Gamer’s Notebook

Design Paradigm Shifting (and White Lions)

It has become clear, following quite a few chats, that the design anomalies I spoke of last time are probably an age thing. Old gits like me have come to expect game designs to build on existing traditions and mechanisms from the boardgame field. Or, be completely radical. If, as some younger designers seem to do, they draw on or try to recreate computer game traditions in cardboard form, then I am somewhat adrift. This then is the first part of an adjustment exercise to see if I can be more sympatico in future.

There are analytical problems here. Outside of several hundred hours bombing around in Real Racing 3, and a few tablet games, I haven’t kept up with computer games at all. I used to buy all the books and design magazines but I sort of drifted away when I failed to keep up with the arms race of graphics and processor power. For instance, I would still be happily playing Train Simulator but don’t have the Ninja PC required to handle the animation. As I said to a mate yesterday, I am no longer a power user. Worse, my console game journey stopped at PlayStation 3 mainly because I lost my ISS Pro opponent and Gran Turismo got too difficult. I have not touched FPShooters since Quake. I have never done the massive online thing either, largely because I find them easy to resist or impossible to download. Such is the draw of wood & cardboard and miniatures… This is even more odd when many of my friends work in the computer game field, some near the very top!

Let me be clear. I am sitting back here and trying to get it. This is not a Siggins position, defended by barbed wire, tank traps and entrenchments. It is a new awareness of why these games are like they are, accepting that the market is massively bigger, wider and deeper than it was when we fell off the chair over Die Macher.  I am basically seeing if there is anything for me here and, importantly, working out what may sell and why.

Generally, I view computer game design as similar techniques applied to a different form, and certainly there are enough books out there now that cover both forms under the same cover.  So extracting a mechanism, concept or idea from computer games and using it wisely is always welcome. Taking the entire game system… less so. I think we all remember the travesties – cough, Starcraft – that came out of FFG when they were trying to honour a computer game license. Has it got any better?  I immediately think of TIME Stories and wonder, but Master of Orion was okay.

So in truth, I haven’t missed computer games. Neither have I missed the associated time drain. I felt that after we lost the common use of the word ‘game’ to the silicon crowd, everything was set: there were a lot of them, computer games did some things brilliantly (eg car racing), as did board games (not car racing), and we all knew where we stood. Obviously there would be overlap and hybrids. But the two areas that I thought would expand – computer assisted miniatures and tablet augmented social and adventure gaming – are really only getting started (Mansions of Madness being an excellent example).

What I have to understand is the mindset of (CG) designers and their legions of fans. I will hold Kingdom Death Monster up as a poster child, but there are several examples, notably Gloomhaven. I recently played KDM having painted the figures and we settled down to the first scenario. After an hour or so we had done the fighty bit and were into the interesting grab the loot and build the village bit. All very enjoyable and very flavoursome but, that lost hour? We basically had a fight against a monster using tactical skirmish wargame rules. I didn’t care for these when Donald Featherstone and others launched them in the 1970’s and I am not much more engaged now. In truth about 25% of all the games I have played this year have been tactical skirmish, often just trying to kill the other bloke. But because the monster has AI or being less generous, programmed actions, people are wetting their pants. A computer game meme has been slowed down, de-beautified and made less interesting yet it has gone ballistic. That is what I don’t get.

What I will say about KDM is that the transition from a computer game format to boardgames has been done very well. The combat system is good, the M.O. of the monster is interesting, and there is (to his eternal credit) the decent challenge of how exactly to kill the beast.  The backstory is remarkably bleak, but original and clever. I do want to go on. I may not want to go on beyond five sessions.  As usual, they demand more.

So for once I play a waiting game. I stick with the policy of Playing Anything Once, resigned to the fact that increasingly I will hit walls. Games I don’t enjoy, games with odd logic, games with Level Zero start points, games that revel in combat for combat’s sake, games that expect me to repeat until success. We shall, as they say, see how it goes.

Paypal Inactivity

I haven’t bought any new games in a while. A money pit of a house purchase and a legal issue have pretty much scuppered me for six months, so I have relied on the generosity of others and will have to continue to do so. But some game sales and weak willpower have allowed me to acquire four games: Agents of SMERSH, Arkham Noir, SteamRollers and Napoleon 1806. Let’s look at the latter first as it is actually still in the post… Siggins does a preview!

Napoleon 1806 (Denis Sauvage for Shakos) is a point to point wargame covering the French attempt to knock Prussia out of the Napoleonic Wars. Most of us know the outcome; the challenge here is to hold on as the outmoded Prussians and give Napoleon a bloody nose. On first sight the systems are interesting (drawing on GBACW), the game is stunning and more importantly has the same accessible look and feel as Maria. Let’s face it, if it is even close to Maria in quality I will not have wasted my money. Beyond that I can’t say much as I have not played, but I don’t think I have ever been more sure that a game will work and be enjoyable. Review next time.

Agents of SMERSH (Jason Maxwell for 8th Summit – 2nd Edition) has been on the table a lot. It is easily the most requested game of the year so far. It is one of the recent glut of co-op paragraph games but, I feel, it has been lost in the melee and deserves a shout. You are, as you probably guessed, a James Bond style spy working for the UN, tasked with stopping the nefarious plots of Dr Evil. You will encounter his henchmen, you will track leads, and you will jet around the world having encounters of a paragraphic nature.  I like everything about it. It plays in a reasonable time, the character system is clever and reminiscent of Arabian Nights, the paragraphs are very well written and often highly amusing. There is even a proper way to win. The only slight drawbacks are that it is a co-op, where the topic could easily handle rivalries, and that some of the paragraphs are graphically violent – made worse I feel because of the light hearted tone elsewhere. This is not wrong in any way given the subject matter, but do be aware of this possible change of pace. Highly recommended. I would love to see a Tintin version.

Arkham Noir (Yves Tourigny for Luonova) will not get too many words here. Unlike most of the Cthulhu themed games arriving weekly, this one is well worth having. Heinous crimes are underway in an American town. A serial killer is on the loose. Your job is simply to follow clues and solve each murder, and so build an overall answer to the crime spree. Think Dresden Files or ACE Detective but much quicker. Very clever. Atmospheric. A lovely little system and only one thing lets it down… it is solitaire. I really urge the designer to make it multi-player as soon as possible.

SteamRollers (Mark Gerrits for Flatlined Games) is a rather nice little filler. A re-issue with a few extra tweaks, this is a game about building railways, shipping goods, improving your engine (in both senses) and earning VPs. Original, eh? Well, yes. There is a shared central map which shows the layout of the country and the goods to be shipped. A dice roll dictates what you can do, and you take a decision – as in all good games, you want to do all of them. You build your network and ship until the game ends about half an hour later. Tops. There is no money. There are no shares. There are no junctions. SteamRollers is quite retro in feel, taking me back to Railway Rivals/Dampfross via Age of Steam, with a respectful nod to 18xx. This is an entirely good thing. It is also cutting edge because the multiple ‘layered yet not layered’ maps solve an awful lot of problems. For me, clever, plenty of decisions, a touch of quantum, and fast – so nicely done. I feel you either will love it or not love it so much but either way it is quick and leaves you wanting more (or less!).

Mike Siggins

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