I just got back from the 2014 World Boardgaming Championships in Lancaster, PA. This event is the “brain” half of the split vacation my wife Cathy and I generally take every year, the “brawn” half being summer weapons camp. WBC is a solid week of tournament tracks in strategy and war games of all kinds, with a huge open pickup gaming scene as well. People fly in from all over the planet to be here – takes less effort for us as the venue is about 90 minutes straight west of where we live.
The last couple of weeks have been my vacation, and full of incident.This explains the absence of blogging.
First, World Boardgaming Championships. I did respectably, making quarter- and semi-finals in a couple of events, but failed in my goal to make the Power Grid finals again this year and place higher than fifth.
I did very well in Conflict of Heroes, though; my final game – with the tournament organizer – was a an epic slugfest that attracted the attention of Uwe Eickert (the game’s designer) who watched the last half enthralled. I lost by only 1 point and was told I’d be put on the Wall of Honor. I like my chances at the finals next year.
Then Summer Weapons Retreat. Huge fun as usual; I spent most of the week working on Florentine (two-sword) technique. with some excursions into polearm and hand-and-a-half sword. I’ve posted a few pictures on my G+ feed.
First full day I was home, a thunderstorm blew out the router in my basement. Yes I had it on a UPS, but ground surges (though rare) do happen; this one toasted the Ethernet switch. Diagnosing, replacing, and dealing with the second-order effects of that ate most of yesterday.
Now life is back to relatively normal, though it will take a few days for the muscle aches from a week of hard training to entirely subside. Blogging will resume.
I’m a big fan of the game genre called “4X” – “explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate.”. I’ve been playing these ever since the ur-progenitor of the genre in the 1980s, Empire, and I actually still maintain an open-source C version of that game. Civilization is my favorite computer game ever, and by what I hear of it Master of Orion – the game “4X” was coined to describe – would have hooked me even harder if I’d known of it when it came out.
I particularly like SF-themed 4X games. I have previously posted a favorable review of Twilight Imperium (hereafter “TI”), a big sprawling epic of a contending-galactic-empires 4X game. But now I write to report on a game that effectively makes TI obsolete – a new design called Eclipse which I think is going to permanently raise the quality bar in 4X games.
Friedmann Friese’s Power Grid is one of the acknowledged classics of the modern Eurogame genre. It embroils 2 to 6 players in a simulation of running power companies, competing to light up the most cities. Strategy involves a mix of positional play, resource management, and (most entertainingly) competition for new plants in an auction every round.
Since the game’s original release in 2004, Rio Grande Games has published an alternate power-plant deck and five pairs of expansion mapboards, introducing minor rules variations and new tactical challenges. My wife Cathy and I own all of these; we have been fans of the game since almost the date of release, and regularly compete in the World Boardgaming Championships Power Grid tournament.
With Power Grid: Robots, the game’s developers take off in a completely new direction. This expansion introduces robot players, assembled at random from tiles that define how they will behave in the auction, resource-buying, and city-building parts of each turn. With six possibilities each for five behavioral slots, one may face almost 7776 robot variations.
From the gaming front, I report one nice surprise and a couple of disappointments.
My interest in that old standby Puerto Rico was rekindled by the World Boardgaming Championships tournament a few weeks ago, in which I made quarter-finals only to wash out in a game with a mere 4-point spread. Friday night at our gaming group I scored 56 points with a factory/fast-build strategy finishing with Residence and Guildhall, 6 points ahead of a tie for second. Nothing remarkable about the play, but I’m becoming convinced that if you’re running that strategy it’s vital to never skip a build opportunity even if it means you have to settle for a smaller edifice than you really want – otherwise you lose control of the game tempo and shippers get time to blow past you.
I won the Power Grid game after that, too, starting with Wien on the Central Europe board and successfully scoring the 30 fairly early (3 Garbage -> 6 cities). The Wien discount was very helpful after that. I believe that low-balling to buy the 3 in the initial auction in order to place first and grab Wien + Bratislava is the strongest opening on that board – besides locking in the garbage discount and enabling you to build nukes, it’s also a central placement that makes it difficult for other players to box you in.
Two important qualities in a good boardgame are an interesting theme and good mechanics. Theme is the narrative of the game – what it’s supposed to be about. Mechanics is the game considered as a pure logic puzzle – what goes in there, what comes out here.
A subtle but common failure in game design is for theme and mechanics to never really connect to each other, so that the theme is a mere superficial paint job or gloss on what might as well be a purely abstract game. One of my favorite examples is Lost Cities, a game by Reiner Knizia with simple mechanics, deep strategy, and excellent repeated-play value. Its one flaw is that the archaeological theme of the card and box art is completely disconnected from the lovely little jewel that is the game logic. Nothing that you might know about archeology helps you play better or enjoy the game more, nor is there any possibility that you will learn something about archaeology by playing. The result is that the game feels a bit cheesy and contrived even though the game engine is actually an excellent and elegant design.
Two recent releases from Z-Man Games remind us what it can be like when a designer integrates these aspects really well. They’re on a roll lately, seemingly trying to out-Fantasy-Flight Fantasy Flight games.
Twilight Imperium is advertised as “an epic boardgame of galactic conquest, politics, and trade”. The advertising doesn’t lie – the games in progress I’ve occasionally tripped over at SF conventions were sprawling affairs with huge fleets of starship models swirling about on a tile map representing the explored galaxy of a far future. Designed for six players, and play sessions commonly run seven or eight hours (!).
The coordination cost of setting up such a game is high, and though I’d wanted to try it for years I was never present at exactly the right time. Until this last weekend, when a bunch of the harder-core types from my Friday night gaming group got it together to play a game Saturday. It was quite an experience.
I’ve done a lot of writing for the game Battle For Wesnoth. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned, and now teach others, is this: genre cliches are your friend. Too much originality can badly disrupt the gameplay experience. This is so at variance with our expectations about ‘good’ art that I think it deserves some explanation and exploration.
One of the experiences that made me swear off proprietary software was doing some designing of a fantasy-world map with a proprietary program I have long forgotten; this would have been in the late 1980s or early 1990s. Of course the program became obsolescent and nothing else could read the map….I recently stumbled across a copy of the text I wrote to accompany the map, mod-dated 1994 but probably a few years older. There’s a continent of Krythar in the Neverwinter Nights universe, but this long predates it.
Explore with me now the world of Krythar. Because the “accompanying map” no longer exists, it will never be.
I taught my wife Cathy how to play Conflict of Heroes this evening, and learned something of which all men (or at least all men who are wargamers) should beware.
I’m what people in the strategy-gaming hobby call a grognard. The word is literally French for “grumbler”, historically used for Napoleonist diehards who never reconciled themselves to the fall of L’Empereur even after 1815, and nowadays refers to guys who cut their teeth on the classic, old-school hex-grid wargames of the 1970s.
As a grognard, I’m expected to grumble dyspeptically about the superiority of the huge, heavy, elaborately simulationist two-player wargames we used to play back in the day, and bemoan how fluffy and social the modern wave of multiplayer Eurogames are. Sure, they’ve got four-color printing and unit counters you don’t have to use tweezers to pick up, but where are my pages and pages of combat resolution tables? Where are my hairsplitting distinctions between different types of self-propelled assault gun? O tempora! O mores!
But you know what? Times change, and game designers have actually learned a few things in the last forty years. In this essay I’m going to revisit two games I’ve reviewed previously (Commands and Colors: Ancients and Memoir ’44) and take a closer look at two others: War Galley, and Conflict of Heroes. These games exemplify how very much things have changed, and how little point there really is in pining for the old-school games any more. Yes, I may forfeit my old-fart credentials by saying it, but…I think the golden age of wargaming is now.
I enjoy strategy games. I’ve been playing them since the heyday of the elaborate hundreds-of-tiny-counters hex-map historical-simulation wargames in the 1970s and early 1980s. But those games don’t get played much any more, largely because they took so long to set up and
learn; after 1985 or so younger gamers moved to computer simulations instead, and as the hex-wargame genre stagnated many old-school gamers eventually abandoned it in favor of military-miniatures gaming.