best games I played last year were reprints - Sekigahara and Circus Train.

    It could be that I'm just getting tired of board games. But I've looked at that feeling, and looked at it again, and it just 'aint so. I still love playing board games and seek out opportunities to enjoy them. It's just that increasingly I'm motivated to play what I've already got rather than look at new things.

    I long ago formed a belief that board game design was a generally process of iterative improvement. Fantasy adventure board games of the early 90's were generally better than those of the 70's and 80's. And games like Mage Knight and Descent 2nd edition have come to trump those in turn.

    But after the influx of creativity that came from combining European and American style games into something new, the process has slowed. Newer games are generally still better than their counterparts of a few years ago, but not a lot. And as a result I've found my appetite for taking the time to punch and sort, learn and teach, play and explore newer titles has waned. I'm more curious about completing expansion sets to get the biggest punch out of the games I already know and love.

    There are exceptions. I've hugely embraced the creative storytelling aspect of board gaming because it brings something utterly unique to the experience, something that video games and to some extent even role-playing games cannot do. And by storytelling I mean it literally: I'm talking about games like Once Upon A Time which revolve around the players actually telling stories. Winter Tales and Story Realms both look like hot tickets to me this year.

    The other exception is the endgame of a process that our own Peter Putnam predicted would happen some years back: I'm slowly turning into a more dedicated wargamer. Increasingly the games that catch my eye are light(ish) consims that cover interesting bits of history I can't already game through my collection. My brief on Shut Up & Sit Down to cover wargames has increased the pace, but I was already a fair way down the road - otherwise I'd never have had the knowledge to write a decent genre reivew in the first place. 

    Money

    So, now you know what I'm likely to be writing about this year, we can go back to last year. While it's been a difficult time personally, it's been an amazing time professionally. What started out as a tiny trickle of welcome additional income from reviewing children's games on iOS has exploded into a regular second income covering video games generally on both mobile and PC. I've even had a few commissions writing about actual board games.

    I love this site, and its community. But to be honest, delightfully alluring as you all are, you can't quite hold a candle to a solid paycheque. And as I've gone further and further down the paid route I've realised a lot of the stuff I used to write here was guff. Opinion style pieces are easy to write but worthless without research, external opinions, evidence. Reviews that deconstruct games mechanically are easy to write but worthless without critical insight, a clear reviwer's tilt and some emotional resonance.

    But writing things like that is hard. It demands concentration, planning and effort. And the older I've got, and the more my free time has dwindled, I've become increasingly unwilling both to put in that time for nothing, or to toss off articles without putting it in.

    It's not all bad news. I still regard a review copy as payment in kind for writing reviews, so there's still good motivation for writing reviews. And I remain happy to toss off articles on subjects about which I know little but you all enjoy - comics, films, TV - as an excuse to link back to what I get paid to post elsewhere.

    Moaning

    Am I sounding like a spoiled little rich boy? Maybe. I apologise if so. But I am planning to do something about it.

    Firstly I'm going to try and take up a little of the slack by filling in with some brief revisits to games I've already reviewed when I've got nothing else to post of a Monday. Board gaming could use some more retrospective reviews, so I think there's value there.

    But secondly, and perhaps more interestingly, I'm launching a crowdfunding effort to try and get a little cash in return for devoting time to proper board game articles: well-planned reviews, in depth-intereviews, properly reseached opinion pieces. Kickstarter is product focussed and isn't really the place for that sort of thing, so instead I'm using Patreon, which can be configured for people who are looking for small monthly fees instead of a grand total.

    You can see my pitch here. If you like it, please consider spreading it around, or even signing up to contribute. Because if it takes off, you know where the articles that get commissioned as a result are going to end up, right? Here, on the Fortress. And with any luck they might bring some of the wider world along with them,

  • Seriously. 2 years ago I had a balanced life, ate nutritious foods carefully hand-picked from all major food groups, had a nice relationship, a generous portion of sleep and enough spare time to irrigate an island group of decent proportions and still have time to catch re-runs of "Will & Grace". In short: I had a relatively balanced life. Ok, I shouldn't have mentioned that last bit, but I was just making a point.
    And then it all went awry...


  • Let's play a game.  I step into a room with all of you, 52 of my favorite game-playing friends.  I crack open a deck of cards, toss out the jokers and deal out one card to each of you.  Go ahead and spend a moment to imagine a card for yourself, that way you can have a stake in this even if it's only in your mind.

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    The majority of games I play are with 2 - 5 players, but every once in while I'm in a situation where we have 8 or more people who want to play a game together.  Sometimes this is at cons or when people have traveled a long distances to play some games together.  Sometimes this could be when family gets together, and Aunt Betty or your nephew Melvin says, "Hey do have a game that 10 people,  from an 8 year old to an 80 year can play?"  Either way these 8+ player games can be incredibly fun experiences for everyone.   One of the keys for 8+ players is having fairly simple rules, and to have a pit boss or teo help keep people on track.  Sometimes playing a big party game can be like herding cats.   Here's the list:

  • A look at four of Columbia's block wargame offerings.

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  • Talisman is a favorite game of mine. I play the new revised 4th edition fairly often. It is, deep down, a light fantasy adventure game that can at times be quite cutthroat. It is very much an "experience" game, and a lot of the enjoyment in the game is derived from the role-playing bits, the adventuring and exploring aspect, and in seeing what happens to you and your opponents as you each take desperate risks in this harsh world in an attempt to get ahead. It is not a game of tactics or of mathy optimization. It is a game of strategic decisions, though. FFG has done a great job with the new revised edition, not only giving the game great components, but increasing the amount of strategy in the game (especially with the expansions).  

  • If there are errors in this I apologize but…

    I have just returned from my first Gen Con, and my brain hurts from sobering up from the four days of drunkenness, my eyes hurt from getting almost no sleep, and my feet are in agony from standing on concrete for what seems like forever.  But I could not be happier after having spent four glorious days among gaming nerds (both my most-liked and least-liked people on earth).

  • doveI’m afraid that this weeks’ column is going to be rather less about board games and somewhat more personal than usual, hinging on issues that are only tangentially related to gaming. A clue to the nature of said issues is in the title. So if you’d rather not delve into the deeper realms of my psyche, or participate in discussions about morality, now is the time to click away. Don’t come whining to me if you get to the end of the piece and discover it’s not to your liking.

    When I was a small boy, I played with toy soldiers and toy guns and got into playground fights like every other boy and, being small, didn’t stop to think about the wider ramifications of what I was playing. That attitude didn’t change until I came to study the history - and literature - of the First World War at school. When the appalling conditions endured by soldiers at the front became clear, and I gradually came to understand that these conditions, alongside the most ruinous casualty rates in any modern conflict, were endured by ordinary people largely in the name of perpetuating the imperialist delusions of their political masters, I was deeply shocked. Very quickly my attitude to violence and the depiction of violence changed from one of not really caring to one of profound pacifism.

    At round about the same time, I found myself being drawn into the gaming hobby. My starting point was fantasy role-playing games, many of which glamourised violence to an extreme degree. I found this relatively easy to justify with my new-found pacifism: the games took place in an entirely imaginary world and depicted forms of aggression that were, in most parts of the world, largely consigned to history. It was pretend, nothing more than a game and so it was easy to tool up a fighter with a two handed sword  to go out and slaughter a hundred orcs and still proclaim myself a pacifist. Choosing forms of entertainment that include fake violence does not, in my opinion, make an individual any more likely to be violent.

    But as you’ll all no doubt be well aware the gaming hobby is a small community and it’s hard to get your toe in the door of one sector without being exposed to others. And so it was that from fantasy role-playing games I got into fantasy war games. And from there it was a relatively small step to historical war games - the contemporary Avalon Hill and West End Games titles were regularly advertised in White Dwarf magazine. At the same time as my friends and I were exploring that particular dimension of hobby-space, several of them became deeply interested in militaria and military history, designing and playing world-war 3 scenarios in the computer games of the time. Then came the first Gulf War and we found ourselves sitting round the television, discussing the tactics and hardware used as Operation Desert Storm unfolded.

    Whilst I was obviously a willing participant in all of this it sat very poorly with my position as a pacifist. I didn’t make much fuss about this: as a teenager I found myself unable to resist my peer group. And in truth I didn’t care much: I found myself torn rather badly between a deepening interest in state-sponsored violence and a deepening sense that it was equally a disturbing and bad thing to be interested in. Whilst one can make a case that many people make a career out of following the more brutal side of humanity without wanting to become actively involved in it: policemen, for example, don’t usually approve of crime, that justification rang false for me. I wasn’t just being a dispassionate observer of the military. I found myself approving wholeheartedly of the minutiae of regimental tradition, glorying in the victories and famous last stands of soldiers down the ages, all the while trying desperately to divorce the admiration I felt from the inevitable end result of death, destruction and suffering on an untold scale.

    I even toyed with the idea of joining up, after someone I knew suggested it. It’s a damn good job I didn’t: I was never born to be a warrior. Whilst I was a pretty good athlete when I was a teenager my speciality was mid-distance running: in almost every other area I was exceptionally weak and feeble. Worse I have no head for decision making under serious pressure. With a good academic background and a modicum of physical fitness it seems plausible I could have made it to Sandhurst and come out the other side a junior officer who would, very quickly, have become a real-life example of the “lions lead by donkeys” caricature of the British army. Let alone the psychological damage I’d have endured from entering into a career that involved me doing things I fundamentally disapproved of.

    When I originally adopted a position of pacifism, I rapidly moved into quite an extreme stance and would declaim that, as a good pacifist I would willingly submit to a beating from others rather than lift my hand in violence. That position was never put to the test and since that point my attitude, as with many of my political and moral principles, has mellowed considerably but remained basically intact. It now seems to me that armed conflict is, on occasion, inevitable and so potentially destructive that nations must maintain armies even during times of peace in order to have the capacity to meet prospective threats. But I still believe that war is basically wrong and to be avoided whenever possible. But I still retain enough of my original convictions to make this area of my life a rather difficult case of trying to square a circle. How could I be a pacifist who had once entertained the concept of a career in the armed forces?

    I eventually got my answer when I read a book called Dispatches, the autobiography of journalist Michael Herr of his years covering the Vietnam War. It's part military history, part memoir and a superb book which I highly recommend to anyone even casually interested in the subject matter. Reading the book, I gradually became aware that Herr had clearly been through something of my own struggle to reconcile a fascination with the process of warfare with a revulsion for its results. It was never stated directly, but communicated from the tone of the book. It would flip from sustained outrage at the inhumanity of warfare to an easy chatter about the glamour of guns in the space of a couple of pages. It seemed that the author had solved his own personal conundrum in this regard by becoming a military journalist rather than a solider, but could the book offer me any clues as to how I could balance my own skewed sense of morality on the subject?

    I thought about this deeply while I read the book. And eventually I came up with an answer. What the book seemed to be saying to me was that it was crazy to suggest that warfare wasn’t glamorous and exciting. It’s no co-incidence that many older people in the UK view the privations and suffering of the second world war, whether in Normandy or at the home front, as a high point in their lives. Even bypassing the fascination many people have with big machines and big explosions, which warfare can satisfy many times over, it seems there is something deeply fulfilling on a personal level about the extremes to which warfare pushes a society. It may be that the people on England hadn’t endured such suffering in their lives before but that suffering simultaneously brings out the best and the worst in people: society pulls together, everyone is bound by a common cause into unlikely friendships and ordinary people become heroes. And over time, the pain is forgotten and all that people remember is the sense of duty, of comradeship, of giving your all to the collective good. My pacifist assumption that all war is suffering didn’t stand up to scrutiny: war is both suffering and fulfilment at the same time and like the yin and the yang you can’t have one without the other.

    But it seemed equally clear to me that the level of privation endured during combat was entirely unjustifiable by the relatively small gains that people might have had from their experiences. Anyone, even the most ardent militarist, who has ever been shocked at a horror story from one of the world’s conflict zones will immediately see that to be true: and, tragically, such stories are ten a penny in both history and the modern world. Besides which one cannot, ultimately, disconnect the activity of prosecuting warfare with its results and in those results the misery and woe inflicted on untold millions of innocents far outweighs any emotional satisfaction gained by participants, many of whom were willing volunteers. And so, ultimately, I remain a pacifist, albeit one who has succumbed to the lure of the military dream. As a pacifist I have to ask the question what can we do, as a society and what can I do, as an individual, to further the aim of peace in our time?

    I don't think you need to be any kind of ardent biological determinist to accept that it tends to be men who have an easier time seeing the glamour inherent in warfare, or that males are to some extent hard-wired to indulge in violence. I believe that this is true, and I believe equally that as reasoning, civilized creatures we alone of all the living things on the planet have the capacity to rise above our genetic programming and make rational choices such as: it's better not to fight. I don't propose that masculinity is in any sense an excuse for violent behaviour. But it seems to me that it would help in the quest for peace if people who found themselves attracted to warfare for whatever reason had something more constructive to work towards in its stead. Something to replace actual combat which could offer a modicum of the glamour without any of the terrible consequences.

    Exactly what that replacement would be depends on what, exactly the individual is seeking in terms of wanting to go to war in the first place. For many, I suspect, something along the line of extreme sports would make an excellent substitute: the sorts of activities that modern-day adventurers and explorers indulge in. For others some sort of re-enactment might fit the bill, be it something as disconnected from the original as Lazer Tag, or something as comprehensive as a full military-run combat or training experience day. For a minority, including me, our replacement is learning military history and replaying that history through the medium of war games.

    And that, ultimately, is how I came to feel at ease being a pacifist who plays war games. Because it seemed to me that if I hadn't found some sort of activity to replace warfare in my life I might, as I almost did, have felt the need to experience the real thing instead, undoubtedly to my great personal detriment and possibly to the detriment of many others as well. If you want peace, it seems, you must prepare to wargame.

     


    Matt is the founder of Fortress: Ameritrash. He is also a regular columnist for Board Game News.

    Click here for more board game articles by Matt.