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  • A Fresh Look at Talisman

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

  • A Gen Con Virgin No More

    If there are errors in this I apologize but…

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

  • A History of Non-Violence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

    Click here for more board game articles by Matt.

  • A Holiday Greeting Card for the Tolkien Lover in Your Life

    Somehow I have animal crackers in my Elvish Undergarments.

  • A Knockdown and Rebuild of My Game Collection

    This Summer I moved for the first time in 22 years.  That's a long time, especially when the house you're moving from has ample storage.  I don't recommend houses with ample storage, as it's likely you'll use it, and that's not doing you any favors.  This is particularly true when your hobby requires big clunky boxes of different sizes to be kept over extended periods of time.

  • A Look at Kemet's Revised 1.5 Ruleset

    The designers of Kemet decided that they’d inject some life (or, at least, undeath) into one of the best DoaM games of all time by making some small revisions to the rules. Wade and I decided to take a look at the changes and speculate on what the designers’ intent was and what the implications may be for future plays.

    (Links to new rules and player aids can be found at the bottom of this article.)

  • A Michael Barnes Double Feature

  • A Middle-Aged Man With a Credit Card...

    hello-kitty-credit-cardWhen a recent forum discussion turned to game prices Michael Barnes made an interesting comment about the customer base for expensive games… specifically those titles in the $80+ price range. Mr. Barnes presented a relatively accurate analysis of the marketplace and then mentioned the impact of the “… middle-aged man with a credit card that’s able to buy $100 board games with impunity.” Mr. Barnes correctly described this type of customer -- I should know because I am one of those middle-aged guys who has the ability to purchase board games with little regard to the cost.

  • A Moment of Silence

    silenthill.jpgFor reasons I can no longer remember, I became fascinated by the world of Silent Hill long before I'd ever actually played one of the games. There's something terribly compelling and haunting about it: a father motivated by love for a lost little girl against a mother who'd condemn her daughter to a living hell in the name of a sinister religious cult. Compelling enough to have released six games in the series so far, with another in development, and a spin-off film franchise as well.
  • A Paragon of Masculinity

    This morning my husband started my car by pushing it out of the driveway, rolling it down the hill and popping the clutch. He’s my man. My hero. My knight in shining armor. My Conan.
  • A Seat at the Table: Playtime

    Jonathan Volk returns to try and figure out what play is (and why some of the most playful people we know might opt out of playing games). This is Part 1 of a longer series called A Seat at the Table, which examines the ways we construct and close off our game tables.

  • A Seat at the Table: Serious Games

    Jonathan Volk continues with Episode 2 of A Seat at the Table,looking at gaming’s obsession with serious, “complex” games. The first episode, “Playtime”, can be found here.

  • A Strange Aeon presents: A Harrowing Tale of Love and Robots!

    A Harrowing Tale of Love and Robots

  • A Titanic Lament

    dragon-tile.gifLast week I finally got my hands on my copy of Titan.  I had it delivered to my workplace and so I had to spend all bloody morning sat with the box next to my desk, itching to open it and have a good look at the contents. Finally I got lucky - there was a brief moment at lunch time when everyone else was out of the office buying sandwiches and I was alone. So I opened the box, got out my game, tore off the shrinkwrap and had a good look. Those of you who haven't seen the reprint won't be aware that when the game ships, the lid hardly fits on to the box because of all the sheets of cardboard inside it - only the shrinkwrap actually keeps it on. So as soon as I hear a door open I put all the cardboard back in and slam the box lid down as fast as I can.

    When I actually got the thing home I discovered, to my absolute horror, that in my haste to replace the lid, I'd put in on off center and it had caught on the side of the box and torn both corner jonits out! Plus three out of my six poorly scultped, badly balanced and horribly cast Titan figurines were broken.

    So all this probably accounts for why I was in a profoundly negative frame of mind when I sat down to punch the beautiful looking counters, and felt myself getting rather depressed in terms of what might have happened to Titan had it hit the desk of a publisher fresh in 2008 without its glorious history behind it. And that's the thought experiment we're going to conduct over at BGN this week .

  • Abstraction – 2 Players with a Deck of Cards.

    I sometimes wonder why I pay out for designer board games when I could just be playing with a deck of cards. No really. I appreciate card games cannot tell stories, and some mechanics like area control, or resource engine building you will struggle to get out 4 suits of numbers, but for anything involving set collection or winning quick rounds give me the cards. 

    Particularly when it comes to designer card games, I like Lost Cities, Red7, Lords of Scotland etc, but I think the games below are as good, perhaps better.

  • Acid

    We'd dropped the acid just before sunset on a day so hot you could smell the tar cooking on the roads. We climbed a hill as we came up and spent the night on a golf course, pretending to play as the shapes and sounds shifted and blurred around us. Then, tired but happy, we lay and let the warm grass tickle our necks as we watched too many stars spinning overhead, twinkling in too many colours.

  • Adjusting the Starting Common Items in Arkham Horror

    I am one of those individuals that loves the potential for a good story from my games. Consequently, I am drawn to those games, such as Arkham Horror, that just exude theme. Unfortunately, a good story can become derailed at the beginning due to some minor inconsistency - some feature which manages to pull one out of one's suspension of disbelief. Speaking personally, this occurs on a fairly regular basis during the set-up phase of Arkham Horror when the random items are assigned. Many are the times that I have wondered why my Magician character would start the game with a Time Bomb, rather than some Dusty Manucripts. And why on earth would a doctor have a Tommy Gun and a supply of Dynamite laying around his office?

  • Adventures in Hybridization

    hybridI have the attention span of a gnat, and while I’ve come up with a number of game designs over the years the chances of any of them even approaching a finished state is zero. The one that I like best, and that I made most progress with, was based loosely on the Irish myth of the Táin Bó Cúailnge. In the game, players would represent heroes competing for the magical bull of Ulster. Each would command a hero with asymmetric powers as well as ordinary warriors, and a key strategy driver would be deciding whether their heroes should be fighting on the front line, or spending time in the land of faerie, improving their powers.
    The theme was a late addition to an original idea born out of a desire to fulfil a long-held ambition to play a fantasy adventure game that managed to combine convincing narrative, lots of player interaction, character development and some strategy. This combination seems to have eluded designers down the ages. The closest candidate, World of Warcraft the Adventure game, ended up bombing fairly badly. So I figured I’d have a go myself.

    When I thought about it, the problems with creating a game like this started to crystallise for me. In adventure games players traditionally represent single characters or small bands of adventurers. That usually means a single avatar on the board. If you want direct interaction then it’s difficult to give the players any good reason to congregate close enough to allow them to fight with one another. And virtually any approach you take is going to revolve around reducing the scope of the game world, which in turn reduces variety and narrative. As if this were not enough, a single avatar means a single I-win-you-lose style of interaction in which it becomes very difficult to stop enormous power differentials developing very quickly and rendering the game pointless for weaker characters.

    The more I dwelt on this awkward mix of problems the more it seemed that the solution was simply to expand the game beyond being about the heroes alone. But you had to keep the focus on them, else it wasn’t much of an adventure game. My solution, inspired by the fantasy wargame Dragon Pass, was to have the heroes as being single powerful military units amongst other much weaker troops in a hybrid adventure/war game. That immediately created a pleasing strategy problem for the players over where to deploy these single units that would be the equivalent of small armies on their own. To keep the focus on the heroes they’d be able to move away from battle and go on quests to gain items and abilities, which deepened that same pleasing strategy problem.

    From that point, the game developed into one about Irish Myth solely from my desire to use a theme that wasn’t just fantasy boilerplate. But I digress. After my usual style it’s taken a lengthy introduction to get to the point of the article which is, simply, that the more I’ve thought about it the more it seems clear that “extending” the traditional basic gamelplay trops of an adventure game is the only sure way to inject some more interaction and some more strategy into the genre. So why haven’t more experienced and more professional designers than me picked up the idea before?

    Some of you may have spotted that an old game closely matching my description of the perfect fantasy adventure already exists. That game is Magic Realm. However, it doesn't pass muster for me for two key reasons. The first is that it's legendary impenetrability and long setup and play times render it basically unplayable for me and, I suspect, most other modern gamers. Not to mention the fact that I'm doubtful that Magic Realm is good enough to be worth the effort - although I'm doubtful that any game is good enough to be worth tackling a rule book the size of Magic Realm's. The second is its peculiar and heady model of player interaction. The open manner in which players can choose to compete or cooperate in a variety of different ways and the subtle and shifting map of favours, grudges and allegences that this creates is one of the very best things about Magic Realm in my opinion, but you can't really cast is as strictly competitive, even though there is an eventual winner. And I'm looking for a strictly competitive game.

    But interestingly Magic Realm does fit my theory that in order to make an adventure game fit all my criteria, it has to go beyond the traditional confines of the genre. Magic Realm does so with natives, groups of non-player characters with whom you can develop relationships, trading with them, fighting with them or even hiring them to support you during your adventures. This is an elements that's very much not normally in canon for games of this style which prefer instead to focus on enemies to be overcome, and which pushes Magic Realm very slightly in the direction of the sort of war game/ adventure hybrid I had a stab at making with my Irish game.

    It’s worth noting that that Irish Myth game is a fairly old design, dating back several years. It’s also the one I thought most highly of and figured might be worth developing. And so when I first read about Runewars my initial reaction was “bugger, Fantasy Flight Games have got in there first”. However, a closer examination of the game and the slow unfolding of its qualities as gamers got their grubby mits on the title and put it through its paces revealed that the designers may have missed a trick. While a critical and commercial success, it seems clear that Runewars is really a fantasy conquest game onto which heroic adventuring has been tacked to offer a few extra strategic options.

    The same could be said of another possible candidate to fit the bill, Conquest of Nerath. Except that Conquest of Nerath, adventuring is even more of an afterthought and one that’s almost totally been abstracted out. Heroes are simply units you can buy to add to your forces, and their adventures are one-shot face-offs between the heroes and a monster or two for the reward of a single treasure, which benefits your faction rather than the heroes themselves. So again, fun game but not what we’re looking for.

    Then things went quiet for a little while. And if I hadn’t been busy raising children I might have gone back to my design, dusted it off, and had another go at improving it. But then the Mage Knight board game arrived. In Mage Knight the focus is very squarely on the adventures, but central to the development of your hero is extending the ability to recruit and retain ever larger and more powerful bands of mercenaries and followers so that by the end of the game each player is virtually in charge of their own small private army.

    Mage Knight is a particularly interesting case in point because it's probably the closest any game has ever come (bar Magic Realm, which, as we discussed earlier has it's own issues) to fulfilling the criteria of my ideal adventure game. And in doing so it too had to make a nod toward becoming more like a war game with its bands to troops to recruit and use. But while good, I have some issues with Mage Knight. The way it's card-driven model occasional throws up some idiotic combinations that completely shatter the theme ("I am an all-powerful warrior-Mage who doesn't even need to sleep! But today, oddly, I can't walk more than a few paces"). Its often glacially slow pace and very long play time. The overly predictive combat. And it would still benefit from a little more variety and interaction. So, good, but not great. And it's still very much a traditional adventure game in many ways, with the external elements being an afterthought. Indeed I can't help thinking that if it didn't stick quite so rigidly to that mould, it might have found better ways of solving some of the other issues with the design.

    So, even after several clever and close-run attempts, I'm still waiting for my perfect adventure game and, more incredibly, for designers to really make use of the sizeable unexplored space presented by hybridising the adventure game with other formats. Perhaps the same hurdles that drove me to creating my Irish Myth game eventually prove the undoing of most of these sorts of designs. I haven't progressed far enough with my own to properly understand that, and probably never will. But I doubt it's something a clever and skilled designer couldn't overcome. I suspect that ultimately the enemy is the theme itself. The motif of the adventurer and the heroic quest is as old as writing itself, and its familiarity is part of its appeal. It speaks deeply to particular cultural and emotional centres in us in a manner that few other archetypes can managed. It could well be the the simple act of adulterating that purity is ultimately what sabotages our attempts to make it better.

  • Ah do not pleh zee GAME