Monday, September 7, 2009

Flames of War-A Personal Reaction

Please don't expect a detailed review or even "after-action report" on Flames of War. I've only played a few scenarios of the game, but I've enjoyed my experiences thus far. My first experience with the system was a minor meeting engagement using the starter set. This engagement, set late in the war and featuring smaller U.S. tanks versus larger German tanks was surprisingly well-balanced. My opponent and I played the same scenario, changing sides after each turn, before we finally managed a victory for the Allies.

The reason for this is that the system so accurately portrays the "tin-can" or "rolling coffin" nature of tanks that one doesn't need too many good shots to put a vehicle out of action. So, our very introductory scenario led us to believe that forsaking maneuver in favor of "dice" was the wiser course of action. Indeed, even with my propensity for lousy luck with these cubes of destruction masquerading as random number modifiers (random doesn't quite account for the number of poor die rolls I accumulate in the course of the average game), I always fared better eschewing maneuver for an extra die.

What our introductory experience didn't teach us was what would happen when an aggressive player inexorably moved in with adequate combined arms. At that point, those tanks with their big cannon didn't seem to accomplish much against infantry (all armor-piercing ammo) and my machine gun dice seem to have jammed. It seemed almost as easy for infantry to put my tank crews outside their vehicle as it had to put entire tanks out of action in that first meeting scenario. In short, once I teamed up with guys who had lots of models/bases and could take advantage of 2-3 books of the prolific series of expansion rules, the game simply became better.

Below are some pictures taken with my telephone's camera (sorry about the slight blur). First, my Soviet infantry group began to deploy on the grounds of this farm. Some tanks were already using the walls as partial cover and firing on the advancing Nazi units, so my units were reticent to enter what would soon become a killing zone. In other words, I failed a dice check.

However, I soon discovered a marvelous wrinkle in the Soviet infantry rules. Each infantry unit has a commissar (I believe they are referred to as "political officers" in some WWII accounts) who have the power of shooting a soldier as an example to the others. In Flames of War, one can place a base of infantry in the dead pile in order to get another die roll for maneuver. Wow! What a tough call!

I started the evening with so many troops that I felt like Zhukov himself. I had "high ideals" of serving the Motherland without having to sacrifice her precious soldiers. Yet, as the Nazis seemed to have sufficient momentum (die rolls) to keep moving in every situation, I ended up having to sacrifice three bases in this manner before I was through. I was certain that the troops would have killed the "political officer" (commissar) before they would have allowed this, but I was now desperate enough to give up my "ideals" and merely "game" the situation. We scrambled into position behind the haystacks (the round European-style painted by Monet) and quickly discovered that the line of sight problems we expected to cause the enemy had become as much of a problem for us.

Unfortunately, with all of my political posturing necessary to get my infantry to move, the Nazis attained the haystacks before we did. They crossed the bridge under abysmal machine-gun fire and managed to establish enough of a beachhead that the tanks had to focus on them instead of their opposite numbers. We might have been able to stalemate the enemy infantry with more consistent fire (again, the dice were not good to me), but things looked so bleak on my side of the farmhouse that my colleague tried almost a suicide attack (in all fairness, he was trying to work out some of the nuances of the Close Assault rules) on the left flank.

Our left flank faltered and it was only a matter of time before the Germans would have positioned all of their forces against my relatively tenuous position. In spite of the presence of the murderous commissar, Stavka (two tired Russian players, in this case) elected to surrender. You would think that losing so badly in one's first big engagement would have soured the entire experience. Instead, I found myself continually shaking my head in realizing what I had done. I had been as ruthless as Stalin himself in terms of sacrificing men for objectives (and, even then, as with Stalin, failed a lot). In spite of the fact that the flow of this game (in spite of all the rules expansions) is fast and many of the typical nuances of WWII miniatures have been abstracted away in a trade-off for fast, efficient play, I found that there was just enough color to get me hooked. What little I had played of the game felt just right. I experienced just enough sense of real history that I'll be back for more.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Critical Gameplay

Critical Gameplay?

On Friday evening (April 17, 2009), I attended a fascinating exhibition of original games by a colleague in the Game Art & Design department at Illinois Institute of Art in Chicago. The exhibition, entitled Critical Gameplay, consisted of several games which challenged the typical preconceptions of electronic games. Indeed, the concept behind each game was counter to usual game play.

For example, one game was entitled Black vs. White (not to be confused with Peter Molynieux’s classic game). It consisted of a platform-style game where, contrary to the expectations in the title, all of the characters were black. Also contrary to typical platform style, not all of the characters were enemies. You couldn’t tell from originally looking at the characters on-screen which were enemies and which were not. You had to watch for changes in facial expression that suggested behavior. Then, you could pounce on them to remove the threat or drop objects on them to remove the threat. Obviously, the purpose of the game was to remove stereotypes (because of “color,” the racial stereotype comes to mind, but since all of the characters look the same, the lessons apply to gender and social stereotypes as well).

Another intriguing game was simply titled, Kill! The interface was set up as a if it were a first-person shooter. Indeed, you had the choice of shooting a variety of enemies. The twist was that every time you shot an enemy, you were “rewarded” with a multimedia presentation on that person’s life, a photo montage honoring the one you killed. Certainly, fans of the FPS genre will not appreciate having either the flow of their game experience interrupted or being reminded that actions have consequences.

While I’m mentioning breaking the expectations of FPS players, there was a fascinating game called Wait! In this game, the longer you would wait, the more detailed the scene would become. Once you moved, you would get a fogged-in view that would clarify as you would wait. Most gamers at the exhibition found that they couldn’t get over 1,000 points, but I noticed one team of women who were patient enough to score over 6,000 points. Of course, I don’t expect that a game that is so Taoist that one is not expected to act will satisfy many gamers.

Another game was a variant on Pong! The intent of this game was to “give” the “ball” to your opponent rather than to get it past her or him. If you were successful, your opponent's paddle would grow larger (empowerment?) and if you played it like Pong!, your own paddle would diminish. It was a fascinating experience to play, even if it just seemed "wrong" from a gamer's perspective. Of course, that was precisely the point. Sometimes, we simply don't think about the overall statements about ourselves and about life that we are making when we simply give in to game conventions.

It's encouraging to me to know that someone is doing this kind of thinking about computer games. Maybe, if there were more professors of Lindsay Grace's caliber, game design would start to mean something more than pushing more polygons through the art pipeline, creating bigger monsters and larger waves of enemies, and conceiving of more and more powerful weapons. I concede that there is a need for conflict in order to have interesting games, but if life were only conflict, I'm not sure life would be interesting. I thank Lindsay Grace for a provocative and thoughtful exhibition.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Free and Easy

In teaching the theory of electronic game design, one of the basic concepts that has to be ingrained in my students is the fact that everything you see on-screen has a mathematical underpinning. Even if that mathematical underpinning is as simple as a percentage chance that something will or won't happen (what we actually call an "algorithm" in the trade), there is an equation that determines all outcomes. That equation may be a simple percentage chance based on one character's attribute (the simplest pen and paper role-playing game may use this), a chain of calculations designed to create a percentage chance (based on attributes, skills, weapons, terrain, range, defender's armor class, and lots more), a chain of percentages that use look-up tables to determine outcomes, or even complex physics calculations based on speed, materials, and cover.

To illustrate this principle, many of my math-challenged students have to learn to simulate some algorithms using a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet that calculates percentage chances and uses a look-up table to check against certain attributes or situations that they have quantified. Then, I introduce them to a free game on the web called Dragon Tavern. Dragon Tavern is a free, fantasy role-playing game with a host of character class options that is a hybrid of high fantasy and steampunk. It features a minimum of artwork and all results are strictly text-based. But, if you mouse-over various spots on the page, the algorithms used to determine your percentage chances for success are clearly delineated. In addition to the fact that I've been addicted to the game for so long that one of my two characters is in the Top 100 of its character class and the other is closing in on position #330, it is a dynamic teaching tool for basic game design. Plus, I've had students who have continued to play a half-dozen characters after discovering the site during their course work.

To be sure, the character sheets may look amazingly like those of Dungeons and Dragons, Tunnels and Trolls, and the Fantasy Trip of old, but the process is almost (though not quite) as interesting as generating characters for the old Traveller series. In the old Traveller series, one would enlist in various branches of a futuristic space navy or merchant service and develop the character's skills, attributes, and weapon sets via rolling the dice through various terms of service. Of course, Traveller had the strange anomaly that your character could die in character creation before you ever got into the game. That anomaly no longer exists in the newer (and quite beautifully done) Traveller D20 version.

In Dragon Tavern, you don't "roll" through terms of service, but you do focus on the type of character you want to be. My oldest and best-performing character is a Steam Crafter, a steampunk-type character. I chose the character class and the place from which he hailed before the program gave me my basic attributes and weapons. Naturally, I was able to select some adjectives describing my character's appearance and a catch-phrase for being triumphant, as well as one for the inevitable deaths.

Battle is far too simple for some players to enjoy. Although Dragon Tavern provides a ton of calculations in the background (available for viewing via mouse-over), it is simply one-click combat. Then, the program rolls the percentage dice as modified by that ton of calculations. with a regular "monster," you only have to roll the success percentage (or less) on one occasion to win the fight and gain the experience points and treasure. With "boss monsters," you may have to roll the success percentage up to five times (at my highest level so far). Whenever you miss the percentage roll, you take a wound.

When your wound total is equal to your wound allotment, you're dead. You aren't finished with the game. Your character is automatically resurrected and you don't lose a character level, but you incur (remember this old chestnut?) an experience point debt. So, until that experience debt is paid, you only receive half credit for the experience you're gaining within the game.

As a free game, you are allowed 25 action points per character per 24 hour period in your real life. You can purchase additional credits to perform more than 25 action points in a day and you are given bonus action points whenever you level up. I actually spend less than 10 minutes per day between my two characters, but it's something I look forward to on a daily basis. Some of my students play up to a half-dozen characters per day and, alas, there have been times that they were supposed to be working on their own game designs that I have walked by their monitors in the computer labs and seen them catching up on Dragon Tavern.

That's probably a good sign. If hardcore game design students who have grown up on the likes of Gears of War and Half-Life are interested enough to keep playing a text-based game, the designers must be doing something right. And, as I hope you'll be able to see from the "boss fight" pictured below, the designers seem to have hit something that I enjoy, as well.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Fair or Unfair Use

I know there aren't many folks reading this site, but I thought I should post my horrible dilemma. For several months, I've been trying to put together a plan for a company and dedicated staff to put together a new kind of game magazine. Now, since we know that we won't make any money for a while and we don't have sufficient capital to do the full start-up mode and hire artists, art director, freelance writers, editors, and pre-press folks, we've been trying to do this on the "cheap." I have a friend who is hosting the website, friends who have contributed articles for free, a friend who would fund the printing of the first year's magazines, and a brother who is deeply committed to the concept with both his limited funds, time, and experience.

Yet, less than a month away from my target date of going to press and just at the time that I was preparing a public announcement, I find myself devastated. My enthusiastic brother contacted one of the more prolific publishers in the industry about cooperation in creating scenarios for some of their existing games. In other aspects of the hobby, this is one of the most enlightened companies. To my brother's surprise, the company took the position that publishing scenarios in a magazine that was sold for profit was essentially making a profit off their intellectual property. And if that company feels that way, they will set a precedent for other companies to feel that way.

Now, legally, this is more of a gray area than one might think. Media can use intellectual property under the rather amorphous rubric of "fair use." For example, even if the art on the cover of a game box is copyrighted by the artist and the publisher, a magazine or newspaper can reprint a photo of that cover and game box to illustrate editorial that mentions that game. This is the editorial use of an intellectual property and is generally accepted as "fair use" by both courts and intellectual property holders. No fee is required and there is unlikely to be any legal action taken against the magazine or newspaper (or television program, podcast, or website) because no "damages" can be demonstrated. In fact, publicity generally increases sales as opposed to deflating them.

With scenarios, this is a gray area because the question remains whether they would be considered product or editorial. I have always considered them to be editorial because they would, presumably, enhance the value of the game that was being used. If I were selling them as a separate download from a publication or packaging them together in a book or boxed set of scenarios for that particular game, I would consider them a product (and the courts would, as well). In the latter case, the scenarios would clearly infringe the intellectual property since they would presumably dilute the potential market for an expansion product or add-on (or a company's in-house publication). Yet, there is considerable question in my mind as to whether a handful of unauthorized scenarios in a publication that featured unauthorized scenarios for multiple games would have the same impact.

For publishers, this becomes a gray area, as well. Does the publisher risk losing protection for the intellectual property in general if said publisher doesn't immediately enforce its copyright or trademark? Actually, there is that risk. Even if the effort to enforce is merely a letter demanding that the infringing person, corporate entity, or publication "cease and desist," publishers must make some effort in order to protect their IPs (intellectual properties).

There is a potential solution, but not one that is likely to be popular. If publishers provided a free license for magazines to publish exclusive scenarios, provided the content of the publication did not use 10% of said publisher's IP within a given issue and the game publisher would own the scenarios upon publication, said publisher would not be allowing infringement, magazine scenarios would not threaten future expansions, and the publisher could sit on or revise poor scenarios rather than allow them to proliferate for perpetuity.

Why would this not be popular? Licenses require legal documents. Legal documents cost money. A magazine publishing scenarios for board games is not likely to generate enough income to make a royalty agreement interesting and auditing the magazines (for content as well as revenue) would cost more in time and resources than it would generate.

So, I sit broken in front of my monitor screen. The vision of a magazine where the content never expired, a game magazine that was more about playing games than reviewing them, and a magazine that would be publisher agnostic (ready to grab the best material from any publisher in order to cover it) lies with its spine broken in my mental image.

I wanted to do this magazine as a labor of love. I wanted it to eventually become self-supporting, but now, it is crumbling away because of a major publisher wanted to protect its legitimate rights. And as for me, if I had unlimited money, I could take the fight to the courts and argue "fair use," but it would still depend on what judge was looking at the issues at what time and how familiar said jurist happened to be with the table game industry and its very low profit margins. Since magazines have even tighter profit margins, it would be a "no-win" court decision for either side.

As a result, I don't think my dream magazine is going to happen. You can't build a user base by only covering the small companies that recognize that any publicity is good publicity and ignoring the companies that have built a following. For now, it looks like I'm going to have to put the dream magazine on hold--perhaps, forever.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Coin-Op Lives

Maybe it was because I was in the presence of coin-op, arcade design greatness or maybe it was because I'm the world's worst photographer--even with a digital camera--but I botched most of the pictures I took at Raw Thrills, recently. Raw Thrills, for those of you who don't keep up with coin-op goodness, is the company founded a few years ago by Eugene Jarvis. Yes, founded by that Eugene Jarvis, the creator of Defender, the mega-quarter muncher of yesteryear and the first video game ever to offer a "radarscope" to let players know about enemies coming from off-screen. As President of Raw Thrills, Jarvis has proven himself to be a survivor in an industry that seems to have reached equilibrium at a level far reduced from its glory years in the Space Invaders, Gorf!, Ms. PacMan, and Defender days, as well as something of a Renaissance Man in terms of design, distribution, innovation, manufacturing, and testing. Eugene can do it all.

Design innovation in coin-op games? Come on, has there been any? Yes, but it may not show itself in anything other than graphics. Graphics are what catch one's eye in the bars, restaurants, and movie theaters where coin-op games thrive in the current, admittedly niche, market. But as those beautiful 3D graphics whip across the screen with lightning flash screen refreshes, there have been advances. No longer do you see blocky images cavorting across a Cathode Ray Tube. Today's cabinets sport the latest flat screen monitors.

But flat screen monitors produced their own challenge. In the old days, one merely used a light gun in order to bounce the signal off a CRT. Today it requires a custom LED approach to read the signal's trajectory. Raw Thrills developed this in-house for their Big Buck Hunter and Big Buck Safari games. The fuzzy photo provided below shows such an array from the Big Buck Safari game.

Another successful game for Raw Thrills has been their Super Bikes game. The impetus for the design innovation in this game was a result of interviews with owners and operators of previous motorcycle games. Their biggest complaint was that the moveable handles would break off and malfunction, so they needed something more serviceable. Raw Thrills opted to make the handles stationary, but provided plenty of simulated movement through force-feedback mechanisms such as the one pictured here.

The in-house dev staff is currently working on Super Bikes 2, but the company has a great-looking boat racing game (imagine their old H2O Thunder on steroids) being developed in conjunction with Specular Interactive and continue to develop products with their Play Mechanix subsidiary.

Speaking of Super Bikes, the successful racing game's construction is particularly illustrative of the Renaissance Man aspect of creating coin-op games. The components for this game require a mixture of injection molded plastic parts, vacuum molded parts, and rotational molded parts. Rotational molding is where plastic pellets are dumped inside the mold and, as they are heated, the mold is moved in a centrifugal pattern so that the melting plastic adheres perfectly to the mold. The bike's body itself was crafted in this fashion. Here is the part before assembly:

Perhaps, the most amazing feature about visiting with Eugene Jarvis, though, is the recognition that he turned the industry on its side with less than 64K. The program itself for Defender was less than 18K and even the dedicated audio and graphics hardware didn't amount to 48K. In an era where 256 MB of RAM means you have a lackluster machine, that seems nothing short of phenomenal. Of course, in an era with all of these scripting languages, it doesn't seem real that anyone would laboriously code in machine language, either.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Free Games

HISTORIA ROMANA is Experimental History

If you've never thought of warfare in the Roman Republic and Empire periods in terms of corn rebellions, naval disasters, and barbarian uprisings, you're only thinking of military tactics and not of the entire era being considered. Historia Romana is a free "print and play" game that also has a free cyberboard version. The game comes with a "Republic" scenario ("Rise of Sulla" in 85 BCE), a "Civil War" scenario ("Caesar vs. Pompey" in 50 BCE), and an "Empire" scenario ("The Year of Four Emperors" in 68 CE). Yet, in spite of handling such a vast expanse of time and even differences in military and political organization, the game works extremely well and has a different feel than many of the other Roman Era games I've been playing in preparation for a theme issue of our upcoming magazine Reroll and Replay (Yes, I know you haven't heard of it, because we haven't announced it yet--this is our first "official" leak.). I've also been playing a lot of "free games" of late and this is one of the very best available. You can find it at: I believe Flavio adapted the game from a more complex experience, West End Games' Imperium Romanum II.

Historia Romana is played in turns (duh) with nine "turns" representing one year (8 months plus Winter). During the first simulated month, all players go through a taxation phase where they collect gold according to the values printed on the map board for every province they control. In addition, the first month offers a diplomacy phase where alliances can be formed and "foreign aid" proffered. This is also the time when, each "turn," one checks for corn rebellion. On the winter turn, players have to pony up their gold to provide support for each unit on the board (all of that Roman Meal costs money).

After these special phases common to all players, each turn is divided into six "phases" for each active power involved in the scenario, respectively (obviously, there would be four phases per turn for the four emperors scenario since four major powers are represented in the Roman power struggle). These phases consist of a random events phase with a very robust number of random events (and we suggest a few new ones in the first issue of Reroll and Replay that can be easily added to our Microsoft Excel Game Assistant for Historia Romanaor MEGAHR(see more later)); siege resolution phase (easy, chart-based resolution); looting phase (a quick opportunistic die roll when one has occupied a city); movement and combat phase (with an interesting approach to both (see below)); supply phase (so typical you could almost guess the rule); and the purchase phase (a very nice approach for which we have also provided help in the MEGAHR)).

The gameboard and components are very colorful for a free downloadable game. They are also very functional in that all of the units are compatible with all of the powers since they are a basic gray and they "change allegiance" as it were when a colorful leader counter is placed over them. Movement was interesting because it combines randomality (the d6 roll that controls everything in the game) and the leader's movement rating. So, most stacks will move from four points per turn to eight points per turn.

Combat features a more interesting choice. Combat occurs when one stack enters a hex containing hostile units. In a system reminiscent of many sets of miniatures rules, combat is resolved by both attacker and defender selecting a strategem and comparing them against a combat matrix. The matrix will often adjust the combat values based on this resolution (but not always). You can see these options below (as pictured from our MEGAHR)

Depending on the matrix, cavalry units may be doubled or tripled, standing units may be doubled, or all charging units (except for light (ie. skirmishing) infantry) are doubled. It's an interesting approach that would work well for many different eras of warfare. In fact, it reminds me of Napoleonic Era rules.

The strange choice with regard to combat is that one would expect terrain to play a part in combat resolution. Yet, we can find no such rules. Naturally, there are many "strategic" level games where terrain is abstracted out because the turns represent longer periods of time than found in "tactical" level games, but since the strategem matrix has a lower level feel to it, one would expect that lower level feel with regard to terrain, as well.

At any rate, combat is resolved when one totals the modified combat values of both sides to get a grand total. If the grand total has a digit in the hundreds position, the player gets to roll a d6 against the 100s column in the Combat Results Table (CRT), one roll for every "hundred." Then, if there is a digit in the tens position, the player gets to roll a d6 against the 10s column in the CRT. Obviously, for each unit, the player rolls a d6 against the unit column in the CRT.

While this is very entertaining, it can get quite out of whack when the smaller side has nine rolls in the digits column and the larger unit has two rolls in the tens column. Even though one can only use a half-point per hit in the units column, a streak of good die rolls can outperform two bad rolls on the superior chart. (Bet you wonder how I know this--grin.) Still, I like it better than just rolling massive numbers of dice and playing in double jeopardy a la Sword of Rome (GMT) where you can not only "not hit," but decimate yourself with bad die rolls.

As for the MEGAHR, you can find it on the prototype site. Click on the "Downloads" tab and see all of the game assistants we've provided. If you plan to use the MEGAHR, you'll want to copy the spreadsheet and save it under a specific game name each time you use it. That way, after you roll a random event on the chart, you can change it to N/A (going to the right sheet and typing N/A into the description cell of the large Random Events chart) to represent the "chit" having been drawn if you were using physical components. There is a downloadable Word document that serves as documentation which is also available on the Reroll & Replay site.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Game Chrome and Color

Even though I haven't heard this from a lot of gamers (Translation: This is probably more my opinion than a useful observation.), I think chrome and color are as important as mechanics in making a successful game. I think this is true for electronic games as well as board games. For example, there were tons of real-time strategy games (I contend this genre is mis-named and should actually be called "accelerated-time strategy games.") in the '90s, but only a few became phenomenal hits. Warcraft seemed, at first, like a generic fantasy game. But "Ready to work!" became a part of our universal gamer consciousness. Such touches added such slices of character to a universe unlike ours, but they sounded right. Imagine also how Sid Meier's Railroad Tycoon would have been without the evolving locomotives of railroading history. It just wouldn't have been the same without some continuity with locomotive designs. How would Age of Empires have fared without the different looks of its cultures?

Chrome in the world of board games can apply to something as simple as the tactile feel of a cardboard counter, token, action or playing card, wooden block, or miniature (or even something as visual as an elaborate poster of a technology tree or similar playing aid). The components and/or structure of a game are tremendously important for providing the kind of immersion that one quickly gets on-screen with an electronic game. Abstract games with cookie-cutter components and artwork are quickly relegated to closets and yard sales, but games that offer something different are games that can keep gamers like me hooked for years.

For example, the first time I played the wooden block game, Napoleon, I realized that I was playing something special. It was the first time I really understood the appeal of the Napoleonic Era. At the same time, it pointed me toward System 7 miniatures and other Napoleonic games because, for the first time, I began to understand some of the "cat and mouse" of maneuver that was important in bringing forces to bear in those famous pitched battles. The use of those wooden counters to provide "fog of war" or "friction" was a powerful metaphor for me. Though the same style of components work really well for different reasons in later games like East Front, Europe Engulfed, Hammer of the Scots, and Crusader Rex (and I particularly enjoy Europe Engulfed and Hammer of the Scots for entirely different reasons), Napoleon served as a conceptual blockbuster that widened my world of wargaming.

In a similar way, the process of "building a deck" for Magic: The Gathering was another conceptual blockbuster for me. On the one hand, the process seemed incredibly open-ended to me, and on the other hand, the process seemed intimidating. The game mechanics were accessible but challenging, yet the real appeal of the game was the ability to collect one's own art gallery of cards while customizing one's strategy. Other games had degrees of success using the collectible card game or trading card game format, but most of the games didn't take the time to commission paintings of the quality as those created for Magic. Some games, like Doomtown and Legend of the Five Rings came close to matching Magic's appeal with their storyline tournaments and licensed products such as the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings trading card games used their built-in audiences to approach Magic's success, but it wasn't until something with an entirely different feel, Pokemon came along that anything reached and surpassed Magic's level of success (even if only temporarily).

At the same time, Wizards of the Coast's own "ARC" series of licensed Xena, Hercules, and C-23 never managed to even compare with its marquee product. The mechanics were there, but the art and the feeling of customization just didn't compare. Aliens vs. Predator, Battletech Collectible Card Game, Blood Wars, Dredd (as in the infamous Judge), Dr. Who, Dune, and Harry Potter all missed the mark in terms of finding the right mix between art and gameplay. To me, none of them came close to capturing the feel of the concept or universe behind their titles like the ever-expanding Magic: The Gathering.

Arkham Horror was a huge surprise to me. I thought the whole Cthulhu mythos had become last century's news for purposes of gaming. Yet, the map, the characters one can play, the character cards, the counters, the monsters, and the game's objectives which change slightly from game to game provides an amazing atmospheric experience of the mythos that only misses the "fishy" smell. Whether the game ends in victory or defeat (for the group or individuals), this board game affords an incredible experience. As a gamer biased toward historical wargames, I was thrilled to discover this delightful game.

One simply wonders if Axis & Allies would have succeeded as well without its miniatures and it is clear that part of the appeal of the WizKids "Clix" games was the collectibility of the miniatures. I know people who simply had to have the superheroes, even if they never played the games. Of course, quality components are only part of the story. Eagle Games put out a formidable series of products with marvelous plastic miniatures and built off marvelous branding, yet the components drove up the pricing and the actual gameplay elements suffered from trying to get too many of the features of the computer game licenses into the games. As a result, their version of Sid Meier's Civilization suffered by virtue of being perceived as too lengthy and complicated while the more playable Sid Meier's Age of Mythology had some play balance issues that could have been addressed. Even with wonderful components, the games didn't perform as expected in the marketplace.

Of course, game designers don't necessarily identify "chrome" with the quality of the components. The components are only one portion of the look and feel of a game. Anything, even a random events chart or a minor rule (even an optional rule) that adds to the color of a game without destroying the game's balance (or unduly influencing the overall game mechanic) can be considered "chrome." For example, a rule in an early Vance von Borries design (I think it was Decision at Kasserine) had the possibility of Italian troops not having enough water to make pasta. This is not something one would ordinarily find in an order of battle, but it really offers a delightful bit of historical character to the game. More recently, Ed Beach's Here I Stand! has a delightful element where King Henry VIII keeps trying to get his heir. It was important with regard to Reformation Era politics and it is significant to this game. It may be "chrome" in that you can win without it, but it is definitely a terrific addition to the game.

As I said at the beginning of this post, I'm not sure all gamers will agree with me, but I think the color and chrome that designers add into the game makes all the difference in terms of whether I'll see this as just another game on the subject matter or see it as a fresh, new experience. Naturally, gamers want a mixture of comfort and surprise. If the experience is too new and fresh, it will be threatening and lack a great deal of fun. If it is fresh, as well as familiar (in terms of game mechanics and metaphors), it is likely to have considerable appeal.

Monday, January 5, 2009

What Happened to Game Reviews?

When I was editor-in-chief of Computer Gaming World magazine, I was sometimes accused of being the "guy who kept the fun out of CGW." There was some truth in that. I didn't like seeing the adjective "fun" in the magazine for one simple reason. "Fun" isn't very descriptive because it means different things to different people. I believed that it was necessary to describe the games as precisely as possible in order for readers to determine if the game was going to be "fun" for them.

There were some other ideals to which I aspired as editor of the magazine (and later, as group publisher of lots of magazines). One ideal was that reviewers should play the game all the way through. I discouraged the use of "walk-throughs" as provided by the game publishers because I felt that playing a game according to a "walk-through" was equivalent to taking a state-escorted tour of Moscow during the Cold War. One would only see what "the party" wanted one to see.

Another ideal was that games should be evaluated on the basis of what they were trying to accomplish and not on the basis of what the reviewer would have preferred. I believed that many so-called "reviewers" suffered from "designeritis." They wanted to be designers and used their reviews as "bully pulpits" to describe the game they would have designed if they had the discipline, talent, and opportunity to do so.

Another ideal was that games would not be reviewed by people who hated the genre or style of a given game. Some rival publications regularly ran reviews that said, "I don't like this kind of game, but if I did like this kind of game, this particular game wouldn't be the game I'd like." Such an approach is simply silly.

Yet another problem review that we used to see was the review which began by inventorying the various components in the box. I know that used to be common in board game reviews and with the freelancers who came from the board game magazine background that I angered in my early years because I excised those portions of their reviews (and they were paid by the word). Yet, I'm not sure that it ever benefited my readers to know that there was a code-wheel, a 155-page manual, a cloth map, and six colored markers (or whatever) within the game box.

Worst of all were those reviewers who accepted the assignment to review a multiplayer game and reviewed it on the basis of its single-player mode alone. To be sure, it was often difficult to find an online opponent in those days of custom set-up files, memory managers, and early online services, but it wasn't fair to review an online game on the basis of its tutorial mode.

Today, I am embarking on a new phase of my life. I'm publishing an editing a magazine for those of us who love strategy games played on the table-top. In this new venture, tentatively entitled Reroll & Replay magazine because it is like getting to "roll again" in a game whenever you've rolled poorly, I want to address some fallacies that I'm seeing in board game reviews on the web and elsewhere.

The first fallacy has been with us for as long as I can remember. It is what best-selling novelist Michael Stackpole once described as the "shrink-wrap" review. In this type of review, the critic barely breaks the shrink-wrap of the package and takes inventory of the components before writing the review. At most, one or two turns of a game will be played before the "critic" attacks the keyboard. In fact, some reviewers even justify this style of "criticism" by stating that game consumers are actually "collectors" rather than "players." Right! And lovers of fine wine only need ratings numbers so they can show off their cellars just like bibliophiles would never think of cracking a cover to read their treasures! There may be some gamers, oenophiles, and bibliophiles that fit the profile, but I can't believe they constitute the majority.

The second fallacy is similar to one I listed above from the electronic gaming world. I recently read a review of a card game designed for up to six players. The reviewer stated that he had only played it as a two-player game. Now, this game, like most multiplayer card games is full of neat little dirty trick cards, gimmick cards, and defense cards, just like you see in Naval War, Modern Naval Battles, Jaunty Jalopies, and Illuminati (to name a few in the genre). The trouble is that dirty tricks cards aren't near as fun when you can't direct them at your buddy who howls the loudest when you pick on him (Yes, I WAS thinking of Terry Coleman here!) or play the "Don't Tread on Me THIS Turn" card when four or five players are ganging up on you (Yes, I WAS thinking of Alan Emrich here!). Games with nasty consequent cards are a lot more fun when you have multiple targets from which to choose. There is a reason why Junta isn't a good two-player game, but I'll never forget some of the dirty-dealing we did at various game conventions over the years when we had all the positions covered. I'm glad I never read a review of Junta as a two-player game. I never would have experienced the joy of double-dealing (even better than in Shanghai Trader) that makes certain multiplayer games transcend their role as a game and become an "experience."

Finally, I've always believed that reviews serve the reader more than answering the question, "Should I buy this game?" A good review should be entertaining, enlightening (possibly adding some real-world knowledge or background material that the reader might not be privy to), and efficacious (helping readers to master the game or figure out new ways to play it). If a reviewer can't bring any expert knowledge (whether from extra reading, dedicated playing, or general gaming and design experience), he or she should not be reviewing a game.

These are the ideals from which I've always tried to work and they form the strategy with which I'll work in the future. I hope you'll join me on the trek.