In this series of reviews, I’ll take a game from my own Shelf of Shame, play it, and share my first-play impressions. The first review in this series is of a gift for our collection from a local game company that I am coming to really love— Monarch by Resonym. A simply beautiful game— Easy and elegant to play, with very high quality package and components, and gorgeous artwork combine for a fairytale atmosphere. (4/5, Fond Favorite)
The Future of (Tabletop) Wargames?
Getting out of the wargame ghetto . . .
“I didn't realize how out of my element I was until I had to listen to guys talking about their retirement and/or how they were retiring soon. Made me wonder if the hobby as I know it is going to slowly evaporate over the next decade or so.... (But no wonder I couldn't find players for wargames all those years...!)?”
- Jeffro Johnson (who is approaching 40 himself, as I recall) about his experience at PrezCon ’14
(Lest anyone have any doubts, I am one of those Baby Boomers who grew up with Avalon Hill games, and am more or less retired. )
I was asked more than once during my PrezCon talk (by a publisher of hex-and-counter wargames, no less) where the future of wargames lies. The Charles S. Roberts/Avalon Hill originated hex-and-counter game style is a Baby Boomer hobby, and Baby Boomers are a shrinking group. Tabletop wargames now sell 1,000-2,000 copies, typically, whereas in Avalon Hill’s heyday they could sell over 100,000. Even in 2004-5 when I came back into the hobby it was easy to see that there was a wargames ghetto (as I call it). People in the ghetto were okay with that but it did not and does not appeal much to people outside. And it gets smaller over time.
So what is the future of hobby wargaming? Practically speaking, the traditional market is disappearing. What can replace it?
Tabletop wargames not only have to survive vis-à-vis other tabletop games but vis-à-vis video games. We always have to keep in mind the greater popularity of video games when we talk about any kind of tabletop game. Video games are easy to play, with the tremendous advantage that you don’t need to read the any rules, and video games are also becoming quite cheap with vast numbers of free to play and $.99 games available. Most video games that appear to be about war are actually closer to sporting events, as top RTS (Real-Time Strategy) game players must execute 200 actions-per-minute to succeed. But the capability to make two-player games primarily requiring thinking to succeed is there, and there are turn-based video games involving war (most notably, Civilization).
Yet the future isn’t video games, at least not the kind of simulation-like video wargames that have been produced so far by companies like Matrix Games. These sell hardly better than tabletop wargames (3,000 is a number I’ve seen, minuscule for video games requiring that much effort to produce). I don’t think video games are a threat or a salvation for tabletop wargames.
Multiplayer (Multi-sided) Games and “Losers”
The future of all kinds of tabletop games is in multiplayer (more than two player) games, because a great attraction of tabletop games that video games cannot reproduce is the social interaction. Whether that interaction occurs within the game rules or not, it comes from people being in one place seeing, hearing, and sometimes smelling and emotionally (and sometimes physically) feeling other people.
Another advantage of multiplayer games is that they don’t put “the loser” on the spot, they don’t involve the ego nearly as much. In a two player wargame, there’s a Loser with a capital L. In a game for five, there are four losers, but an average player is only going to win 20% of the time anyway (assuming there are no draws), so you can lose and not feel “failure” - you’re in the same boat as almost everyone else, and “I’ll get ‘em next time”. You can also feel that you were the best player but people ganged up on you. At some point, there’s nothing you can do about that. (In the case where both/all the players are against the game, that’s OK - the humans are all in it together, essentially a single player game, and all lose or win together, no stigma involved.)
Video games achieve this through single player games/campaigns that are often puzzles that you will sooner or later solve if you’re persistent. With save games and respawning there is no way to Lose.
SPI’s surveys indicated that 50% of play of their games was solo. People who are inclined to solo play often like two-player, detailed wargames. I think the solo player is much more likely to play video games these days. Solo play is a mostly-dead-end for tabletop games.
So games that allow for the social aspects of face to face gaming, and don’t put the loser on the spot, are where wargaming has a chance to succeed.
Games that allow for the possibility or even likelihood of war but recognize that peace is a better way to succeed are more broadly appealing than games that are out-and-out, cut-throat war. These games can be less directly confrontational. For example, a game about the Italian city states in the era of the Crusades can allow players to prosper if they can peacefully take advantage of the trade from the Far East and develop influence in foreign places, but can provide the ability to go to war. If a player can stay out of a debilitating war, or win a war very quickly, he or she will have a good chance to win the game. (I speak of this as though hypothetically, but my prototype Seas of Gold does just this.)
Sometimes games of this kind are given funny names that imply a cross between Eurostyle and wargame. But there’s a big difference between wargame and Eurostyle that I think needs to be preserved in the semi-wargames, as they might be called, that many wargames allow for great differences in playing style, whereas many Euro games assume a formalistic style where certain paths to success are well-known and blocking those paths is a common activity, where there are “generally accepted moves” that you’re expected to make, that you may even be criticized if you don’t because “that’s not the way to play the game!” (I have to interject here, those who have decided that “Euro” only means certain heavy-strategy games that they like are going to disagree with me, because I use the older, broader meaning of Euro.)
To my mind, good multiplayer wargames are like open world video games, and Eurostyle games are more like closed world or linear video games. That open style is often lost in “simulations”, but simulations that force certain outcomes as the old SPI games often did are not going to survive on the tabletop - if only because they’re boring to most people and anathema to historians, like myself, who believe that what happened in the chaos of history is often not what was most likely to happen. (And also because that kind of simulation is almost always a two-player game.)
Grand Strategic Wargames
I think we’ll see more grand strategic wargames rather than tactical games. First, grand strategic games are more believable for more than two players than tactical games. You can easily think of entire nations as competing in a multi-sided way, whereas battles with more than two sides are almost unheard of. Second, tactical games in the wargame tradition are littered with nuts and bolts and details that hold much less interest for people in our fast living, imprecise century than they did in the glory days of Avalon Hill and SPI. There are lots of tactical games involving fighting, but they are individual skirmish games like Heroscape and many RPGs, not “nuts and bolts” games. Another aspect of grand strategic games is that ultimate success usually depends on building up your economy, as it does in almost any war. Games that build up have proved to be more attractive to many people than games that tear down. A grand strategic wargame can be one that combines the tearing down that’s involved in taking economic value from another player along with the building up that people seem to like, a combination of negative and positive. In contrast, a battle game, one without an economy, where the objective is terrain-based or simply killing lots of the enemy, is purely negative.
Visual and Tactile Appeal
It almost goes without saying that wargames need to be more visually appealing. Wargames with traditional half-inch counters aren’t even a starter except in the wargame ghetto. If you must use cardboard counters, they need to be a lot larger. Three-dimensional pieces provide a tactile pleasure and feedback that you cannot get from video games, but it’s hard to get that from half-inch counters. Some larger counters feel and look (and even sound) more like tiles, and that may work - I have in mind the FFG Britanniapieces. 3-D pieces and cards provide a visual appeal that standard wargames do not. (I was told that Command & Colors was getting no traction for GMT, before publication, until they introduced the use of blocks as 3D pieces (not for “fog of war”). Then it took off, and has proved to be very popular.)
Games with multiple numbers on each piece don’t have much appeal. Players don’t mind having lots of information on cards, but not on pieces. (NO lookup tables, either.) 3D makes it harder to put numbers on pieces, as well.
Stacks of counters are also a bad idea, though less so if only the owning player is allowed to look in the stack. A good decision I made decades ago in Dragon Rage(which is a hex-and-counter wargame) was to prohibit stacking. With the larger pieces in the 2011 edition, I’ve avoided the old problems of stacks of half inch counters.
Perhaps a reason for the popularity of “block games” beyond the fog of war is that they avoid counter stacks, and often have less information on them than do traditional counters.
Fewer Significant Decisions
The fundamental experiences people want in games have changed, too. People are much more interested in variety than in gameplay depth. They like lots of choices but they don’t like many difficult/significant choices. They tend to rely more on intuition than logic, a reliance that’s often encouraged in the schools and society (“use the Force, Luke”, don’t depend on the computer to aim that torpedo). So a game with lots of choices but few decisions that make a significant difference tends to be preferred to the older kind of game, where there is not only lots of choices but lots of decisions, and decisions within decisions. (I’m sorry if that’s not entirely clear but my spiel about gameplay depth and other kinds of depth in games is something like 10,000 words. This will have to do.)
This trend is already enormously clear in video games. Players want to be rewarded for participation, they don’t want to have to earntheir rewards by making good decisions.
Hobby wargaming often involves studying the games. People don’t study games much anymore, especially casual gamers. Between cheap or free video games and the proliferation of many hundreds of new tabletop games each year, people are accustomed to playing a game only a few times before they move on to the next one in a kind of “Cult of the New”. I know people who have played Britannia more than 500 times, but nowadays you’re going to find few newly published games that anyone will ever play 500 times, especially not one as long as Britannia.
I think wargames are still going to be a haven for people who want old-fashioned gameplay depth as opposed to simple variety, but if you want to reach a larger market you need to recognize that the number of significant decisions has to be reduced. I’m put in mind of a young lady who used to attend our university game club. At age 18 she was exceptionally intelligent and focused, and when she played games she really put her brain to work (more than most), but because she was playing games to relax she did not want to play anything like a standard wargame where you have bunches of pieces to move in each of your turns. That was far too many decisions to make. She liked tactical video games, where you have just a few characters to control. That’s the kind of person who can be attracted to strategic multiplayer games that involve war, but only if they are designed to be broadly appealing.
Be sure your wargame doesn’t have a player moving dozens of units every turn!
Gamers are also much more interested in personal stories and avatars in games than they were 40 years ago. RPGs are an example, and many kinds of video games, both just coming into existence back then. Wargames by their nature tend to be about nations and large units, though there are many games with individuals as the primary units (squad level games). The word “story” is in “history”, but the history of warfare tends to be impersonal. The kinds of personal stories people like aren’t about the Military, by and large. I’m not sure how this is going to pan out, as the grand strategic games I recommend are not well-suited for the “you are there” mentality (think History of the World or Diplomacy).
People Games, not Math Games
What wargames need to focus on is the other people playing the game, rather than on the details of the game system. Britannia has some detail in it but it’s essentially a simple game to play, and the really good players are playing the other players, not the game system. You have to master the game system but that’s not the ultimate mastery, as opposed to chess and so many two-player wargames where mastery of the system is all that matters. (Oddly enough, mastery of real generalship is much about psychology, but wargames rarely reflect real warfare.) That’s the kind of game we need, though Britanniais not the best example because it’s much too long for most players. One of the new versions of BritanniaI’ve created can be played in 90-120 minutes and has been played in 84, even though the players were not hurrying. Yet it is still clearly Britannia.
Games where “Yomi” is needed, discerning the intentions of other players, reading their minds, are popular for many reasons (think poker, Werewolf, Resistance). Wargames need to make Yomi more prominent, and the details of mechanical play less prominent. Multiplayer, of course, immediately puts Yomi to the forefront in highly interactive games.
On the other hand, you can’t remove a fairly high degree of interaction from a wargame and still have a wargame, instead you have something that begins to approach a puzzle or multiplayer solitaire. I don’t see this as a route wargames can take because then you have a major disadvantage of a wargame - the tearing down - without the compensating advantages of high interactivity.
Where there’s a place for two player wargames is on tablets and PCs, so that those who like this kind of ultimately confrontational math-like game can find opponents, and can play in short sessions even if the game itself is quite long in aggregate. For examples, see http://www.shenandoah-studio.com.
Shorter and Simpler
Finally, all games are noticeably getting simpler and shorter (especiallyvideo games). Wargames must as well. That’s quite a challenge for multiplayer games simply because the more players you have, usually the longer the game. I have pursued a quest for a “one hour (multiplayer) wargame” for many years, and while I usually end up with 2+ hours I do have one game that has been played in an hour by three players. But that will remain exceptional, except in wargames that use cards rather than a board.
Card-based wargames are another possible route out of the “ghetto”, but when you use cards you usually (though not always) abandon maneuver, which is one of the salient aspects of war.
I’ve briefly alluded to where “simulations” are going. The kind of simulation that values the model before the game, that tries to force a particular outcome to match history, is rapidly going down the tubes. The kind of model that Phil Sabin calls a simulation - though I wouldn’t - that helps one understand history will still be around. If you’ve read Sabin’s book Lost Battles you’ll know that his simulation to help understand what really happened to during ancient battles is pretty simple, not at all the kind of highly detailed simulation we used to get from SPI.
On the other hand, wargames can never approach the abstraction of the typical Eurostyle game. Wargames have to be models of some reality, and anything that happens in the wargame ought to correspond to something that happens in reality. That’s rarely the case in Eurostyle games, which are frequently abstractions with some kind of atmosphere tacked on (yes there are exceptions). Eurostyle games are designed to have particular paths or actions that can be easily blocked by the opposition (without any actual destruction), and that’s not even close to the nature of warfare.
Will the “grognards” of the ghetto like these wargames? Maybe not, but it doesn’t matter, because they’re gradually going out of the market for games and publishers have to look at younger markets.
Having said all this, I’ve described one of the kinds of games I like to design, so maybe I’m prejudiced. Or maybe I saw the need years ago and have been working on it ever since.
When I started this I intended to write something fairly brief, but many of the trends in games in general have come into the question of the future of wargames. I’ll stop here before it grows any further!
I will be a speaker at the East Coast Game Conference, April 23-24 in Raleigh, NC. Exact time or day as yet unknown. The topic will be “On the Horns of a Dilemma” (Game Design).
I now host (through Fedora) my online audiovisual courses at https://courses.pulsiphergames.com . They are still on Udemy.com at higher prices. They include “Learning Game Design”, “Brief Introduction to Game Design”, and “Get a Job in the Video Game Industry”. I will very soon be opening a course “How to Design Levels/Adventures for Video and Tabletop Games”. Some time after that I’ll open “How to Write Clear Rules (and Game Design Documents)”.
YouTube Game Design channel: http://www.youtube.com/channel/UCHWWViIuBsOrSm2HXeBj2kA
This is not a list of games to own. This is mostly a list of games that changed my perception of games in one way or another. It's also sort of a progression of gaming for me. It's probably not unique from anyone else here. Or maybe it is...who knows. 1. Monopoly - This was probably my first foray into more mature games. I remember playing this while camping with my friend. I also played this for a couple of summers into high school with another group of friends. Didn't really play it much since then though but it does have a fond place in my heart. Contrary to popular opinion, this game does have some strategy.2. Risk - This was my first foray into a game with conquest and some degree of diplomacy remembering the famous North Africa - Brazil treaty only to watch it become worth less than the paper it would have been printed on. Played this one for many summers up into college. It of course got supplanted by other games.3. Dungeons and Dragons - Like many other people here, this was my first introduction into role playing. Fun game and I remember many late nights playing this. Sadly, not too many of my friends are interested in playing.4. Axis and Allies - For me this was the game changer. Like Risk it was a conquest game. Unlike Risk, you had different units and different attack values. The territories had different values, so you weren't just willy nilly attacking territories, you were trying to maximize your income. No diplomacy (unless it was amongst your allies). I still enjoy this game quite a bit. Unfortunately, one of the members of my group of regulars is not suited to playing it (he's Mr. Armored assualt).5. Firefight - This was my first foray into wargaming. Unfortunately, I didn't have many friends that would play it with me. Fortunately, it was simple enough that you could play it solo.6. Squad Leader - Didn't play this one too much but played it enough to know that it took what I learned playing Firefight to a whole new level. I never bought a copy of my own.7. Star Wars - The Roleplaying Game - This was the roleplaying game I enjoyed the most. It made roleplaying simple and fun. Didn't too bogged down in rules.8. Magic - I remember some friends bringing back some of the betas from Gen Con and we ended up playing the hell out of it when the unlimiteds came around. It fell out of flavor a couple years later.9. Settlers - After a hiatus from gaming for a while, this was the game that brought me back to gaming. It had screwage, trading and a bunch of other things. There is enough randomness that each games feels different from the last but the randomness is mitigable enough that you don't feel hosed all the time.10. Iron Dragon - I know this isn't the first of the Empire Builder series, but this was the first one that I played. It actually feels like running a railroad because you have to lay down track and make deliveries. Sometimes the game can drag on but it's fun enough.11. Puerto Rico - My first foray into the less random Euros. It is a fun game sometimes but the lack of randomness seems to make the game feel the same after a while.12. Caylus - My first foray into the "I'm gonna screw you by putting my stuff here" games. I like it enough but none of my friends do, so we don't play it much. I can see why they don't like it. it not the same type of screwage as, "Ah ha, Mr. MX....Oh yeah...well since you wiped me out, I'm firing evertying I got at you".13. Nuclear War - Speaking of which. This was my first introduction to the "take that" game. Disturbing theme but fun nonetheless. I love the ability to retaliate if you get wiped out with nukes which leads to the possiblity that noone will win.14. Tales of the Arabian Nights - First game I remember where I didn't care so much about winning or losing but having the journey.
This blog will only be about my cartoon, the Game Freak (well, as much as possible). Please feel free to leave opinions and ideas here- I will blatantly steal any good idea I see!The Game Freak, is of course, me. I love board games, and have done stupid things to get them. I also love to "pimp them out". Both are ripe areas for a cartoon about board games, eh? I have always heard, write about what you know.I do not have a paying gig right now doing art, but I am always open to suggestions. As an old guy in his, er, mid-ages, I guess it is time to either get really serious about art or forget about it.Being a true Bohemian, I choose neither.I would like to think I could make an OK living doing some drawing, but at this age in my life I should have long ago shit and got off that pot. Now I am only hoping I can do enough to at least be appreciated in some artistic way.For now, I draw cartoons and do an occasional painting. And play a board game when I can, of course.Why else would I be here?
This is the list of games that fell on my head:
Africa Corps (Afrika Korps) Arena of Death Armada - War with Spain 1585 - 1604 Barbarian Kings Battle for Cassino Battle for Germany Battle of the Bulge Berlin '85 Blitzkrieg Breitenfeld Business CA -- WWII Pacific Naval Warfare China War - Sino Soviet Conflict, The Citadel of Blood Civil War, The Cobra - Patton's 1944 Summer Offensive in France Combined Arms - Combat in 20th Century Command Series Games Vol 1 Conquistador Crusades, The D-Day Destruction of Army Group Center 1944 Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set 1001 Fall of Rome, The Feudal Fifth Frontier Wars Football Strategy Frederick the Great Freedom In The Galaxy Gettysburg Guadalcanal Gunslinger Jutland Kharkov - Soviet Spring Offensive King Maker Luftwaffe Mayday Midway Napoleon's Art of War Ney Vs Wellington October War - Yom Kippur Conflict Oil War - American Intervention in the Gulf Operation Olympic Outdoor Survival Panzer Battles Panzer Blitz Panzer Leader Panzergruppe Guderian Paratroop Patrol Patton's 3rd Army Plot to Assasinate Hitler, The Punic Wars, The Raid! Commando Ops in 20th Century Remember The Alamo (TSR Minigame) Rescue from the Hive Revolt in the East Richtofen's War Rise and Decline of the Third Reich Road to Richmond - Seven Days Battles Rommel - The War for North Africa Russian Campaign Scrimmage (football game) Siege of Constantinople Sinai Sixth Fleet - US Soviet Naval Ops Sniper Sorceror South Africa Squad Leader Star Fleet Battles Star Viking Stargate Starship Troopers Stellar Conquest Stonewall in the Shenandoah 1862 Strategy I Submarine Sword of the Stars Tannenberg Traveller Trireme Up Scope Veracruz Voyage of the BSM Pandora War of the Ring (SPI) War of the Worlds, The West Wall - | Game is Dixie - Civil War Winter War Wolfpack Wooden Ships & Iron Men World War I Wreck of the BSM Pandora Year of the Rat - Viet Nam 1972 Feel free to send me a message if there's something that looks interesting.
BEHOLD the GOLDEN TURD. Considered crap by most gamers. It is golden to one.
A gloden turd is a game that is very highly regarded by one person playing. This is amplified by the negative reactions the other players at the table have towards the game. True golden turds (or GTs) have a few things going for them: 1) The fan of the GT has over the top love for it. 2) Other players of the GT do so just because of the fan's passion for the game. It is fun for a while, but can turn ugly if the game runs too long. 3) Over time, players work to end the game. 4) Typically the GT fan wins, but no one really keeps score. I have only seen this phenomena possibly once before Trashfest South. American Megafauna isn't so much a horrible game, but Dan Raspler loves the game so much, he is known to some as "Megafauna Dan". He can play for hours at a time solo, and does so with impassioned expressions and reactions much like Jeff Corwin. The TRUE Golden Turd?
The past couple of months have been golden not only in terms of playing more AT games but also I think I hit paydirt in finding a fucking fantastic group of guys to game with.
Last month (March) I got the courage to arrange a session of Dune at my FLGS (The Connection Games, Vancouver BC). It was myself (duh), Mike the store owner and a ragtag of bastards that I've had the pleasure of gaming with at various times. It was recockulous at what a blast it was! So much so we've booked another session for next weekend.
This past weekend was no different as three of us got together to play Cosmic Encounter for the first time. We played three games and were blown away by how dynamic each play was. Having only experienced a 1/3 of the green aliens and no flares, we knew that this game had PLENTY more to offer in the upcoming imminent sessions.
The best part of all, is that these are just great guys to hang with, bullshit, laugh and game with (and most of them only live 5 minutes away from me!). If I could do only the first three things with them, I'd still say I was pretty lucky fuck.
I have been running full out since before Thanksgiving - cooking, sewing, packing, shopping, wrapping. The Man keeps asking me to play with him, but I've just been either too beat or too busy.
We did get to game club the Sat. after Thanksgiving. I think that all I played was Incan Gold and Apples to Apples with the kids. Incan Gold isn't as good as our own home made version which includes the "Taco to the Eye" disaster. I hate Apples to Apples. God-o-god-o-with-peanut-butter-sauce that game sucks.
My copy of BSG finally arrived. The Man took it to wrap, so won't see that for a couple of weeks. I was also expecting Red November, but got an e-mail from Amazon that it wasn't going to ship until March - WTF?
There are a couple of other games being wrapped, but I won't say what they are on account of who reads this blog. However, I will say that if Megafauna Dan doesn't create some kind of wish list somewhere, he's gonna get stuck with something lame.
We are looking forward to vacation, which will be a week long party of board games, video games, and movies. Megafauna Dan and KingPut will be visiting, and we expect Francie and some folks from game club to drop in. If you are in the neighborhood, stop by - however, we are down to floor space only, so bring your own air matress.
My First Warhammer Tournament: An Autobiography, Part 2
My First Warhammer Tournament: A Biography: Part 1
My First Warhammer Tournament, And Autobiography, Part 4
My First Warhammer Tournament, An Autobiography, Part 5
My First Warhammer Tournament, An Autobiography, Part 6 and Conclusion: or, Total Bullshit and a Complete Travesty
A Few Other Big Games: Ka-Bloom
Back from a hiatus, the I've Been Diced! crew take a look inside Fantasy Flight's big box games (BBGs), from the official ones like Twilight Imperium, to the ones that pack the spirit of the BBGs in a smaller package (such as Warrior Knights). What makes a great BBG? Which are substantially good fun, and which one is just a box full of air? To honor the occasion, we open the latest BBG, Horus Heresy, and take a peek inside. Plus, this episode's Game Off The Beaten Path is Mare Nostrum. You can get episode 4 here:http://ivebeendiced.blogspot.com/
We don’t come into a game with a clean slate. We have a series of expectations and hopes that we bring into any gaming experience, and of course that will color how we view the entire game one way or the other. A lot of people say you can’t go into a game like this, but it’s the human thing to do. And besides, it would be fundamentally dishonest to pretend that those expectations don’t exist. A game review devoid of contextual clues isn’t much good to anyone. But those same expectations that give a game context can make it very difficult to respond to a game.
I find myself in this kind of situation with Rex. Back in the summer of 2007, Fantasy Flight announced that they had received the rights to the classic Avalon Hill adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi masterpiece, Dune. The problem was, the Herbert estate’s business plan of crapping out more novels didn’t include letting Fantasy Flight reprint what is arguably the best adaptation ever of the source material. So FFG was left with the rights to the mechanics of a game they couldn’t publish. Undaunted, they announced they would move the game into their own Twilight Imperium universe.
Despite the imminent change in setting, I was very excited for Rex. My excitement was amplified by the fact that we waited a full four years before we heard from Fantasy Flight about their Dune re-skin. So I came into Rex fully expecting a thrilling sci-fi experience, filled with betrayal and interaction. But many other people came into the game with entirely different baggage. Dune is widely considered to be one of the finest representations of a setting in a board game form. Without overwhelming the player, Dune recreated Herbert’s world so faithfully that for many people it would be impossible to separate the mechanics from their setting.
It’s not unheard of for a game to get a new setting. It’s particularly common in the Eurogame scene. The classic Euro-style wargame Wallenstein was transported from the Thirty-Years War to feudal Japan without too much loss, and Alan Moon’s train game Union Pacific recently resurfaced as Airlines Europe. There are changes made, but they’re the same basic game. But I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a game of such narrative ever being moved to a new setting. Therefore, Rex represents something of a grand experiment, and a test to see how closely setting, theme, and mechanics are tied. Fantasy Flight is betting that what’s under the hood is good enough to sit in any car, but this frankly flies in the face of what the Ameritrash movement has been saying from day one.
So as you can see, any reviewer of Rex has a difficult task in front of them. For my part, I’ve never played the original Dune, although I’ve wanted to for a long time. None of my regular gaming group owns a copy, and most don’t really care about the original book in the first place. As a result, my own experience with the game has thus far been quite positive. Rex is the sort of game that I wish I could play more often. I love asymmetrical player powers, and those are out in full-force here. I’d even venture to say that I’ve never played a game (with the possible exception of The Ares Project) that has such a sharp contrast between all the players. Everyone breaks the game in a different directions. This is an especially cool trick, because it keeps the overall rules burden very light. The basic rules are very simple because all of the little chrome rules that create the setting are placed on the player powers. The flip-side of that is that if you’re playing with less than a full compliment of six players, you’ll be missing some of those little rules and your experience will suffer. That’s too bad, because it just makes the game more difficult to get played. I wish that FFG could have done something with this, but I’m not really sure what that could be.
Playing Rex is a very unusual experience. The interaction of the different phases, cards, powers, and humans makes for a game that could be drastically different based on just the turn of a card. In this way, it reminds of a slightly less insane Cosmic Encounter. And like that game, a lot of what’s good here depends on the players paying attention and knowing the game. If you have a group that has a hard time focusing on what’s happening around the table, I would not recommend Rex at all. You need to keep track of who is playing what cards, the positions on the board, and most of all the little nonverbal cues that take a few games to read. I love this kind of interaction in a game, but it takes a measure of commitment to enjoy. In that sense, the design definitely shows its age. It doesn’t mind being long and deep, and that sticks out like a sore thumb among more current designs.
Naysayers will point out that everything that’s good about Rex was already present in Dune. They are absolutely right, actually. Though I’ve never played Dune, I’m pretty familiar with the rules. It looks like most of Fantasy Flight’s changes were made to just strip out some ambiguity and make the game a little more consistent in its playtime. The biggest changes are the removal of the secrecy around the table, and a completely redone board. I don’t really mind the new secrecy rules. Leaving the room to make deals works for Dune, but in the Twilight Imperium world it just feels like a way for the game to go long. I could probably be convinced the other way, but for the time being the game feels fine without it. As for the board, it is no longer a map of a planet but rather a point-to-point map of the city of Mecatol Rex. A lot of people think it looks super ugly, but I don’t think that’s really the case. My problem is that the map is simply counter-intuitive. There are a couple little mechanics that depend on finding certain locations on the map, and even after a few games it’s hard to do quickly. I don’t mind the change in format, but it makes the game much less usable.
In a more abstract way, the loss of the Dune setting can only be considered a negative. No one can convince me this game is better off this way. It’s pretty clear that Fantasy Flight agreed, because they made very little effort to disguise the old bones of the game. All player powers make perfect sense in the Duniverse, but they seem arbitrary here. For example, the only reason the Xxcha win for predicting who will win the game is because the Bene Gesserit could do it in the original game. And instead of spice, we have “influence,” which is far less evocative. As someone who enjoyed the original book, this kind of stuff sticks out like a sore thumb. I imagine that many fans of the old game will be driven insane by it. But for us it hasn’t proven to be an issue. As I said before, no one besides me seems to care, and it fits well enough to not be a practical problem. But if you already love the original game and book this may be a big red flag.
In the broader sense, I don’t like the precedent that is set by a game moving from its original setting. It was done here out of necessity, but the world of publishing rights is murky enough that I can see it happening again down the road. And this is not a trend that should become prevalent. Theme matters, plain and simple. It’s not something that can just be transplanted with no loss. My biggest hope is that someday the Herbert estate will lighten up and let someone, anyone, publish the game in its original form.
But it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen anytime soon. It may be true that Rex would be better as Dune, but it works pretty well as is. In that respect, Fantasy Flight’s experiment is a qualified success. It may just be the old game with fancy new components and Twilight Imperium instead of Dune, but FFG was pretty forthright about that fact all those years ago when they first announced the game. Rex represents Fantasy Flight’s best-case scenario, for whatever that’s worth, and I’m happy we have it.
Visit my blog, The Rumpus Room, for more circles within circles.
As an envoy of Chaos, I went forth to Trashfest to sow chaos and sleep with as many eurochicks as possible.
At least I was partially successful.
I also rediscovered that is completely possible to live completely on beer and Doritos (well maybe with a bit of cheap rum to add variety.) Seriously, in four days I had the buffet breakfast once and a salad from Chilis. If you count Kingputs' Zatarans rice dish, then make it 3 meals. Fortunately I have enough extra bodyfat to live through a nuclear winter and beer is pretty filling if you're drunk enough.
I won't detail the games I played because I can't remember most of it but I will pull out some highlights. One of the craziest things was a weird déjà vu' that I experienced throughout the Fest as people paralleled much of the gaming personalities in ATL. Bobby tweaks is a rough hewn version of Rob Martin and Alex Brown (iguanaDitty) has the exact mannerisms and expressions as Barnes. Ironically, IguanaDitty has an obscenely high security clearance and I think Barnes is wanted by the authorities under a different identity.
There were also parallels with other parts of the gaming community: the confused older gamer, the announcement junkie, and really serious guy. (I nearly gave serious guy a heart attack when he thought I was tampering with the silent auction- which I was sort of - I placed my sexual services up for bid. In retrospect that was a *really* bad idea since the Fest is predominately guys.)
Another observation was that the Fest was a lot more organized. I'm used to drifting in, BSing a bit and hitting the open gaming. Payment and prize table is on the honor system. You usually bring a stack of games to throw in the corner and you post your name over it. If there is a game sale, then you're in charge of your own stuff.
Here the procedure and vibe was a lot different. A few people pulled the game library together ahead of time. If people brought their own games they must has parked them under a table or put them back in their rooms. The silent auction was run through the MD gameclub and required spreadsheets, a cashier, and signing paperwork. There was scheduled gaming for longer games. Mostly it just fueled my desire for mischief.
Fortunately the open gaming was a breath of fresh air. People were pulling out stuff that I *Beg* to get to the table. Frank will sometimes humor me but mostly people just look at me with pity and shake their head. When some people started playing Micromutants next me I dropped my jaw. When they followed it up with Thunder Road, I nearly wet my pants. In general people seemed less opinionated about games and willing to do just about anything.
I had the very unusual experience of not being attacked first. I am generally considered a plague that must be eliminated and if no clear choice is available, then attacking Steve Avery is a solid move. In Dragonlords (eat your heart out RobMartin) I was able to play the dwarves and left alone to shore up my defences.
A couple of other observations:
-My snoring is loud enough to be heard across the hall
-Dogmatix has mad tiddlywink skilz
-Kinput could easily be the quartermaster for a large army. How he managed to keep all those misfits (myself included) corralled is beyond me
-Ubarose has little tolerance for crosstalk. Gaming with my regular group would cause her a stroke.
-I turn into Napolean in minis tactics games. You should have thrown something at me- seriously.
-SuperAwesomeGuy can't be beat. Even when you nuke him the very first turn.
I had a great time! I met cool people, drank too much, played lots of games and got way too little sleep. I can't wait for more.
P.S. I owe a huge thanks to Kinput for picking me up and Dogmatix who dropped me off. Get down here to ATL so I can hook you up with some game action!
Remember when you first discovered decent boardgames, and you were so excited that you decided to convert all of your friends and family to this wonderful hobby?
Yeah, me too. Years later my wife looks at my boardgame collection with thinly-veiled disdain and my kids are all over the Xbox 360 and our Wii. It's also getting increasingly difficult to persuade my wife that I really need to spend four hours on a Friday night to push around cardboard, especially when Friday (our group's meeting time) is when my wife likes to go out after a long week of adult responsibility, and I can't blame her. I was starting to lose interest in a hobby that had played a vital role in helping me escape material reality for so long. I was starting to fear that the long, pleasant dream was coming to an end.
Despite these problems I've been gaming more than ever, and I've been playing decent boardgames with my brother (normally a videogamer) and another friend who has no gaming background. What's the secret to getting non-games to play, you say? Chloroform and a dungeon? No! We've been playing cutthroat Carcassonne and Samurai on our Iphones (in my case, a work-purchased Ipad and an Ipod Touch). Both are turn-based, but there are moments when our schedules synchronize and we knock out a harsh game in 20 minutes. We trash talk online, sometimes more than I do in our meatspace group.
And although Carcassonne is something you've probably already played into the ground, I've found that with three ruthless grownups who are trying to hurt each other, the game is pretty good. The whole thing started when I began playing Words with Friends with my bro, who would tirelessly submit possible words until he would land 45 points a turn. That got old, so I sent him Carcassonnefor his birthday, and he bought me a copy of Samuraifor mine.
I realize this isn't the same thing as playing something heavier and trashier for four hours, face to face, with pizza, but in the words of someone who is dead, "A drowning man will grab the end of a sword." For now, this is good enough. Plus, Neuroshima Hex will be coming out soon, and who knows, maybe one day we'll get Storms of Steel for the Ipad. A man can dream.
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